The words that many children dread…”It’s almost back-to-school time!”. When my daughter was young, in our household it meant a time of organization, planning for supplies, clothing, juggling home, church, school, extracurricular activities. One day, when my daughter was about six, I witnessed her chin drop on to her chest. In the middle of the day, this was not typical for her. She quietly explained, “Mom, I’m just really tired. I think I want to take a nap.” Well, pick me up off the floor; for a child to actually request a nap in the middle of a fun or busy day was as unusual for her as snow in August. This happened a couple more times over the next few days, and I had to accept that my baby girl was flat-out exhausted. I had to do a serious assessment of where her young life might be too fast-paced.
Does this have a ring of truth in your family, too? The children go back to school soon. Any parent of a school-aged child knows that late July and early August signal a time of expectation, excitement (and yes, sometimes dread). But also of increased expenses, planning duties in preparation for the children’s returning to school. I only had a couple of frenetic, exhausting Augusts before I changed things around and started planning more proactively. Instead of wearing myself (and her) out and making all the requisite appointments (doctor, dentist, eye, etc.) in August before school started (and because all the other parents in town were doing the same, rarely finding an open slot that fit our busy schedules), I made a policy in our family to schedule annual appointments months in advance. This allowed much more convenient scheduling options. I scheduled at least 2-3 appointments in one day (which might not work for everyone), with at least two hours in between. This kept the school checkouts to a minimum, as well as the days off work. I scheduled this for every January (a non-peak kids appointment time), and we topped off a long day of annual appointments with a fun restaurant visit at the end. To make it more convenient and since I was scheduling sometimes nearly a year in advance, I scheduled my own eye or dental checkup at the same time. I found I was able to choose the day, even the hour, when it was months in advance. Taking a proactive, organized approach like this changed what had been sometimes no less than six separate phone calls, trips, school checkouts, afternoons off work, to one focused day.
This might be an approach that works for your family, too. When I found my little one nearly stumbling from fatigue, it forced me to be objective and look at her (and our family’s) daily typical activities. Where might I be allowing in (or bringing in) too many distractions? One thing I had done right, however, was, as a busy, divorced, single mom I kept her bedtime to 8:00-8:30 PM every night when all her little friends were routinely going to bed as late as 10:30 on school nights. We made it a fun, but quiet ritual. I never could understand how children could be expected to magically fall asleep five minutes after a family’s riotous activities in the living room. Rather, we did “wind-downs” - - about 30 minutes before bedtime, she would bathe and we would turn soft lamps on, quiet the noise and distractions (TV, music, loud talking), and read or snuggle quietly. A prayertime and a story at her bedside, lots of sweet hugs, and bedtime was smooth. It was a soothing ritual she looked forward to. When, as any little one does, she had a period of time she would get right back up again and have to be put back to bed several times, I took the advice of the child psychologist I worked for at the time, and put her back to bed – but without engaging in a lot of attention, nagging, bossing. She had had a drink of water before getting in bed so no more water, no rewards, such as turning the TV back on, more stories, more play or conversations. A tender kiss on the cheek, “Night-night, honey”, and all done quietly and calmly. After a few times, she learned that getting back up again wasn’t going to result in play or mommy engaging with her.
As a single mom, I had to find creative ways to work smart, not hard. She wanted to take her lunch to school everyday, so on Sunday afternoons I made a sort of weekly ritual, laying out five weekday lunch items. I did not allow her to take junk food, and, since in those days children were allowed to have sodas with their lunch, I encouraged her to have milk with her lunch instead. I made grocery lists, and added supplies such as Zip-Loc bags to the list. On Sundays I took five paper napkins, and wrote five sweet little notes to her to find in her lunch bag. Any parent knows that 10 PM forlorn voice, “Mom? Um, yeah. I forgot to tell you I need a poster board for my school project. Um, yeah. It’s for tomorrow.” After one trip in a freezing rain with the flu to the store for poster board when we should have been in bed, I did the Barney Fife-thing and nipped that in the bud, but quick. I kept a supply in the closet of poster boards, markers, glue, and for good measure, an extra pair of winter muffins, along with a stack of quarters for lunch milk purchases and other school supplies, such as extra packs of notebook paper, 3-prong folders, pencils, and the like. It was our “school shelf” and she knew those items were relegated to school-only use. I discovered the old saying I was required to memorize in elementary school, “A stitch in time saves nine” was accurate – it was no more work (actually less work) to purchase several poster boards in one trip than it was to drive to the store just to buy one. No more 10 PM poster board runs.
