As many of you know, I am a regular contributor to the Today Show’s Parenting Community. This month, the Featured Challenge is “Back To School Advice, Pay It Forward Style”. I was asked to write a piece with advice for moms and dads with children younger than mine. Here’s the piece, as it appears on the Today website. If you like it, please click HERE to “Vote Up!” for it so that I can finally meet Matt Lauer.
When I sent Fruit Loop #1 off to preschool at the ripe old age of three, I remember being overjoyed at the thought of having a few precious hours to myself to bond with our new daughter, drink coffee, run errands and perhaps, if the stars aligned, actually get a shower without a three year old and his constant chatter. In the weeks leading up to our First Day Of School Ever, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know how to dress him (what are all the cool three year olds wearing these days?), I had no idea what I should pack in his lunch box and I certainly had no idea that the school drop off line was so cutthroat. The night before his big day, I stood in my kitchen, panicked, as I stared at his brand new Thomas the Train lunch box and wondered if he’d be able to get his juice box open with his fat little hands.
I had so much to learn.
Fortunately, I’m happy to report that he survived his first day of preschool, he was able to drink his juice box just fine and has grown into a rather well adjusted seventh grader, most times, no thanks to his mother and her ineptitude. And, his sister has faired even better because I’ve learned from my mistakes with her brother and his school antics. Over the years, I have relied on the mothers who have gone before me to help me get ready for the school year. In fact, around this time of year, many of my Facebook statuses start with “<Insert School Name> Moms: do the kids really need to have seventeen folders like the list says or can we get by with buying one for the whole year?” or “Hey, locals: could someone please tell me how the drop off line works because I don’t want to be the Mr. Mom mom. Is it South to drop off, North to pick up or the other way around?”.
My friends have saved me from myself and have kept me from being “That Mom” at the PTA meetings. And since I’ve been fortunate to have been given great advice, I’m going to share some of my tried and true Back To School tips.
1). Pick a preschool within a mile or two of your home. I know the preschool across town has the fancy play gym and all the cool moms send their kids there but consider this: preschool classes are short. Very short. Most times, you get 2 hours and 45 minutes of precious time to yourself and that time goes by in a blink of an eye. Factor in those days when it takes extra time for your child to separate from you at the door, the time chatting in the parking lot with the other moms and the twenty minute trip home from the fancy preschool across town, and suddenly, you have exactly 24 minutes of alone time in Target. Preschools are not rocket science and choosing one with a slightly less fancy playground that is closer to home will allow you to make the most of those precious minutes by yourself.
2). Have your child use their given name at school, not their nickname. We chose to name our daughter a fairly complicated to spell, lengthy name and it was one I knew would be a bit of a challenge for her to write when she got old enough. Up until preschool, we used a nickname for her but when it came time for her to go to school, we asked the teachers to put her “grown up” name on all of her items in her classroom. She couldn’t spell yet, obviously, but it helped tremendously with letter recognition and it smoothed the way for kindergarten when she had to learn to write her full name.
3). Buy the box juice boxes, not the foil ones. Little hands have a hard time with fine motor skills and the foil juice boxes can be a disaster for a frustrated four year old. The box juices are easier for them to manage and the teacher will thank you that she has one less foil pouch to open at lunch time.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MOMS:
1). Skip The Cheap Backpacks. Here me out on this, moms: Cheap backpacks are cute, yes, but they break. Fast. And, that adorable Sophia The First Backpack is usually hunk of junk by about October or November. I have friends that have had to drop $20 a few times a year to replace cheap backpacks and that adds up quickly. My advice? Buy a good, sturdy, high end back pack at the beginning of their school career. We have used LL Bean backpacks for school and I’ve had to replace exactly ZERO backpacks during the school year (and bonus: their return policies are stellar). One $75 backpack has lasted my son the time he was in elementary school.
