By Allison Barrett Carter
While the rest of the parenting world thinks ahead to summer camps and languid months of their children lounging on their sofa all day, my thoughts are consumed with the month following that: September. My desk has stacks of paper with applications and printouts. It’s the season of charter school lotteries, open houses and registration forms. My anxiety level rises as I desperately look for a perfect answer for my children’s education. Then I unearth an old email about home schooling.
I do feel fortunate to have so many educational opportunities available to my children; it is certainly a privilege to have options. But somewhere between the local public school and its poor performance report, the open choice options, the four private schools we can’t afford, and the six charter schools that are an option only if we win the lottery (literally), my husband and I are lost. What is the best fit for our family?
I grew up the product of public school, as did my husband, and we did just fine. Before we had kids we never imagined we would look for alternatives to the public school down the street.
But things have changed in six years and we, like most American parents, have been bludgeoned with news that the U.S. public school system is failing.
Articles about how public school systems are especially ill-suited for boys are huge. Books about the superior education systems of other countries are bestsellers. One of the most-watched TED Talks, with more than 9 million views, is of Ken Robinson declaring that schools “kill” creativity.
Robinson says: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”
Thus, my husband and I struggle. We want to be part of America’s education solution, but not at the cost of our children’s futures.
So when an email from my friend Gina, who home-schools her three children, hit my inbox, I was intrigued.
“There is a misconception of how much time it takes to educate your children at home,” she writes. “I enjoy that we can really focus on each child’s interest. Each of my children has a separate curriculum that highlights areas where they excel as well as areas where they need more focus. Then, we have certain activities that they always do together.”
Home schooling takes the old axiom “the best teacher is no substitute for what you do at home” and boldly cuts out the middle man. Perhaps it is the solution for our family?
After reading Gina’s email, I became aware that more parents in my social circle are taking this route. I have been privy to numerous playground talks about Classical Conversations — a Christian-based home schooling support network — and my Facebook feed shows many friends teaching at home.
So I did some research. I learned that I live in a state where more children are home-schooled than enrolled in private school.
The New York Times has reported that home schooling is on the rise across the nation, regardless of race or religion. In the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Times’ reporting, nearly 1.8 million children were home-schooled in the United States, compared with 1.5 million five years earlier.
These statistics surprised me, but I guess they shouldn’t. The Internet has opened many alternative educational opportunities; it was only a matter of time before individualized at-home learning reaped the benefits. America is a nation of “do-it-yourselfers” full of grit and determination, so why should we not DIY what matters most: our children’s education.
The Internet offers a potential home schooling parent free step-by-step how-to’s, lesson plans, books, activities, proposed daily schedules, and active communities for support and connection. In my immediate area, I have found multiple Facebook groups of home schooling parents who meet regularly for lessons and field trips.
Add to this the popular lifestyle blogs, such as the Handmade Home, that dedicate entire series to their home schooling tips, and I can’t help but romanticize the idea. It seems like a simpler, slower way of life. No more school buses, 6 p.m. homework battles or packing lunchboxes at 7 a.m. I can change my office into a classroom and our home will ooze family time and learning.
With the help of the Internet, home schooling has become normalized. In fact, with all my clicking and reading, I find myself excited about it.
I am an educated woman with a degree from a top public university; why wouldn’t I be able to teach my own children elementary school topics? After all, the media keeps telling me that many teachers may not be qualified. Maybe I am? With the Internet as my partner, I feel strong.
Home schooling isn’t right for everyone. It is a commitment and it requires an intense dedication from the entire family. My husband and I are aware that a making a decision to become our children’s primary educators is a big one. And like all things in education, there are pitfalls to the decision.
But as families like mine tire of waiting for our country to fix public education, as the Internet puts resources at our fingertips, as it becomes normalized and even romanticized, home schooling is a serious contender for our educational choice this fall. I might just decide to not worry about my lottery chances and DIY it.
Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer in North Carolina. She blogs at allisonbarrettcarter.com.
“LOOK. AT. THE. DEER!” I say this to my sons, 11 and 14, as we do our normal weeknight swing down the tree-lined driveway, home from what feels like their 10th basketball practice of the week. But my boys are buried in their iPhones, watching for their friends’ reactions/likes/comments on one of whatever social media apps of the moment.
Amazing things are going on around them – I mean, I am floored, every time, by seeing the deer just calmly hanging out a few feet away, staring right at me, not even running away from our car. But unlike many parents, I don’t think it’s social media that has led to my kids’ indifference. I’ve firmly decided to place the much of the blame squarely on the suburbs. Yes – having my kids grow up in the beautiful, sheltered, suburban world of the suburbs of Maryland is the problem.