I began to check her school schedule well in advance, instead of getting caught by surprise, always in reactive mode. Did she have a field trip coming up next week that she might need extra money or permission slip for? Since I and her father were divorced, this meant coordinating both my but his schedule as well. We had to coordinate things like permission slips, prescription bottles, coats and gloves between two homes. While not always smooth sailing, it certainly helped to plan ahead as much as possible. We made a plan that it just wasn’t okay to “dump” an extra errand, expense, or time commitment on me with last-minute notice. I resolved that I was tired, too, and tired as well of the almost-inevitable Sunday night madcap-pery. We were going to plan ahead better, and not leave homework, laundry, things like poster board runs, the “Oh, yeah, mom! I forgot to tell you….I can’t find my permission form for the thing tomorrow morning…” to chance. Rather, we made a fun ritual once a week of going to her favorite restaurant, and we went over her upcoming week’s activities (school, perhaps a field trip, dance class, visits to dad, church activities). Did any of my own commitments such as work, volunteerism, meetings, conflict? Back then we didn’t have the wonder of something called “Our Family Wizard” (www.ourfamilywizard.com), but if we had I’d have used it abundantly. It is an online program allowing coparents to coordinate children’s schedules, quick reminders – but it also is an excellent method of accountability and documentation; one can’t say, “You never told me Janie had a field trip yesterday!” when you can pull up the note in the online program where you actually reminded them a week earlier, for example. In my work as a trained Parent Coordinator, and therapist with coparents, I frequently suggest this, and it is very helpful to stressed coparents who find it difficult to communicate verbally with each other (and allows for documentation tracking as well).
As much as possible, I planned laundry. I refused to allow a washer constantly running, but sometimes with only 1-2 items in it. To this day, I do no more than 3 loads a week, always full, and I plan outfits around the laundry (it takes a little planning but it works). Now, before you fall on the floor in laughter, at least for my own clothing, I preferred all my clothing starched and ironed. Can’t handle wimpy and rumpled cuffs, collars. It also meant significant extra work. So I set the ironing board up in front of the TV, played my favorite programs, and did my week’s ironing while enjoying myself at the same time. The navy slacks on Monday could be worn again on Thursday with a red sweater. Tuesday’s white blouse could be worn on Friday with a skirt. I found myself ironing less and planning outfits days in advance. I laid out shoes, hosiery, jewelry, purse stocked and ready, my obligatory tote bag, always the night before.
For school mornings, I refused to let our household be chaotic and rushed (at least as much as possible), and the evening before, we planned the next day’s outfit (I gave my daughter reasonable choices, such as this, or this, or that outfit, making it quick, smooth, and still giving her choices but it not devolving into long, drawn-out whining engagements). She was expected to check her backpack, make sure things like permission slips and extra school supplies when needed were packed, lay out her clothes, shoes, coat, hair bows and the like, the night before. Her lunches had been packed to about 75% on Sundays, so it just took a quick sandwich to be packed and ready.