2). Don’t Buy Crayons For The Teacher. It’s no secret: teachers are under paid and under supplied in the classroom and, at the beginning of the year, everyone wants to make a gesture of support for the classroom. Crayons and glue sticks are great but everyone sends those in to help the classroom. Consider sending in the lesser realized needs: hand sanitizer, tissues, napkins and paper towels. At the beginning of every year, I send in a giant bottle of hand sanitizer and an economy pack of paper towels for our classroom and the teacher is always grateful. Also, make sure to check in with the teacher mid year, too, because often times, supplies are dwindling and after Christmas sales are a great time to stock up on classroom supplies.
3). If Your Child Needs A Character Costume For A Project, Always Go Colonial. My son had a third grade book report where he had to dress in costume. He chose Mozart and the costume has since doubled as a minuteman, an apothecary and a shop owner. Get your child to pick a colonial character one time and you can use that costume repeatedly. A Laura Ingalls Wilder costume can easily become Harriet Tubman or Susan B. Anthony on the night before you realize the project is due. When it comes to book reports, always go Colonial. You thank me, trust me.
4). Teach Your Kids To Make Nutritious Lunches To Save Time My kids have been making their lunches in the morning for years. Yes, you read that correctly. I keep the fridge and pantry stocked with easy to pack food and five items go into the lunch box: 1 protein (yogurt/cheese stick), 1 fruit, 1 veggie, 1 carb (crackers/crunchy item) and 1 treat. They can count on their hand and make sure they got all five. Throw in a juice box at the end and voila, the kids are independent, you can enjoy a cup of coffee and everyone is happy with their lunch selections.
5). Keep A Typed List Of Important School Numbers In Your Glove Compartment. As every experienced mom will tell you, you call your child’s school a lot. Often times, from the road. Whether it’s returning a teacher’s call or calling the office to request paper work, you often need phone numbers quickly. And, having to track the numbers down online can be a hassle if you don’t have good wifi reception. At the beginning of the year, write down the top five numbers you will use most (Attendance, School Nurse, Front Office, Teachers, etc) and put them in your car. You’ll have them close at hand and it will make life easier when returning a call on the go.
6). Fill Forms Out On The Day You Get Them. Schools love paper forms and you receive a lot of them: permission slips, invitations, reminders. I make it a daily habit to fill the forms out while my kids do their homework. Not only does it keep my schedule on track, but it also cuts down on the clutter on my kitchen counters.
7). Make Sure Your Child Knows Who Your Emergency Contact Is. When little ones get sick at school, it can be very scary. And, the fear is heightened if Mommy or Daddy can’t be reached. Make sure your child knows and has a familiar relationship with the person who will be called in your absence. Your good friend Sue might be a really responsible mom friend but if your child has only met her a few times, it could be upsetting for them during an emergency.
8). Pace Yourself With Volunteering. As a seven year veteran of the PTA, I can tell you this: volunteering is a marathon, not a sprint. When your child first enters school, it can be natural to want to join many committees to feel connected to your school community. However, while it’s admirable to want to donate your time, make sure to pick your activities wisely. Quality is always better than quantity when it comes to volunteering.
9). Post Rotating Schedules and The Items Needed Near The Door. Our schools have rotating schedules for special classes (library, music, art and gym) and on any given day, it can be hard to remember who has what class and who needs what shoes. I post the schedules and items on the garage door so that, as we are leaving, we can quickly check that she has her gym shoes and he has his library books. In the mornings, every second counts and this has saved us a number of times.
10). You (and your child) Will Learn Something From Every Single Teacher. I Promise. Every school has the rock star teacher that every kid dreams of having but, in truth, every teacher brings a skill to the table that will help your child grow. You may have been assigned the teacher who has the reputation for being mean or strict but, if you keep an open mind, you will find that your child might blossom under her direction. Resist the urge to micromanage your child’s day from afar and let the teacher work his or her magic. You might be surprised that your child has the best year of his or her school career.
These are just the tip of the iceberg, trust me. Going back to school doesn’t have to be scary, especially when you have good friends who will help you survive. And, when all else fails, just make it up as you go along. I won’t tell….