By Joshua Essery, PsyD, ABPP
Three reflection points on parenting for the back-to-school transition
Every year families prepare for “back to school.” This often brings supply shopping, school clothes deliberations, anticipation of making or reuniting with friends, semi-shock at how “old” our children are, and curiosity about what teachers children may have or classroom they may end up in. “Back to school” can also bring about complex feelings for everyone in the family: a mixture of excitement, anxiety, hope, sadness, anticipation and sentimentality. As a parent, how do you support your children during these times of important change? While all children and families are unique, here are some general points to reflect on during this important time of transition.
First, foster your relationship through opening a dialogue. Be genuinely curious about your child’s feelings and experiences. I suggest taking a stance of “authentic not knowing.” This means approaching your child with a sense of compassionate interest and openness. With many children, this may be done by asking open questions in a way the child can understand without making assumptions or expectations about what their responses might or should be. Open questions invite the child to decide what to say and leave room for elaboration, clarification and follow-up questions. For example, “I know school is starting… I am interested and care about how this is for you, are you open to talking about it?...How are you doing with it?... What has been on your mind about going back?” For a younger child who might be less able to dialogue, you might ask them if they would be willing to draw a picture about the first day of school and talk about it.
Second, have a realistic view of your children’s strengths and needs. Allow your child to be challenged while understanding their limits. Transitions, such as returning to school, naturally elicit tension within families between how much support to provide versus how independent our children or teenagers need to be. While the specific decisions are different for every family depending upon a child’s age and unique needs, it is important to ensure that our children and teens are given space to be challenged through independent experiences. In this regard, a parent must be able to recognize when their own desires or fears are contributing to their parenting choices. A child’s developmental needs are served by experiencing both successes and tolerable failures. Both types of experiences help them learn and grow. In general, aim to support your child’s independence while ensuring they have an appropriate amount of support and supervision to do their best.
Some reflective questions to ask yourself in this regard (or if you are really brave, discuss these with another person who knows you well and who will be honest with you):
As a parent, do I tend to step in to rescue my child too quickly? Do I protect them from the natural consequences of their choices? Does my involvement contribute to conflict with other family members or teachers? Am I able to allow my child to experience challenges that might contribute to momentary struggle so that they can grow?
As a parent, do I understand what my child is good at and what they may naturally have a harder time with? Can I accept my child’s unique strengths and weaknesses? Do I provide the support and supervision my child or teen needs based on these? Am I too focused on other things in my life to give them the time and energy they need?
Do my hopes and dreams for my child tend to guide how I parent in a manner that I am not recognizing my child as independent? Am I too focused on their grades, social standing or extra-curricular activities because I want something for them that they may not want for themselves?
Finally, remember that the educational process is, in many ways, as important as the academic work. Be careful to attend to both as a parent since it’s not all about grades. When our children are attending school, they are being educated and socialized. This requires them to relate to people outside of the family, respond to others’ expectations, and function within a societal structure with others who are different. Over time, this process can strengthen a child’s social skills, self-awareness, and ability to understand others. This process occurs while a child is growing his or her academic and intellectual abilities.
One way to think about this is to view a child as the main character in a story. While the story always begins at home, school is often the second most significant context within which the child develops. A child’s experiences at school with teachers, peers and their routines form the context for writing the rest of their story. Parents recognizing that their child’s social experiences, self-understanding, social reasoning, and developing ability to cope with emotions are as important as their grades is essential to supporting holistic development throughout the school years.
As we approach the beginning of this new school year, I hope that we as a community remember that our children are our collective future. Whatever your child’s age or your family’s stage, I encourage you to reflect on this important milestone and consider its meaning for you and your family. As a community, I hope that we can each support one another by attending to the importance of healthy development in all of our children during this “back to school” season.