All of these age groups seem to have entire websites dedicated to the challenges of parenting.
But what about the group that’s missing?
The school age children.
Ah, you might say that is the easy age. but there is really no such thing as an “easy” stage of parenting. It’s just a new set of challenges, and rearing school age children has its own set of challenges. In fact, if you face the trials and tribulations well now, you may actually reduce the ones to come in the teen years, and parents can always use a break when they can get one.
1. Read Aloud Every Day
One of the absolute best things you can do for your child and his success in school is to read out loud together every day (or almost every day). There are a few great things about this.
The first is that reading together at bedtime helps transition a busy day full of activities and screen time into a quiet, peaceful time. The second is that by having your child read aloud to you, you can gauge his abilities, build up reading stamina, and enjoy an activity together.
When you take a turn reading to your child, you can help them with their comprehension when you stop and recap together or ask him to remind you what you read the day before. Finally, reading aloud together gives you a chance to introduce your child to new books and you can use that material as a jumping off point for the more in depth discussions that start happening at this age which aren’t always comfortable for parents or kids.
2. Find Quiet Time Together
An added benefit of the reading together, especially at bedtime, is that you have a built-in quiet time together during the day with your child. The school years are busy years and we fall into routines where we talk to our kids and move from one place to another without every stopping to really have discussions about the things that are on our kids’ minds.
It’s not to say that you need to have a therapy time every afternoon or play Twenty Questions before bed, but taking a few minutes after reading stories to “check in” with your kid in the evening is an excellent way to be sure your child has a chance to talk and you take a turn to listen.
Other options for that quiet time may be a walk together in the evening or even driving from one event to another. If you’re taking your child home after a sporting or school event, for example, turn off the radio and take the longer route to get home. Sitting in the car is an excellent time to ask some questions and have a quality conversation with your child.
3. Model Reading and Writing
If you’re counting on the school to cover all the bases for your child in his reading and writing instruction, your child will be missing a critical part of instruction. Your child’s teacher is likely doing an excellent job teaching your child how to write and how to read.
Your job as a parent is twofold. First, you should be reinforcing what your child is doing at school. This lets your child show off his new abilities and gives you a chance to check his progress and assess his abilities. Second, your job as a parent is to show your child just how important that reading and writing stuff is.
How? By reading and writing yourself. Your child should see you reading. A lot. Your child should watch you write. This shows your child that reading and writing really is important – not just something he’s forced to do at school.
If you read for pleasure in front of your child, he’ll get the message loud and clear that reading is a good thing. Likewise you can show him the importance of writing as you send emails, write lists, write in a travel journal or update your summer diary together.
This is an excellent way to use those phones and tablets as well. There is no rule that writing has to be done with pen and paper, and reading doesn’t require paperbacks. Show your child how to read and write on his device, but keep an eye on him with software like OurPact parental control to be sure he’s following through on the expectations.
4. Explain Behaviors
Your child has many pathways to learning. He can listen. He can write. He can read. He can touch. He can taste. He can experience. How many of those pathways are you using when you’re trying to get your child to learn and do something?
For example, if you are asking your child to put his dishes in the dishwasher, you can tell him to do it, but that may not be enough. Your child has heard you. But then show him how to load the dishwasher properly. Explain to him where the water comes from and why the bowls and plates need to face a certain way. Explain why the knives are pointed down and let him see you put your dishes in before he puts his own away.
Granted he will probably need reminding well into his teens to take care of chores like loading the dishwasher, but if you think about explaining things and engaging as many learning pathways as possible with everything you consider important, your child will be much more likely to understand and follow your lead. Telling him once just isn’t enough for any lesson to really sink in, especially something he doesn’t understand.
5. Set Realistic Limits
Behavior. Punishments. This is the stickiest wicket of parenting because every child needs discipline and every child craves limits. Children generally want to please adults, and the best way to do this is by behaving appropriately. This means your child needs limits and rules, preferably before he crosses a line.
That being said, if you’re going to make a rule in your house, be sure it is a realistic one and one you can enforce. For example, telling a child that he can’t stay up past 8pm on a weeknight is fine. It’s fine, that is, unless that same child has baseball practice until 8pm three nights a week. How is he going to bed by 8 if he’s not even home? By giving your child a rule he can’t follow, you’ve set the both of you up for failure and frustrating. Think through the rules and limits ahead of time to prevent this. This also gives you a chance to prioritize and choose your battles.
6. Offer Praise, Limit Criticism
Nobody likes to be criticized. Sometimes it can’t be helped in the learning process, but as often as you can focus on the things you can praise as a way to correct behaviors rather than criticizing those things you don’t like.
What does this look like? It might be something as simple as praising your child when you see him holding a dirty shirt. Sure, he might have just taken it off and was about to drop it on the floor, but rather than shouting at him to “put that shirt in the hamper right now!” praise him instead for not dropping it on the floor. “I’m so glad you’re not going to drop that on the floor – thank you for putting in the hamper!”
7. Always Be Consistent
Just like the limits above, do your absolute best to be consistent at all times in all things. Does this sound daunting? Sure. But it’s actually easier than you might think. What wears us out as parents is making decisions all day long.
