I spent my Winter Break not so much thinking about school, but instead thinking about raising kids, which comes from spending time with 2 grown up kids, 2 teenagers (one in college and one in high school), a toddler and a 2 newborns. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on what were the things we have done as parents (and there are multiple parents involved in the mix) that contributed to our kids’ success? What would I recommend to my school parents to do with their children? One caveat, I’m fully aware that there are many external factors that contribute to or detract from a child’s ability to do well in school –socioeconomics, health, poor schools, challenging living situations — but I do believe that parenting matters. With a nod to BuzzFeed, I offer my top 10 suggestions (and I confess some of these I was better at than others; it’s impossible to be a perfect parent, but focusing on these, will make a difference):
1) Read, Read, Read. Read everyday, everywhere, all the time. Not as a chore, but out of love! Sneak in reading time whenever you can. Read to your child when they are too young to do it themselves, then continue to do it through adolescence. Share with them the joy of certain authors and series. Debate whether or not the movies are as good as the book (they inevitably aren’t). Read yourself and share passages and plot twists aloud. Read when you are on your treadmill. Get an audiobook for your family trips. Buy special books for your beach vacation. And long plane rides. Schedule trips to the library and bookstore on the weekend as a highlight. Give books as presents, thoughtfully chosen – receive books as presents with delight. Maybe this sounds odd to you? It really is happening in some households, and we as teachers see the children from these households be more engaged, confident readers in school. How could they not be?
2) Have fun with math! Fun with math probably isn’t drilling your times tables (some kids might like this, but most won’t). Instead using math competitively and creatively can be very engaging to kids. If kids are shopping with you, you can have them estimate the cost of groceries or figure out what the best deals are. Use actual math to figure out percentages or probability, like when playing poker or figuring out baseball scores. Logic games are great for the mathematical mind so playing Sudoku, or Chess or Go will help them sharpen their analytical skills. Talking about being bad at math as a badge of pride encourages your children to follow that path. If you struggle with math, share that as something you have had to overcome (you don’t hear people bragging about being illiterate). Intentionally model a growth mindset by showing your children that although you struggle with math you continue to work on it because you know that skills can be improved with effort. The approach that you model “this is hard, I suck at math and I am not going to try” or “this is hard, I have to put in a lot of effort to get it done” is the approach they will use in their life and in the classroom.
3) Explore and Tinker-kid words for scientific inquiry and engineering. Encourage kids to wonder about how and why things work. So often I hear educators bemoan that their students are not curious about the natural world. If kids have been repeatedly told, “I don’t know” or “Just because” or “It just does” they are being trained to passively regard their environment. I understand why this happens – often kids questions require answers we don’t know ourselves and they are often asked at inopportune times when it is not feasible to go online or better yet, put together the resources needed to allow students to experience a hands-on exploration. So do the best you can. When you have the time and resources, delve in with them. When you have to put off a line of inquiry, try to remember to take it up later, or at the very least acknowledge and support the value of the inquiry. “Those are great questions – you are really thinking like a scientist/engineer/ architect/anthropologist. Good for you. What do you think about it?” Finally, and this was not my strength, but I so admire parents who do this with their children – treat your home and car and all the mechanical needs associated with them as opportunities for learning. From reading operation manuals, to learning specific skills, to jerry-rigging mechanics, or taking apart old appliances that no longer work (and aren’t plugged into an electrical socket). All of these involve problem solving of the highest order which not only will transfer well to school (or it should if schools are teaching as they should be), but will be incredibly useful to them for the rest of their lives.
4) Enjoy the outdoors! – kids benefit greatly from regularly being outdoors. A lot. I think, and research indicates, that having a connection to the natural world makes people healthier and happier. This connection begins when we are children. The key is unstructured time to interact with the natural world – preferably in all sorts of settings. I happen to live in the beautiful Sonoran Desert and it is devastating to learn that some of our kids have never been on a hike. Or seen a creek. Or played in snow. Or been to the beach. Obviously some of these experiences come with privilege – not everyone can fly to the mountains or the coast – but luckily natural beauty is found everywhere. Even highly urban environments usually have fantastic local parks nearby. If you are interested in this topic I would recommend “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv – he makes a compelling argument.
5) Be healthy – All families can work to help instill healthy habits in their children. Obviously a large topic, but in its most basic form this means eating well, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep. Parents can work on this by setting rules and having conversations about healthy habits, but the best way to accomplish these goals is through modeling. Kids understand hypocrisy (even if they don’t know the word yet) when they watch their parents diet on chips & beer yet scold them because the broccoli on their plate goes untouched. Likewise, it is hard to get our children to be active if we aren’t.. But exercising shouldn’t be sold as a chore –exercising together as a family can be an amazingly rewarding experience. When my kids were young I carried a foldable, floppy Frisbee and hacky sack in my purse that we would through around if we ever had some free minutes (the hacky sack never caught on, but my daughter did grow up to become an avid Ultimate Frisbee player).
