It’s September already and that can only mean one thing for those of us caring for the 50 million school-age children in the US. That’s right – it’s back-to-school time. Backpacks are prepped and packed, new shoes are still white, and the yellow school buses are rolling again. Parents are pretty split – some are practically screaming in delight, while others are fighting a sense of dread. Summer’s end also means a new season of scheduling, soccer, homework and more.
Apparently, this is not uncommon. Prepping children for school can be a very tense time as parents have to leave the summer slack behind and crack down on early bedtimes, homework routines, and the extracurricular shuffle. Gone are the blank calendar pages of summertime. Additionally, it can be hard for a parent to adjust from the total hands-on parenting style of summer to the days in which your children are off for 6 (or more!) hours per day.
Parents find themselves at a crossroads of sorts. Do they cut the apron strings with a quick slice, or do they very slowly let the kids go? And how much do they let them go and in what timeframe?
Many times, this back-to-school time is reflective of the relationship between parent and child. Parents who are quick to step in and do things that the children could do themselves often have a hard time adjusting. They see themselves as an integral part of their children’s lives, so much so that the child cannot function without their assistance. As such, these children remain totally dependent on the parent; and the parent, either consciously or unconsciously is validated in their need to be needed.
Conversely, parents who view the school day as an opportunity for their child to exercise their social skills, including building or improving relationships with peers and adults they come into contact with, tend to raise children who are more independent, agile problem solvers. Parents and children with these relationships often have an easier time adjusting to the separations that the school day brings.
The single most important thing for a parent to do is to wait to be needed. This simple statement truly is harder than it sounds. It’s almost as if you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Do I want to help so that I feel needed and important, or because my children truly can’t do it themselves?”
Maybe we should ask ourselves this question before rushing to our children’s aid every time they have an issue at school, a problem with a sibling or frustration over long division. Perhaps what our children need is the ability to not only work through these normal issues themselves – but to understand that their parents BELIEVE that they can do so.
After all, stepping in too quickly can actually push your child away. It sends the message that you don’t believe they are capable enough to handle the task at hand. As school-age kids are experiencing independence and learning to make decisions – and live with the consequences – parents who offer too much unsolicited advice are inadvertently creating a situation in which the child doubts his own decisions to the point where he or she may refuse to make them anymore.
Of course, a parent’s job is to provide support and guidance for their children, whether they are 2 or 20. As a mom myself, I know how hard it can be to watch my son struggle to learn to tie his shoes, or hold his pencil the proper way. But I know that in the end, a little frustration can be a precursor to a great breakthrough (and as a side benefit, it may mean I can avoid going to college with him to tie his shoes).
Instead, it behooves us to wait for our children to ask for advice or question their own decision or action. Then, to communicate effectively, offer suggestions or agree to work with them cooperatively. Parents who adopt this strategy effectively help their children to move forward on their own, as well as demonstrate crucial communication, negotiation and problem-solving skills that will prove especially useful in life beyond the playground.
These strategies work with children of all ages, and can be implemented at any point. Building this framework of independence also fosters a solid identity and positive self-esteem. Parents who make resources and advice available are establishing the groundwork for children who learn to help themselves.
It begins when they are babies, as they tentatively take those first wobbly little steps toward independence, then driver’s licenses and adulthood. And yet, even knowing what the end game is, we all help our children learn to walk independently, because we know they need to. No matter how badly we want them to stay snuggled in our arms.
As we send them off this September to nursery school, on the big yellow bus or the college campus 10 states away, we do so with the knowledge that while we can help them balance, they aren’t walking alone until we let go.