I grew up in Chicago, in a vibrant neighborhood where the noise was my friend and nobody drove me anywhere. Sounds were all around me, and I walked everywhere, myself, alone. I fell asleep to the din of the Lunt Avenue buses outside my bedroom window, and the chatter of the second-floor neighbors talking with my mom because the windows were open. I woke up to the scent of blueberry muffins baking at Swiss Pastry across the alleyway, and the clanks of the first morning’s game of Kick the Can. From the moment I woke up, I was never lonely or bored. Sounds and people enticed me to go out and explore. Everything was outside, awaiting me.
I felt connected to all the neighborhood kids, shops, workers – even the caretaker of the pond at our beloved Indian Boundary Park, which was just a baseball’s throw away. It was at that pond that I saw my first turtle and discovered how they move and feel.
And that’s what I’m afraid my boys don’t have by living in the suburbs. That feeling of being connected. I bet my boys have never stolen or felt a turtle. They’ve probably watched animal tricks on the Internet and have likely Googled “turtles” when they needed to learn about them for a school project. My younger son does know the neighborhood kids, but my older one is always out at some structured activity or sports practice he gets to by car.
They don’t have the kind of life where they can walk themselves to activities and chat with store owners along the way. They don’t have to figure out bus numbers and routes or try new things on their own. The suburbs: The planned community where everything is available, by car. With a schedule. With parents in charge.
Sometimes, at night, as I look out our big living room window at the woods behind our house. It’s pretty, but unnerving. It’s too quiet. I’m looking for some activity – even the deer – and waiting for something to happen. The suburbs, with all of their supposed security and conveniences, and book clubs for moms and hectic sports leagues for kids, are pretty lonely.
Do my kids feel the loneliness of the suburbs? I don’t think so. I think it feels like their haven, their home. It’s all they’ve ever known. But when my son has an urgent request for candy or a protractor for homework, the need will pass that night, unfulfilled, unless he can persuade me to drive him to CVS. If we lived in a neighborhood like the one I grew up in, he could walk to the drugstore to get it himself. He’d learn responsibility, independence and redefine initiative.
And as for me, the mom in the suburbs: Sometimes I just don’t feel like driving over to Starbucks to meet a friend for coffee. I yearn for the way it was when I grew up, in that three-story apartment in West Rogers Park, where our French windows stayed open all the time, and my mom could yell up to her friend on the second floor, to come have an iced tea. It’s not just that I’m a mother who wants it to be like it was “back in my day.” I wish for my kids to experience some of the kind of childhood and independence I gained from living in the city.
It’s not just helicopter parenting, structured play dates and social media that have made their lives seemingly easier, or perhaps if not easier, lazier. It’s living in the burbs. I want my boys to experience how the little things in everyday life don’t always come so easy. I remember my mom searching for a parking spot on the street, carrying groceries way farther than across a porch, of trusting me to walk alone every day, make friends with the drugstore owner and actually talk to strangers.
I’m not saying that I wish I was a mom carrying groceries for blocks and blocks. I think that’s what I wanted to avoid when we first moved to the suburbs. I wanted the ease and convenience of a driveway, a front porch. But now all I feel is an anemic lifestyle. Car to the gym to home to school to home to work to the office to store to home again. Then the evening carpools start. For the kids, and I guess, for me, there’s no grit, no problem-solving necessary to get from Point A to Point B. And that’s what I’m afraid my children aren’t learning by living in this supposed utopia — a way of life that fosters self-reliance and problem-solving.
Why not just leave? Well, I can’t … literally and logistically. Legally, I’m divorced and couldn’t go even if I wanted to. But even if I could go, I wouldn’t want to uproot my boys now, to take them away from their dad, school and sports teams, and this neighborhood they consider home. They’re living their version of childhood, and they think this suburban one is just fine. But will they one day look back on this childhood with a misty eye, like I think of mine? Will I?
The irony is, I created this situation. As much as I loved my childhood as a kid, once I was in my 20s, I envisioned having kids of my own and giving them a “nicer” and safer life. I wanted to grow up and get a comfortable house for my family with the extras that I never had. A real rec room. A yard. space.
I got married. I got the big house. I gave them a back yard and better schools and safer streets. The idea that all the stability I thought suburban life would bring them, and me, seems almost silly now.
I am restless here, and now there’s a longing for what I’ve lost, and for what they’ll never have – the buzz outside the windows, the sense of being part of something you don’t have to pay or try out for to join, expressions on real faces when they share exciting news with friends, not emojis from miles away.
