It never fails: The new school year gives moms, including myself, a huge adrenaline rush. I'm not just talking about that giddy they're-back-in-school-and-out-of-the-house feeling. It's the other rush, convincing you that this school year you'll handle the inevitable parenting crises with graceful calm.
And then, two weeks later, when a classmate's being mean to your child or she won't unglue herself from the computer until reaching level 45 of her favorite game, the ideals come crashing down. You're yelling at your kid and firing off e-mails to the school in ALL CAPS. But this go-round, I plan to have a realistically more rewarding year. Here's how you can too.
Hit the Reset Button
Getting everyone out of a vacation mind-set and focused on school is a tough job, but Mom has got to do it. We all mourn the passing of summer—which you can remind your kids of while laying down the law. Tell them: "I know it was so fun enjoying ice cream and family movies all the time, but now you've got to buckle down, be in bed on time, and make sure your chores get done." Pushing your crew back on schedule will require you to be the bad guy for a bit, but it's pretty much the only way to make sure the kids don't slack off on homework, oversleep and miss the school bus, or start letting the garbage pile up. Plus, sticking to these rules means raising children who can take care of themselves.
Many kids don't understand why school is important, so it's essential that you highlight school's relevance by helping your children create personal goals. Before the first class begins, craft a tangible connection between their interests and something at school. Ask them for two things they'd like to accomplish before next summer and how school can assist them in achieving those goals. Does your daughter want to learn how to program computers? Maybe it's time to join the robotics club. Is your son thinking about creating a mosaic? Perhaps he can be a set designer for a school play or submit artwork to an upcoming exhibit. Just having this conversation about your kids' passions is valuable because you'll gain insight into what they love doing and they'll start to make links between life in the classroom and life beyond it.
Win the Electronics War
September is the time of year a lot of tweens and teens test out different personalities and try to reinvent themselves online before heading back to class. Educate yourself by exploring your kids' Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr profiles. Their profile picture (Is his shirt off while he's flexing? Is she draped over someone you don't know?) and the shows or books they "like" (Is she really watching Family Guy? Did he honestly love Saw?) reveal a lot about how they want to present themselves to the world and how they may be behaving away from home. The picture has less to do with who they are than with how they want to be perceived—and you might be able to avoid some problems down the line by addressing potential character attributes that you find discomfiting. Tell them you've looked at their picture and ask why they chose it. After you've heard their reasons, explain how it differs from what you expect for members of your family. Of course, talking about it doesn't mean you'll change what they decide to do. But if you really want them to have a sense of your values, these ongoing conversations are necessary.
If arguing over screen time catapults you into a bad mood, you can squash the conflict by creating a contract. I wrote one up after tiring of constantly repeating, "Turn it off right now! We really need to enjoy one another's company!" We had our kids sign the memo of understanding below. Feel free to adapt it to your particular screen time situation.
Gaming Rules for the Wiseman-Edwards Family
The following is understood to be true:
When I play/watch etc., I have no ability to accurately gauge time. Therefore, I won't say, "What?!!! I've only been on for a few minutes!" when a parent tells me my screen time is done.
I won't constantly ask if I can have screen time after my mom or dad has said no.
Nor will I reply with, "Why?"
I won't compare how long I've played with the amount my siblings have played.
I'll track my time with a timer, which I will use honestly. Within 60 seconds of the timer going off, I'll shut down.
When can I play video games?
No video or computer games during the school week.
On the weekend, I'm allowed a total of 90 minutes/day.
Screen time can't interfere with my responsibilities. No matter how early I get up on a weekend morning, the dog must be walked and fed before I turn anything on.
Manners and social skills are important. While it's fine to play a game waiting in line, it's unacceptable to do so at your cousin's wedding reception.
On my honor, I pledge that I won't:
Download any games, music or apps (even if they're free) without my parents' permission. If I do, I understand that I'll be forbidden from screen time for a week without exception and the amount of the charge will be deducted from my savings account or allowance.
Play games or visit websites that my parents forbid.
Allow my friends to go on websites my parents forbid when they're at my house.
These rules may be updated by parental executive decision at any time.
Did it solve our problems overnight? No. But it has led to better moods all around and helped me savor more of that new-year adrenaline rush.
Beat the Bullying Backlash
Last spring a 17-year-old Indianapolis student faced expulsion from high school after using a stun gun to fend off bullies he claims were about to beat him up. And in Florida an 18-year-old girl was punished for threatening bullies who had been harassing her and a disabled student. Stories of kids defending themselves—and being rebuked for it—are popping up all over. We're now focusing on the second, defensive punch—not the first hit that started it all. We're spotlighting the retaliation, not the instigation. This is often how schools' "zero tolerance" rules work—punishing the target and not addressing the problem that made the person think he had to defend himself in the first place.
Make sure you and your child understand the school's policy on bullying, whether your kid is the victim or advocating for one. I tell my kids that staying neutral when you see someone being picked on doesn't look neutral. It looks like you're siding with the bully. Whether they encourage the target to walk away with them or say two words as simple as "Lay off," something must be done. Also tell them you've got their back as long as they do the right thing: Find the adult they think is the most responsible, intelligent and reliable person in the school and ask him or her to handle the situation.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.