On school mornings, fortunately I was an early riser anyway, so I tried to rise early enough to allow myself my own private quiet time, often with my devotionals. She had her breakfast, of which I tried to not allow junk food and sweets. Sometimes all she wanted was milk and perhaps melted cheese on bread. I’d rather have served her that than a Coke and chips. I didn’t allow the TV to be on on school mornings, no phone calls to little friends, and only phone calls to her other parent were allowed. My emphasis in doing this was that school mornings were intended for mental and physical preparation for school, not school being almost an afterthought after morning socializing and play. After school, I encouraged homework first. Since she had a list of chores that were age-appropriate and could always be finished within about 10-30 minutes, no TV was allowed until homework and chores were finished first, nor were phone calls to friends. Over the years, this emphasis on school-first before play kept a philosophy in our home of the importance of education, organizational skills, and being responsible for one’s upcoming commitments. If she had dance class on Tuesdays, on Monday she was responsible for making sure her dance shoes and outfit were in her dance bag. When I got a phone call from the school three times to drop everything and drive across town to bring her a forgotten lunch, I did it once, and after that, I explained to my daughter that this wasn’t going to happen again and she might have to actually go without lunch that day (oh, horrors!), and emphasized that this was a natural consequence of not planning ahead. It didn’t happen again when there was one day she actually did have to go without lunch. The point here being, a little discomfort once or twice is, in itself, a powerful teacher. As a mom, and as a therapist and doing a lot of parenting education, I say, “let the natural consequences do the work for you – they will model and shape more profoundly than your constant nagging ever will”.
Will there be times that are exceptions? Of course there will, and for the sake of your sanity, it is critical that you allow for flexibility. Don’t forget to have fun. We scheduled (yes, scheduled) a mother-daughter “Family Night” at least once a week when I found that we were just too busy and rushed for comfort. No phone calls, no work, only time devoted to each other, with jammies on (she thought it was fun and novel that she was wearing her pajamas while it was still light outside), pizza, and Disney movies and blankets on the floor. I actually discovered that it was of course good for her – but it was good for me, too. Once in a while, we had a slumber party on the living room floor with our blankets and pillows on Friday nights. It was a powerful way to spend wonderful parent-child time together, it hardly cost a cent for this budget-conscious single parent, and to this day, we still remember those precious times with affection. Moms and dads, you will never regret special moments like this with your children. And take it from me, please – a little thinking ahead, having a mindset of “work smart, not hard” and “a stitch in time saves nine”, can revolutionize your daily living. Watch your children – are they tired and whining frequently? It can be a sign of stress and being overwrought. Please allow your children to be bored at times. This is what stimulates their imagination and creativity. Fewer store-bought toys and more art supplies and books – it’s cheaper, and stimulates their creativity. Boredom occasionally will be a gift to your children that will benefit them for a lifetime. Ever heard the phrase, “Shoot the TV – Save a child”? There is truth there. Less “filler material” TV and more books and discussions.
Every minute of my day as a parent was filled; I learned fast to use “downtime” – the half-hour in the car I asked her questions about school, her opinions on things, and we talked about current events. The late Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the matriarch of the Kennedy family, required her sizeable brood of children to discuss a current event at the dinner table every evening. Prioritize what’s important in your family and your family’s typical day, over what isn’t. Don’t allow a psychotic culture to dictate what happens or doesn’t happen in your home.
Don’t forget to have silly fun – your kids don’t need your perfection. They need your laughter, to see you be the one to put capricious play and affection first sometimes. I once, out of the blue, took my daughter and stepson to Memphis (on a school day! So call DHS on me!) to tour the Civil Rights Museum, for what was an actually quite educational and unforgettable trip. Look around for things like this – everything holds the potential for some kind of education and life lessons for your children if you are observant enough. They were able to go back in to the classroom and with their friends and talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with confidence when a lot of their peers couldn’t. Don’t let the TV be on in your home simply for filler noise, a thing I witness constantly in homes. Introduce your children to books, read aloud to them, which is a quite profound way to develop their literacy skills and bolster their school success. Hold to your values and children’s developmental needs. They need consistency, more sleep than you probably might believe, well into their teen years, accountability for their actions, natural consequences that are consistent and sure, and they need to see you being the confident, consistent parent. Protect your children’s emotional and physical limits – where are they getting tired? Stressed out? Don’t commit them to activities every night of the week. It might come down to a choice between team sports and those frequent, long practices, or another activity, but not both. When it starts to wear out your entire family, that’s when it’s a clue it might be too much of a commitment. Ask your child which one they would like to do more instead of breaking yours and their necks trying to do both. Sit down today with a notepad and start coordinating the schedules and commitments of everyone in the household. What does each one need for going back to school? Make this school year one where you as parent are driving the boat instead of the boat driving you.