I’d gladly give back their hoverboard and Xbox, Instagram accounts and carpools for a place and time that’s more of the childhood I had. Some would argue I had less. But I was happy. And decades later, sounds of the city still comfort me. Even when I don’t hear them, I can remember.
What will my sons remember? I don’t think it will be a sense of excitement, wondering who is outside, or which random people they will meet on their walk to school. They won’t learn how to make nice with shopkeepers or smell the bakery as they walk past. But perhaps they’ll remember the safety and predictability of the suburbs. And for them, if not me, maybe that’s enough.
Erin Mantz is a writer, marketing professional, and mother of two boys. She tweets @erinmantz.
There are many days — okay I’ll admit it, all my days — when I get the urge to pick up the phone and tell my mom one quick thing. Or rant a little, or ask her advice. I’ll be blunt: I can’t actually do that because she passed away a few years ago. But the fact that I still feel my hand automatically reach toward the phone makes me think a lot about what it is with moms. Why do so many of us feel the need to tell them so much or ask them so much? Even when they are gone, or we don’t actually heed their advice?
As one researcher discovered, and many of us can attest to, moms simply make things better.
Haley Horstman, a professor at the University of Missouri, explains that there is a lot of research showing that when we experience something difficult, we often “storify” that experience. We create a plot, a setting, scene, and characters. Telling a story helps us cope with the negative experience. A “narrative scholar,” Horstman became interested how this storytelling between mothers and daughters impacts a person’s well-being. So Horstman invited more than 60 young-adult daughters to come into a lab and tell a story about something difficult that happened to them. The daughters wrote their stories and then answered questions about how they felt. Two days later, they brought their moms to the lab and had a conversation for about 15 minutes about that same story. Two days after that, the daughters repeated the first step, writing the story down again and answering the same questions about their well-being. The researchers then compared the first and last stories, noting the tone and other aspects, as well as the answers to the questions. The stories were overwhelmingly more positive after the women talked with their moms, even if their mothers didn’t have solutions to their problems or offer advice. One thing that impacted how the daughters felt, in the end, was if they had some back-and-forth with their moms. “We found when the mother and daughter take a lot of turns, have the same amount of time talking, those daughters had more positive stories by the end,” Horstman said. “Generally, my findings show that if you can build a relationship with your kid where there’s a little more give and take, that will help the child in the long run.”
Of course, it’s not all butterflies and unicorns when it comes to communicating with mothers. We all have had our fair share of tough moments when talking to mom. (Some more than others.)
Carla L. Fisher, an assistant professor at George Mason University, studies communication between family members and how that’s essential to health, with specific attention to mothers and daughters who are dealing with breast cancer. “There’s something about mothers and daughters. We try to be there for one another, but as close as we might be, it can be fireworks,” she said, surprising no daughter anywhere. “It’s just such a profound relationship. And it’s complicated.”
Take, for instance, communicating about something like breast cancer. Mothers may be of a generation where health issues remained relatively private, whereas their daughters (Gen Xers, millennials) are used to sharing everything. Part of that openness is great and has pushed changes in health care reform, Fisher notes. But “there’s a healthy balance of recognizing that, for younger women, they might want to talk about it and talk about prevention, but older mothers might not want to.” That alone makes it difficult for both mother and daughter to get what they need out of those conversations, or lack of conversations. But even with that friction, why do mothers have such a strong hold? Why do we need them so much? They are our first inherent connection. For many, that’s physical. For others, it’s not, but there’s still an internal tie like none other, Fisher explains. “Mothers help us know who we are … she’s just the ultimate teacher, ultimate guide.”
Ultimate is right. Communication with a mother is the foundation of everything, says Michelle Miller-Day, a professor of communication studies at Chapman University, who studies mother-daughter relationships. “It’s the way we create bonds, sustain bonds,” she says. So how do we make sure, as parents and as adult children, that we create a place of good communication? It has to be reciprocal, Miller-Day says. “As parents, we say we need to be in charge. … ‘I am monitoring you because I love you,’ ” she said. But it shouldn’t be about control. Parents need to work on having their children be willing to share. Ask questions, Miller-Day suggests. Watch a show together and talk about the situation and listen to your child’s opinion. Instead of lecturing about what not to do, it’s important to weave conversations into everyday life, she says. “Ask for their points of view. Respecting their points of view doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. It’s about respect more than anything else.”
