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What I Learned In Elementary School

As the school year is drawing to an end for my kids, I’ve realized that next year will be my last as an elementary school parent. My older son is entering high school in the fall, and my younger son will be in 5th grade.

I will have spent 10 years as the parent of an elementary school-aged child. That’s a fairly significant amount of time, and I’ve learned a fairly significant number of things. So, I thought I’d pass along my pieces of advice to those of you entering or in the midst of this stage in your parenting:

1. You’ll get used to the smell. I remember the first time I walked into my son’s school. I was overwhelmed by, of all things, the smell. Not a bad smell — just that school smell.

2. Ask your child questions. And by questions, I don’t mean, “How was your day?” or “What did you do in school today?,” which isn’t going to get you much information. Ask them questions that will give your child the chance to talk. I have one “talker,” which means I find out a lot of what’s going on inside and outside the classroom. The other kid — not so much. But what I discovered is that if I asked him easy questions like, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” or “What book did your teacher read to you today?,” it would give me more information, and I could offer follow-up questions.

3. Trust the school. I’m not saying that they don’t make mistakes, because of course, we all do. But I think if you go into your child’s school experience with the attitude that nobody else can take care of your child, you’re destined to fail. Let’s face it — teachers don’t make a ton of money; anyone who chooses this career does it because they love children. They want what’s best for your child, just like you.

4. Let your child fail sometimes. A few years ago, I was working at home, and found that Matthew had left his completed homework on the kitchen table. Since I was home, I could have brought it in, but I didn’t, even though I knew he might be upset when he realized he didn’t have it. Instead, I e-mailed the teacher and let her know that he’d done it, but forgotten it, and that I didn’t plan to bring it in for him. There are lots of things your child can learn if you don’t rescue them every time — for Matthew, it was that the earth wouldn’t fly off its axis if he made a mistake. Other children might need to learn how to be more responsible or organized. Either way, if you bail them out every time, they’ll learn that they don’t have to be independent.

5. But, remember that they’re still kids. And sometimes, it’s okay to bring a forgotten lunch or musical instrument to school.

6. It’s their homework. Not yours. I remember Matthew working on a book report project in 4th grade. He had to create a cereal box that represented the character and the book. It was a cool assignment, but watching him do it nearly put me over the edge. I REALLY wanted to get my scrapbook paper and some stencils and make the whole thing look way prettier than a 9-year-old could. But I kept telling myself that it looked completely 4th grade appropriate, and as long as he could handle the project himself, I needed to back off. Same goes for nightly homework. Help your child if they ask for it, but not if they don’t.

7. Homework shouldn’t make them cry. I can’t remember which of my child’s teachers told the parents this at back-to-school night, but it’s a rule we’ve always followed. If homework is so frustrating that your kiddo is crying, first take a break and try to come back to it. If they still can’t handle it, stop, put a note to the teacher on the homework and let her know that your child didn’t understand something. Obviously, if this happens every night, there’s something else going on, but on occasion, there’s going to be a lesson that gets by your kid.

8. Let teachers know when they’re doing something right. Unfortunately, parents are quick to complain when something goes wrong, but don’t let the school know when things are going well. It doesn’t take much time to send a teacher a quick e-mail to let him know that your child is excited about a particular lesson, that they’re proud of mastering a new skill, or that they’ve said something particularly nice about a teacher. While you’re at it, let the principal know too. He’s probably fielding more calls from parents with a complaint, so he’d probably like to hear something nice too.

9. Stand up for your kid if you need to. When Matthew was in kindergarten, it took a little bit of work to get him speech therapy services that he needed for a lisp he no longer has (thanks to two years of speech in school!). One year, one of my children had a teacher he thought didn’t like him. I told him that couldn’t possibly be the case, but after I heard it from him a few more times, I asked for a meeting with the teacher, brought my son along, and told her that he thought she didn’t like him. She denied it, of course, and I’ll never know if she just didn’t like him (let’s face it — we all love our kids, but we sometimes meet people in this world who we just don’t care for). But once we addressed it, she was much nicer to him.

10. Enjoy the ride. There’s something very sweet about watching our kids grow from tiny kids who are the same size as their backpacks to “big kids” who are ready to brave middle school. Hang up their artwork. Put their spelling tests on the fridge. Celebrate report cards with their favorite dinner. And hold their hand while they’ll still let you.

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