Earlier wake-ups, spiffy duds, and a new class for your kids mean organizational and motivational challenges for you. We’ve got September strategies from Katherine Lee, a Brooklyn mom and expert on school-aged children, to help you start the school year right.
Oh, can’t we just let freedom ring? As much as we’ve enjoyed letting our children sleep in and stain their faces with flavored ice pops throughout the summer, September is here once again. We spoke with Katherine Lee, a Brooklyn mom of one and former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines who now serves as About.com’s expert on school-aged children, for advice on how to prepare for this year’s back-to-school season—and all the chaos that comes with it.
What are some interesting ways parents can convert their children’s back-to-school blues into excitement?
I think one of the best ways is to have parents instill a love of learning. It’s not something you say, it’s something you do. So you don’t say to your child, “You need to like books.” They are going to watch what you do and wonder: “Do you like to read books? Do you like to go to museums and go to the botanical gardens?” Kids will pick up on what you do, so teach your kids by example. If they see you getting excited about learning something, they will get excited too.
If your child is just starting kindergarten or if he is transitioning from kindergarten to the “big kid” school, you might want to take a few rides to the school. Sometimes schools will have a juice party where kids can get together a few days before school actually starts. If your school offers this, I suggest attending.
Even though many parents try to follow a consistent bedtime routine over the summer, that discipline often just falls by the wayside. How can parents help their school-aged kids (who have gotten used to going to bed late and sleeping in) get back to a steady routine?
Start preparing in the summer. You don’t want your child to all of sudden have to get up consistently and be awake, alert, dressed, eating breakfast, getting ready, and sort of throw the kid out there after he’s used to a long summer of not being on a schedule. Ideally, you should start preparing at least a couple of weeks beforehand to make sure that you get your child into bed early enough so that he is awake at a certain time. Do a few trial runs.
How can parents make kids understand how important sleep is to their overall health and education?
Well, if we’re talking about young children, you explain to them that they need their rest and that they won’t be able to have fun and learn if they don’t get enough sleep. [Lack of] sleep can affect a child’s mood and attention span. Sleep is one of those very, very crucial things. Kids need a certain amount of it. It does vary from kid to kid [but] we’re talking about maybe 10-11 hours for school-aged children. If you are putting your child to bed at 11 at night and he has to get up at 6, there is no way that child is getting enough sleep.
What is your best advice for helping parents ease the morning rush?
You should have some morning routine—that’s sort of crucial. One of the most important things is to organize your home. Make sure your kids lay out their clothes the night before so you have all the outfits ready. You don’t want to be scrambling for that other sock while your child is rummaging through dresses she’d rather wear. This could create a battle.
Check the weather. If it’s supposed to rain, have the umbrella, the coat, the boots, and the school bag all packed and by the entryway or door. Have your place settings all laid out on the breakfast table. This will cut just a little bit more of the rush down. And, of course, pack the lunches ahead of time as much as possible. Think room by room, and think organization.
What advice do you have for parents with multiple children who go to separate schools?
Organization is super, super important. Sometimes one parent can take one kid and the other can take the other. You should have things in the car organized. You don’t want your child to be scrambling for a pencil when you have another drop-off to do. The more organized you are, the better off everyone will be in the long run.
What is the best back-to-school advice you have been given as a parent?
Do not overschedule! I see so many poor kids who are dragged from one thing to another. Go with what your child wants to do. You are wasting your child’s time and the instructor’s time if you don’t. That is not to say that you shouldn’t tell your child to try something new. Extracurricular activities are like food. You don’t want to force your child to eat Brussels sprouts every single meal because then that child’s going to hate Brussels sprouts for the rest of his life. At the same time, however, you do want to force it here and there. With my child…I’ll introduce things and he’ll tell me he doesn’t like them. Then I give it a break and try delivering it in a different way…and suddenly he loves it. Kids are very changeable, but you can scar them for life if you try to shove something down their throat, which I definitely wouldn’t recommend, ever.
What are the best departing words a parent can say to a child before she leaves for school?
When departing with your kids I would say it is important to say “See you later,” “Have a good day,” “Have fun,” and “We will review how our day went later.” This will be something your child can look forward to. With younger children, put a little note in their lunchbox that says “Have a nice day,” “Have fun,” “Mommy loves you,” etc.
Then later, at dinnertime, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this: Eat with your children. If you come home too late, maybe eat while your kids have dessert or do their homework. It’s important to spend time with your children in the evening.
How can parents save money when it comes to buying back-to-school items such as school supplies and/or clothing?
Try to do some bargain hunting and shop ahead of time. Take a look at what you have and put it all together. Sometimes I am looking around my house and realize, “Wow, I never need to buy a pen or pencil ever again.” Look around at Wal-Mart, Target, or any one of those big stores [but] stay clear of too-cheap items, because in the long run they really won’t save you any money.
In terms of new clothes, do a swap! How many of your friends do you have with kids who have worn their jackets maybe one or two times? Get your group of friends together, have some tea, and have a clothing swap. It could be fun!
Do you suggest making lunch at home or giving out lunch money?
Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but honestly, I think it comes down to personal preferences in terms of what you can do and what you can manage. It’s not that hard to pack a school lunch. While you’re making breakfast, like a quick egg sandwich, you can throw a lunch together. You can also do it the night before. If it’s important to you that your son or daughter gets a certain nutritious lunch and you want them to have the whole grain bread with the organic turkey and the organic apple and the organic milk, you’re probably not going to get that at school. If you feel like what they are serving at school is good and that it’s nutritious and you want your child to have that, do that. It’s whatever works for each family.
What homework wisdom can you offer, especially during the transition from summer to school?
Again, it’s that preparation ahead of time. My son gets reading lists, and a lot of schools do that now, even schools with young children. You don’t want your child to spend all summer not even opening up a book because what happens come September? You have a very rude awakening. It is a very good thing to develop a love of reading and a love of books and learning. Find what your child is interested in. You can go to a museum or do other fun family activities where you can discover things together. Go take a walk through nature and talk about foliage or go visit the aquarium. If you can squeeze in a few of those things and get your child a book about them you’ll build your child’s interest in those things.
Then, as school gets closer and closer, say “Now why don’t you see if you can finish these chapter books.” Maybe have them read at a level a little bit higher than they were already at. You can also do drills. You don’t want to drill them over for days and days because that’s not fair, but it is something you can do consistently throughout the summer.
Since it’s impossible to be everywhere at the same time, how can parents manage which of their children’s after-school activities they should go to without spurring sibling rivalries or acquiring a guilty conscience?
Chances are [your kids] are going to be at two different places and be doing two different things. For example, a 10-year-old is going to be doing way different activities than a 5-year-old. Have one parent do one duty and the other parent do the other. Divide it up and make it as fair as possible so that one child doesn’t get one thing all the time. Even if you have one parent as a coach or a dad that really loves baseball, make sure the daughter who does figure skating doesn’t get the short end of the stick. It is important that kids get support from both parents.
Is there something you have discovered many parents worry about needlessly?
I think that sometimes they worry that they are doing the wrong thing. We spend a lot of time and energy second-guessing ourselves when we really should just trust our own instincts. If you feel like something is not right and that you should call a doctor, or that your child does not want to do something, don’t convince yourself that everything is fine and suppress your own instincts.