Which is just what Horstman’s study discovered. The more a mother listened to her daughter, even if she didn’t agree, the more that negative narrative turned a little positive. “Oftentimes, we don’t think of these daily conversations as all that important, but that conversation has the power to help us understand our life experiences,” Horstman said.
There you have it. Your mom makes everything better, so go give her a call. Science says to do it.
By Katie Hurley
“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat.”
Taken out of context, these words, from the mouth of a 6-year-old female toy tester at the Mattel headquarters, are a bit jarring. They are the kind of words you hope your child won’t use out in the world. They are words laced with hurt and judgment.
For her Time cover story on the new and improved Barbie, Eliana Dockterman observed young girls at play with the new dolls. While the first child referenced was direct with her body comments, another girl attempted to spare the feelings of the doll by spelling out the word, “F-A-T.”
How do very young children learn to judge others by the shapes and sizes of their bodies? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Between subtle messages in the home, the influence of media, peer interactions and the shrinking of childhood (many girls are growing up quickly these days), young girls consume and internalize countless messages about body image every single day.
Many parents know to be careful about the words they use when discussing their own bodies. We know, for example, that saying things like, “I feel fat today” or “do I look fat in these jeans?” sends harmful messages to young girls. Parents avoid those overt statements and replace them with comments about physical strength in an effort to teach young girls body confidence. But what about the most subtle statements that sometimes slip through the cracks?
Standing in line at Gap not long ago, I witnessed a mother-daughter conversation that sent a subtle, but powerful message about body image. A young girl, about 6 years old, ran up to her mother with a pair of winter gloves in her hands. “I found some but I don’t like them that much,” she stated, in that matter-of-fact tone kids of that age often use. “They make my fingers look too skinny.” She looked up her mom for confirmation. Her mother’s response took me by surprise. “That’s better than looking fat,” she uttered, without missing a beat.
Perhaps it was an isolated incident. We’ve all experienced impatient moments and bad days and sometimes we respond before we consider the potential impact of the response. But what if it wasn’t an isolated incident? What if that message was one of many?
For years, I worked with a young girl who struggled with body image, self-esteem, and anxiety. Her home life was defined by a seemingly endless discussion on weight gain, weight loss, exercise and fad diets.
Ever on a quest to find the perfect diet, her mother constantly removed foods from the house and talked obsessively about calories, sugars and “bad” foods. Don’t get me wrong; her mother had good intentions. Maintaining a healthy weight was a lifelong struggle for her, and she wanted to make the challenge easier for her daughter.
The body and diet talk was overwhelming for this young girl, however, and she developed her own coping strategy to combat the negative emotions she experienced almost daily: sneak eating. She saved her coins to purchase snacks from the school vending machine and ate them in the dark of night. In doing so, she lived up to her own carefully constructed self-fulfilling prophecy: a young girl powerless over the lure of junk food.
Recent findings show that kids as young as 32 months pick up on fat shaming attitudes of their moms, and a report released by Common Sense Media reveals that half of the girls and one-third of the boys between 6 and 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. It’s time to consider how we talk to kids about body image.
It’s easy to set a few rules around body talk, including removing “fat” from your vocabulary and not commenting on the size or shape of someone else’s body. Where it gets complicated, however, is when your daughter comes home with difficult questions. “Am I fat?” or “will I get fat if I eat this?” speak volumes about the inner struggle of a young child.
Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, and New York Times bestselling author of The Care and Keeping series has some great tips on talking body image with young girls.
“I have always felt that the most important thing a parent can do is, to be honest,” explains Natterson. “But when there is an issue – particularly around weight – it can be incredibly difficult to walk the fine line between protecting your child and being truthful.”
How should parents handle questions and concerns about body image? Start here:
Answer the question with a question
Natterson suggests using conversation starters to help children uncover the feelings beneath the surface. She suggests, “What makes you ask that question?” as a starting point. “This is seriously the BEST answer because it allows your child to explain where the concern is coming from,” Natterson explains.
It’s important to keep the dialogue open. When we jump in with solutions to “fix” the problem, we close down the conversation. To help young girls work through these difficult topics and overwhelming emotions, we need to listen more than we talk.
Watch your words
Words like “fat” and “chubby” are sometimes used in jest to describe animals in books, toys or other fictional characters. While that seems harmless at the moment, it can send mixed messages. Sometimes the subtle messages internalized early on can lead to negative thinking later on.
Emily Roberts, psychotherapist and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, cautions parents to choose their words carefully. “Don’t fat shame, weight shame or categorize others by their weight,” says Roberts, “This sends the message that their weight is what you see, not their character.”