Mom! Can I have this? Can I do that? Can I stay up later?
Instead of making a decision about every little thing during the day, plan ahead and stick to the plan. Make bedtime the same time every night. Make the evening routines the same every night before bed. Put all electronics on the charger in the kitchen.
These are not rules, per say, simply routines and consistencies in place that make your life a bit easier and give your family some structure they can understand as they go through the day.
8. Explain Expectations Ahead of Time
This is a big trick that you’ll see elementary teachers use in the classroom. Assume that your children don’t know how to behave in a new situation. You’ll have to explain exactly what behaviors are appropriate and which are not.
This is far better than doing what we accidentally do all of the time and fuss at our kids for not behaving the way we want them to… when we’ve never told them what to expect!
Think about going on a family adventure to a carnival. What are the expectations you have for the carnival? Your child will need to stay with you. Or maybe hold your hand. Your child will need to wear comfortable shoes and carry his own bag – you’re not going to carry it for him. Your child will have a set number of tickets for fun and that’s all he has, so spend them wisely.
Now think of the expectations you’d have if you went to a museum or to the theater. It’s a whole new adventure with a brand new set of expectations. Children are not mind readers, obviously, and they aren’t always very good at picking up on subtle clues. Just because everyone else is whispering doesn’t mean they will unless you tell them calmly (preferably ahead of time) that whispering is what everyone does in an art museum.
9. Prepare Children for Transitions
Another great teaching trick you can use at home is preparing your child for a transition. Think about a day in elementary school. Your child goes from his desk to the rug for circle time to stations to the library to the gym to lunch and back again. At school this process seems to go so smoothly for an experienced teacher.
Yet when your child is at home and you tell him it’s time to go from one place to the other he throws a fit. Or refuses. Or begs and pleads. Or even runs the other direction. What those savvy elementary school teachers know that many parents do not is that you not only need to tell your child your expectations (how else would they know to walk in those nice quiet lines at school?) but also the teacher prepares the students for transition ahead of time.
Children do not change gears instantly. They are usually pretty intent on doing what they are doing, especially if it is fun. When you tell them it’s time to go right now, it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid and your child reacts dramatically.
Instead, give your child a head’s up along with some information about what’s coming next. This allows for processing time and eases the transition.
This might sound like a notice to your child that he “only has five more minutes to play and then we need to head to the grocery store before heading home”. You might even give him a visual cue like, “When the clock says 3:45 we’re going to head to the store. That gives you five more minutes to play here before we leave”.
10. Judge The Action, Not The Child
A practice we should all have is to never judge your child. Judge his actions. Telling your child he’s “a bad kid” or that he’s “a terrible reader” is going to destroy his confidence and give him some negative voices in his mind to overcome as he tries to grow up and be successful.
Even if you are beyond frustrated with your child, don’t tell him he’s “bad.” Tell him instead that you are extremely disappointed in his “bad behavior.” You can fuss at him about the choices he is making because he can always make better choices. Fussing at him because he’s “an idiot” or “a rotten kid” isn’t going to help anything. It’s going to make your problems much worse down the road.
11. Focus on Sleep Patterns
If you could only fix one thing in your child’s life, fix his sleeping behaviors. Children in elementary school need up to twelve hours of sleep every night. At an absolute minimum your school age child should be getting nine or ten hours of sleep every night.
This means putting your child to bed early enough that he can get all of the sleep he needs before it’s time to get up and prepare for school in the morning. This may mean cutting some of his evening activities or starting homework earlier in the day.
It’s important to realize that your child needs about ten hours of sleep every night. That doesn’t mean he should be in bed for ten hours. He should be asleep for that long. That will probably mean starting showers even earlier and doing any reading earlier in the evening. Electronics should leave the bedroom early enough that your child can wind down and sleep. Screens actually make it harder to fall into a good sleep, so watching television or staring a phone can make sleeping harder, not easier. Getting enough sleep every night can fix a host of issues for your child. A lack of sleep has been linked to poor grades, poor attention spans, behavior issues and even poor eating habits.
If you make a good night’s sleep a priority every night, you can set up all other routines and expectations that connect to bedtime easily as well.
12. Plan for Future Concerns
Think about what can do the most damage to your child when he’s a teen. Drugs, alcohol, poor driving, sleep deprivation, surly attitudes and more all haunt parents of younger children because we just don’t know what to expect, and there is no magical way to see into the future, but you can plan now for what you expect to happen in the future.
For example, if your child takes his phone or tablet to bed every night to play a bit before going to sleep it may not be a big issue now. But it can be a huge issue very soon. Phones are one of the things that keep teens up during the night and interrupt that important sleep cycle. Even if it seems harsh now, consider a ban on phones from bedrooms after a certain time.
Turn off all televisions and electronics at a set time of day. Set a curfew before your child needs one. Make reading a part of the daily routine. Start a routine now for chores and household duties. Elementary school children are a bit more malleable and certainly tend to be better natured about things than teenagers who are looking to be independent.
Choose your battles now and fight them with an eight year old at the present time. Then, once the battle is won, you can simply continue the expectation for the next ten years under the guise of routine and “that’s how it’s always been around here!”