6) Use technology, but wisely– My take on technology is to not be afraid of it, I need to jump on that bandwagon and try to keep up with what is out there and what my kids are doing. This is the best way to make informed decisions about how to prohibit, what to limit and what to encourage. Aside from a general blanket rule that kids need limits (for instance they need to NOT have access when they should be sleeping – see rule no. 5), I believe guidelines for technology use should be tailored given the specific needs of your child and the technology. I worry that just as we have kids who have unfettered use of technology, other well meaning families are depriving their kids from the amazing opportunities that now exist through social media and Apps. For many teenagers a large part of their social lives are conducted on social media, and kids who are not allowed to participate in that forum are effectively being blocked from a substantial part of their social network. Social media is a quick moving phenomena. A few years ago, Facebook was all the rage for teenagers, and parents struggled to figure out how to deal with the cyberbullying that was often happening. Now many teenagers use Facebook primarily as a social scheduling tool and are more likely to use SnapChat or Instagram to socialize. By the time I print this, reality might already have changed. Additionally, kids are different. Some are sucked into virtual worlds and fall prey to the lure of distant socializing, while others might naturally be able to self regulate. So here knowledge is key. Know your kids. Know the technology. Know how they are using it and then don’t be afraid to have conversations with your kids about their use and finally feel confident and secure in placing reasonable, reasoned restrictions and limitations on its use.
7) Engage in discourse – We want to expose and engage children and teenagers in engaging conversations on topics that are important such as current events and ethics. I think the best place for this to happen is at the dinner table, but it could also be over a newspaper and coffee in the morning or in front of the TV while watching a news program. The ideal talk would involve the sharing of multiple perspectives in a passionate but respectful way. This can be hard to achieve because either kids are raised in a mono-culture or where there are different perspectives but the discussion does not remain respectful. The key here is to remember that the children are watching. They will unconsciously model their approach to adult discussion on what they have been exposed to. So trying to incorporate active listening, giving people the benefit of the doubt, wondering about what others who disagree with your would say are all healthy habits to try to cultivate. Additionally, many current event topics require background knowledge to effectively discuss. Taking time to provide some background where necessary (e.g. explain what supply side economics is or how the Arab-Israeli conflict came to be) makes for a rich learning opportunity on several levels. Gauging our explanations on our child’s interest level (body language speaks volumes)– gives us signs of whether they want/need- whether it be the one sentence or 10 minute talk.. Using the art of the elevator synopsis helps keep us from boiring our kids out of the discussion before they had a chance to enter it.
8) Art, Art, Art – Kinda like reading- whenever and wherever possible. Encourage the playing of a musical instrument. Listen to music together – yours and theirs. Sing together. Dance together. Be a supportive audience to our children’s plays – live action or puppet. Celebrate their creative writing. Have art supplies easily available. Expose your kids to all sorts of art genres – from opera to folklorico, to printscreening, to Kabuki theater – and then hone in on whatever they show an interest/affinity for.
9) Talk positively about school – The unstated (and stated) messages we give about school impact not only how our kids feel about school but also how they do in school. For instance, , “only one more week of summer break before you have to go back to school, ugh!” or better yet , “in one more week you get to go back to school!” It may sound insignificant, but it makes a difference. Of course not everything about school is fun and roses, but a lot are. Friends are there. Learning is exciting. Most teachers really love their students. August/September marks new beginnings – which can be exciting. When there are hard things that a child has to face that clearly aren’t fun, the language can still be positive – “you just need to take care of business and then you will feel so good when it is finished” or “sometimes we face challenges in life, this will help you learn how to successfully get through a challenge.” Almost all parents will tell their kids that they value education and they want them to do well in school and then undercut that message in a thousand small ways A positive message leads to a positive outcome!
10) Help (appropriately) with homework –However teachers/schools fall down on this issue it is likely that our children will have some homework, and possibly a significant amount, on a nightly basis. I have two recommendations. First our children need structure that will support him/her. Structure looks like a set time (right after school, right before dinner, right after dinner, etc) and a set place – where materials are found and distractions are at a minimum – which means the TV, music and computer – unless they are using the computer of course. Our school has struggled with the question of whether or not music should be allowed. Kids will almost always argue that it helps them. From my perspective, I think the jury is still out on the question. So my take on it would be that music and work is closely monitored. If your child demonstrates that s/he can do high quality work efficiently, then music can be allowed. But if they are distracted, then it goes. Which leads to my second suggestion – that we as parents are nearby when the child is doing the work so that we can assist and/or redirect, at least until our children have a proven record of doing his/her work independently. For some parents it might be hard to know how much to help and how much to let your child struggle. My long-distance answer is that a little struggle is fine – its providing our children with a stretch that they need to work through to grow in their learning – however if your child is getting very frustrated more intervention is appropriate (both in terms of explaining content and in terms of strategizing study skills habits). If you are worried about your level of involvement in your child’s homework, the best thing to do would be to speak with your child’s teacher and explain what his/her challenge is and what you have been doing. They should be able to either affirm what you are doing or guide you to a different level or kind of support.
I hope this list is helpful and not overwhelming. We are building life long habits and goals and the creation of systems will make much of the above habitual and second nature. My last piece of advise – I couldn’t resist – is to enjoy them and it all the above. Take it from a mother who has only a few months before empty nesting – it goes fast.