Talk about strengths
Children need to feel heard and understood. To that end, it’s important to listen to your daughter’s concerns about body image. Empathize with her and talk about what it feels like to struggle with the emotional and physical changes that naturally occur as children grow. Then steer the conversation toward the positive.
It is imperative that young girls hear body positive messages. Talk about physical strength and what their bodies can do for them (hanging from those monkey bars isn’t easy, after all). Educate them about healthy eating and playful exercise. Cook meals together and helps your daughters take control of their own health so that will internalize a positive message: They have the power to live healthy and happy lives. That’s a message worth sharing.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.
By Lauren Swick Jordan April 1
TJ and the author. (Courtesy of the author)
My son, TJ, is 15 years old. He has autism.
When TJ was in elementary school, we worked tirelessly on so many issues. Sitting up for the entire circle time. Sitting through the entire lunch time without a meltdown. Taking turns and sharing. Accepting disappointment when something didn’t meet his expectations.
All things that every child must work on.
We also focused on more TJ-specific things, like his pencil grip. From the get-go in kindergarten, his grip was all his own. Nothing like that of the other children. His teachers tried many different ways to remind him to correct his pencil grip in hopes it would become a habit: notes on his desk with proper pencil grip pictures; verbal reminders; plastic grippers on his pencil that would forcibly enforce the correct grip.
None of them worked.
Finally, when he was in middle school, his team of teachers and therapists, along with my husband Sean and I, decided that since his handwriting was clear and legible, we didn’t need to enforce the “proper” pencil grip any longer. We let him use whichever grip he used naturally.
It hasn’t been an issue since.
As an autism parent, I frequently ask myself a big question:
What tasks and traits do we keep working on with him, and what tasks and traits do we let go of? What do we accept as being “naturally TJ,” and what do we think he will benefit from if certain things change?
I remember Temple Grandin, a famous autism pioneer, author, public speaker and person with autism, saying something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “The best thing my mother ever did for me was to treat me like the rest of my siblings.”
This has always been in the back of my mind, ever since TJ was diagnosed with autism when he was just over 2 years old. In certain cases, it is very applicable, and I believe has led TJ to some great successes:
He and his brother both sort, clean, fold and put away their own laundry. They both walk the dog. They both have cleaning responsibilities around the house.
You get the idea. It has worked in these cases for us to have the same expectations of TJ as we do of his neurotypical brother, Peter.
But what about other things we want for TJ?
Take, for example, socializing. This has been one of our biggest goals for TJ and has also been the most difficult one to master.
I struggle with this goal all the time. Should we keep pushing? Should we let it go? It is the area where TJ’s skills are the most lacking, and at the same time, in our minds, one of the most important ones.
But for TJ, is it important? At all?
The back and forth is constant, but thinking back, so were so many other struggles we have encountered in the past.
I have to remind myself that just as we have found clarity on all of those other issues we have previously had, so we will eventually find clarity on this one. We just have to stick with it, for now, hoping for even a little bit of gain. And eventually, we will know when it’s time to stop pushing and let TJ’s own socializing self (or not) take its natural course.
And I have to remind myself that with each new issue that comes up, we will help TJ tackle it as best as we all can — challenging him where we can for growth, and stepping back where we need to.
Time will tell. It always does.
Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing…like it’s my job.
By Kimberly Palmer
As a mom who writes about money for a living, I figured my 6-year-old daughter would learn a lot about personal finances from overhearing me talk about my work. She’s listened to me give radio interviews espousing the benefits of budgeting, and heard me talk at the dinner table about the importance of frugality.
The behavior I was modeling, though, was severely undermining many of those lessons. She noticed that when we went out for dinner, it was almost always her dad who picked up the bill at the end of the meal. (In fact, I often left my wallet at home, knowing he had his.) When she heard her father and me talking about bills and saving for college, she probably could tell that while I was handling many of the monthly bills, her dad was managing many of the longer term savings accounts. Until recently, I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t even know some of the passwords.
As I researched my new book, “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” I realized that I was probably passing on harmful lessons to her and that the situation needed to change immediately. The dozens of smart moms I interviewed taught me how essential it is not only that I take more control over our family finances, but also that I demonstrate that behavior to my daughter, so she can learn from it.
A 2014 survey of parents, kids and money by T. Rowe Price found that boys are more likely than girls to say their parents talk to them about setting financial goals (58 percent versus 50 percent). The survey also found that boys are more likely to consider themselves smart about money and to say that their parents are saving for their future college tuition.
