Accentuate the positive

The transition between summer vacation and the start of the school year reminds me of New Year’s Eve. It’s an opportune time to shed unhealthy habits and initiate positive ones that will lead to a more balanced life. And like New Year’s resolutions, school year resolutions are most successful when you realize that good intentions alone don’t get you anywhere; you also need patience, persistence, and an action plan.

I’ve been giving more thought than usual to my back-to-school approach this year because this is the last fall that all three of my kids will be home; my 17-year-old daughter, Louisa, is a high school senior. Our remaining time together as a family of five is fleeting, and I’d like to make every minute count, while also ensuring that Louisa and her two younger brothers are developing the skills they’ll need to be responsible adults.

I found it inspiring and affirming to talk about back-to-school resolutions with certified parent coach Mary Upham, who has one daughter starting college and two tween daughters at home. Upham’s business, Positive Path Coaching, is based in Northfield, but through the wonders of technology she can meet with clients anywhere via phone, email, or Skype.

More responsibilities

Upham says that the last few weeks of summer vacation are an ideal time to address family routines that are causing stress. Before imposing a new strategy, though, she recommends that parents ask tweens for their ideas. That’s what she did when her two younger daughters were having trouble getting out the door in time to catch the bus.

One daughter suggested, after some reflection, that they get a clock for the upstairs hallway. So Upham bought a big analog clock and set it five minutes fast. She then told the girls that she would wake them in the morning, but that they were responsible for getting themselves ready and out to the bus on time. The solution worked.

“Sometimes kids have really great ideas and knowledge about what will make it work for them, if we give them time to think about it,” she says.

Several weeks before school starts, Upham also considers whether her daughters are ready to take on new responsibilities around the house. When she assigns them a new task, she tries to be clear about her expectations and about what happens if they’re not met. Creating a reminder list and posting it in a visible place can reinforce this.

The final step is for the parent to hand over the responsibility of the task to the child. It can be difficult for parents to fight the urge to step in and help, Upham says, but it’s necessary to make kids feel capable and valued. 

More engagement

The school year also is a great time to rethink the “more is better” approach to family scheduling.

Even though our society might say otherwise, Upham says it’s OK for parents to place limits on kids’ extracurricular activities. This leaves more room for unscheduled down time that tweens need to think, dream, create, and problem-solve. It also leaves more room in the day for family time, which can include regular meals together, movie nights, or activities that change with the seasons.

Despite the attitude they may display outwardly, tweens still crave attention and reassurance from their parents. Parents can make themselves available mentally as well as physically by taking the time to sit down, step away from their own screens, and focus on their child. Turning off the radio when you’re driving in the car together, and sharing funny or embarrassing stories about your own tween years can also invite conversation.

Upham says parents should be prepared for their tweens to go through emotional ups and downs in the first few weeks of school, especially if they’re transitioning from elementary to middle school. Discern from what they say, and from what they don’t mention, whether they just need someone to listen to their concerns, or if there’s a deeper issue that requires parent advocacy.

As the school year progresses, Upham says parents should continue to help their tweens focus on what is working well.

“If we only focus on what’s bad, hateful, or hard, that’s what we’re going to feel the most. But if we can find the positive, and help them focus on that, that’s a lifelong skill,” she says.

That sounds like a great resolution—one that’s worth keeping all year. Happy back-to-school, everyone!


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.