Those gender differences are pretty disturbing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are related to the fact that surveys repeatedly show that as young adults, women tend to save less, invest less and earn less than their male peers. One 2014 Wells Fargo survey found that women in their 20s feel less satisfied with their money than their male peers and that the women carry more debt.
The moms I interviewed who I admire most when it comes to money were in constant communication with their children about the financial choices they were making for their families. Those useful conversations include the mistakes that they made with money; how and why they earn money and what it pays for; and how they are saving for big goals such as a family vacation or college tuition.
I started trying to incorporate these money-related discussions into our daily chats. On the way to school, when my daughter asks for a story from my childhood, I tell her how I made a budget before my parents let me get a hamster, and about my first job running a neighborhood summer camp.
I could tell she started thinking more about money, too. She often reminds us now that we shouldn’t go out to lunch because it’s too expensive. Or she offers to share her piggy bank savings with us if we ever run into hard times (I really appreciated that one). After helping me pay the water bill one morning, she brainstormed ideas for how we could reduce our water consumption. When her 3-year-old brother bemoaned the fact that I had to go to work on a day he didn’t have school, she calmly explained to him, “Mommy has to work so we can live in our house.”
Like highly trained CIA agents, our kids are studying us all the time — even when we think they’re distracted. Sometimes it’s shocking to hear them repeat our words back to us; sometimes it’s adorable. One thing is for sure: In all things, from eating to getting dressed to interacting with our partners to paying for a restaurant meal, we are their models.
Kimberly Palmer is the author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” from which this piece is adapted. She lives in the Washington area with her two children.
One of my high school students had asked for help with his homework. “Of course, I’ll help,” I answered.
I told him to find it and watched as he hauled his heavy backpack onto one of the classroom desks and started to dig.
I allowed him a couple of minutes of futile search before asking him to take everything out to see whether he could throw anything away. He claimed he didn’t, but proceeded with enthusiasm.
I wasn’t surprised.
Students love to clean out their backpacks as they believe they get to dodge work. My years of experience as a classroom teacher, however, have taught me that spending time now allows students more time on task later. The student might have thought he was getting away with something now, but I knew I would win in the end.
We found plenty of interesting things in his backpack: stacks of handouts from the previous school year, pencils, old tests and report cards as well as empty chip bags and candy wrappers, all of it covered in a disturbing orange dust.
“Cheez-It crackers” the student explained before he, with a triumphant yell, pulled out what looked like a failed origami project from his backpack.
Locating his homework had taken about 20 minutes.
All parents know that students receive enough handouts to wallpaper a house, and unless they use an organizational system, their backpacks will soon resemble an experiment in hoarding. While students might want to do their homework, they often give up if they can’t find it within a reasonable time.
Cluttered backpacks are overwhelming and it’s easy to miss something in the chaos. Students’ failure to do their homework might be due not to inability or laziness, but to a lack of organizational skills.
There is a simple fix so they will do it themselves.
Use the following five steps to help students to get organized and they might become more engaged in their homework, and in cleaning out their own backpack. If not, at least, they can no longer use the “I can’t find it, I probably left it at school” excuse we all know so well.
- Check your kids’ backpacks once a week. I picked Fridays for my own kids, but any day will work. We started as early as fourth grade, but don’t worry, you won’t have to organize backpacks forever. If you start early, they’ll develop the skills and habits to manage on their own.
- Ignore protests. Your kids will object; they’ll claim that they need every single piece of paper in the backpack. I’ve seen students cling to their papers as if they were life rafts from the Titanic. Stay firm and make sure you involve them in the process. They’ll enjoy it for a few minutes, tossing and sorting with abandon.
- Recycle everything that is obsolete. I’m no Marie Kondo, but a certain amount of ruthlessness is required to make a dent in the endless cycle of handouts. This is a tricky stage. Your kids might not be sure what they still need and worry about throwing away something important. Check the date on top of the paper, if it’s more than a month old, they don’t need it anymore. Work that has been completed and graded should never be returned to the backpack. You may keep some of the finished work in your home, but beware: papers will try to take over your house unless you show them who’s in charge. Save a couple of pieces of stellar work and toss the rest. Remember this, and teach your kids: OLD STUFF DOES NOT RETURN TO THE BACKPACK.
- Sort by subject. I don’t care whether students use folders, binders or something else, but separating papers according to the subject makes it easier to locate work both at home and in class especially for middle and high school students. Ask your kids what they would like to do. They’ll be on board and feel liberated by the entire process.
- Keep it up. Unless tidying the backpack becomes a habit, you’ll soon have the same mess on your hands. Luckily, keeping it up requires less time and your children will be more skilled at identifying what they can keep or toss. If you get a good start, you can step back in a while and let them manage on their own.
Many students find doing homework easier and much less time consuming after they have tidied their backpack. Once they get their work organized, they feel more confident. In addition, not wasting time looking for their work leaves them more time to study. I have been through this process many times with students and they all end up making the same delighted comment in the end:
“Feel how light my backpack is!”
I’ve been frustrated most of my life. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing; irritation simply follows me. On the outside, I am engaging and good-humored, but beneath the surface is a pinched up shrew with the patience of a 2-year-old.
One of my many hidden talents is the ability to roll my eyes without splitting a nerve. It is a skill that requires equal amounts focus and fury, and one that I’m sorry to admit I have mastered.
Whether I am standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in the doctor’s office, my cuckoo clock eyes are perpetually in motion. For the most part, I keep the verbal anger to a minimum, which explains the pulsating vein on the side of my face and the reddish hue of my cheeks. But every so often I snap, causing a whirlwind of impetuous behavior.
We were living in Florida when I was eight months pregnant. It was mid-July and hotter than hell. I was on my way home from the gym when I saw an SUV in the rear view mirror speeding toward me. I assumed he would drive around since we were on a two-lane bridge, but instead he sped up and revved his engine directly behind my car.
I could feel the blood boiling in my hormonal face when I glanced up and saw him pounding his fists on the steering wheel. He was testing my patience, which was destined for failure, but I rejected his challenge and gestured for him to pass.
When he pulled alongside my car with a mouthful of contempt, I exploded. It was the only time I had ever unleashed that kind of fury on a total stranger, and I let him have it all. I was so angry that my hands were shaking. There were two of them, and two of me; one of which was still in the oven, yet I couldn’t let it go.
We continued the charade until the next light, which happened to be red. There was nowhere for me to hide and no one around to witness the insanity that was about to ensue. I was trapped, alone, and very much afraid.
I could hear them screaming at me from their windows as I eased my way toward the light, and watched in horror as their car shook to a stop. When the driver stepped out, he slammed his door shut and began stomping his way over in my direction; by now my heart was beating out of my chest and I could not catch my breath.
To this day, I honestly believe he might have killed me right there on the spot had his friend not pulled him away when the light turned green. I had allowed myself to become totally unhinged for the first time in my life, and it easily could have been my last. What a foolish thing to do, particularly for an expectant mother, and I am thankful my child wasn’t around to see it.
When I got home that day, I could not stop crying. I felt like the worst soon-to-be mother in the world and was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened, so I didn’t — until now. The thing about losing control is that it makes you realize how swiftly it can materialize.
Looking back, it’s probably a good thing that it happened before my daughter was born. It allowed me to see the dynamics of anger and taught me how to stop myself from taking it one step further.
I have a strong-willed child. She is the spitting image of her temperamental mother, minus the elevation. When she was little, every request was an invitation to push my buttons, and she picked at them with everything she had. If I asked her to do something, she would puff out her tiny body and challenge me to a verbal joust. If I told her not to touch something, she would ease her way over to it with the grace of a swan and throw a finger on top of it while giving me a side-eye. She was relentless, and I was beginning to lose control.
We had just finished finger-painting in the kitchen one afternoon when I asked her to help me clean up. As expected, she dismissed my request by running to her room for cover, but this time, I followed behind. I wanted to set an example for future behavior, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. We bickered back and forth until the conversation became heated and a familiar feeling began to build up inside of me. My hands were shaking — just as they were on that hot summer day — and I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed.
I knelt down on the floor with tears in my eyes and hugged my little girl. I told her to stay in her room and think about her behavior while I went into mine to do the same. Then I ran to my bedroom closet, closed the door, and sobbed my way back to sanity.
It’s hard being a parent at times. Children can push you to the ends of the earth and all you want to do is scream. You repeat yourself 10,000 times a day as if no one is listening, but they are… and they hear everything. It only takes a second to reach the point of no return, yet finding your way back can last a lifetime.
When I lost my temper that day on the road, intolerance rattled my foundation and awakened self-control. In one thick moment, I learned the importance of keeping my cool and counting to 10: a lesson that could have come at a much higher price and one that we all need to embrace.
In elementary school, I was too shy to address my teachers by name. I would hover nearby, hoping they would realize I had a question. I also was the new girl, and the existing cliques seemed impenetrable. To make matters worse, I was a late reader and had difficulty articulating half the alphabet. Family members would euphemistically say I was just “slow out of the gate.” I had my work cut out for me.
By middle school, I was ready to throw myself into the mix. It wasn’t always pretty. I got tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably. I navigated earning my first “D” and getting demoted in math. I had a knack for choosing overly dramatic and bossy friends, and I accidentally dyed my hair brassy orange. I agreed to go to a school dance with a boy, only to panic when I realized this involved actually going to a dance with a boy. I got busted for passing notes in class and for finishing overdue homework in the girls’ bathroom.
On the plus side, I figured out how to connect with teachers, and I learned I could solve math problems when I made an effort. I discovered that books kindled my imagination and provided a mental escape. Sports played a useful role too, allowing me to burn off excess energy and improve my focus. I shifted social groups more than a few times. Overall, it was the typical junior high experience, one I relive frequently as a middle school counselor and as the parent of kids in the seventh and eighth grade. Long before social emotional learning became a buzzword in education circles, I was stumbling along, acquiring self-awareness and problem-solving skills.
There is no manual to develop “soft” skills like perseverance and resilience. Just as I did, most kids learn through trial and error. As parents, our quest to protect our children can be at odds with their personal growth. It can feel counter-intuitive, but we mainly need to take a step back. I have come to believe that certain social-emotional skills are particularly useful as kids navigate middle school and beyond. Here are my top 10 skills, and ways parents can help without getting in the way.
Top 10 Social Emotional Skills For Middle School Students
1. Make good friend choices. This typically comes on the heels of making some questionable choices. Kids figure out quickly which friends instill a sense of belonging and which ones make them feel uncomfortable. It can be helpful to ask your children these questions: Do you have fun and laugh with this person? Can you be yourself? Is there trust and empathy? Common interests are a bonus.
2. Work in teams and negotiate conflict. I don’t think many students get through middle school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Maybe they didn’t delegate and divide the work effectively at the onset. Perhaps they chose to take ownership to avoid a poor grade. Help them understand what happened and consider what they might have done differently.
3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch. Unless there is abuse or discrimination, don’t bail them out by asking for a teacher change. Tell them they still can learn from a teacher they don’t like. Let them know it’s a chance to practice working with someone they find difficult. Remind them that if they can manage the situation, they won’t feel powerless or helpless the next time. Focus on concrete barriers to success in the class, not the interpersonal conflict. Is it miscommunication? Study skills?
4. Create organization and homework systems. Make sure they are the architects of this process. Encourage them to come up with solution-oriented plans and tweak them as needed. Do they need to use their planner? Create a checklist? Their motivation will come from ownership. If they say they don’t care, remind them that they don’t have to be invested in a particular outcome in order to change their behavior. People who hate exercise can still choose to lift weights.
5. Monitor and take responsibility for grades. If you care more than they do about their grades, why should they worry? Let them monitor their own grades, and if they don’t do well, don’t step in to advocate for assignment extensions or grade changes. Let them carry the burden and experience the connection between preparation, organization and grades. Conversely, if they are perfectionists, they will learn they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade.
6. Learn to self-advocate. By middle school, they should be learning how to ask teachers for help or clarification. This may be in person or through email. When students bond with teachers, they connect more intimately with the material too. Unless there is no other option, try not to reach out on their behalf.
7. Self-regulate emotions. Children often need assistance labeling strong emotions before they can regulate them. Help your kids identify any physical symptoms that accompany their stressors. This may help them know when to take a breath or hit the “pause” button before reacting. In real time, point out when they handle an emotional situation well. Discuss the strategy they implemented—maybe they took a break or listened to music. Also, help them make connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Are they stuck in all-or-nothing thinking? Are they consistently self-critical?
8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations. When your children are fired up about something, run with it and encourage exploration. Seize the opportunity to help them go deep. Get books, go to museums and be supportive even if the subject does not excite you. In the process, you will help them figure out what drives them. On the other hand, it is okay if they struggle in a specific area. That too is useful information. No one needs to be good at everything.
9. Make responsible, safe and ethical choices. Teach them to respect their bodies, and to make safe and healthy decisions. It is equally important to talk about how to avoid putting others at risk. Have open conversations and discuss plans for different scenarios they may encounter. Try not to be overly reactive if they ask shocking or distressing questions. Keep the lines of communication open.
10. Create and innovate. Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. It also can build confidence to think independently and outside the box. As your kids do their homework, read required texts and take standardized tests, remind them that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. Encourage them to make connections across material from different classes, and to build, write, invent and experiment.
Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.