The 2017-18 school year was a season of lasts, for me, punctuated by a progression of final events – the last first day of school; last prom; last musical; last choir concert; last awards ceremony; last, last day of school; and on the last day of May, the last high school graduation. In all honesty, the backside of some activities was welcomed – homework, testing, group projects, fundraisers, and summer assignments come to mind. But after 24 years of getting somebody ready for school every day, there is much to be missed – rousting a couple of dark-haired fellows out of bed each morning; walking to and from school; snow days; decorating holiday cookies; school pictures; reading together; grade reports; open house; making costumes; producing shows; recitals, concerts, and theatrical productions; car-ride conversations; and kissing their cheek at bedtime each night.
Once again, back-to-school reminders have been posted everywhere. It’s hard to believe they no longer apply to me. No more supply lists. No more lunch bags. No more teacher gifts. No excuse for buying a fresh box of crayons. Glancing out the window the other morning, I caught sight of a group of neighborhood children and parents gathering on the corner. Suddenly, it occurred to me, they are heading off for their first day back to school. For the first time in 24 years, I did not have anyone to wake up, pack a lunch for, or ask if they had everything they needed. Pausing to reflect on my tenure as a parent with school-aged kids, I’m so glad to have made the choices I did.
Read Together. I sat down and read with the boys at some point during the day, every day, when they were little and regularly even after they learned to read, right up through high school. Reading together promoted discussions about interesting, sometimes difficult topics. These conversations made it clear to them that we could talk about anything. They could ask me about anything. Exposure to literature stimulated their imagination, expanded their perspective, encouraged their empathy, introduced them to characters they could admire and emulate. The careful, intentional selection of books for children and young people is especially crucial because, as Kathleen Kelly tells us in “You’ve Got Mail,” “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
Considered Teachers Allies. Assisting a child in realizing their potential is an impossible undertaking for parents alone. Teachers are essential partners in the process. Every year, I introduced myself to the boys’ teachers and communicated with them regularly – to offer assistance in the classroom, to address a concern, or to express my appreciation for their hard work. While they started as teachers, many of them became friends.
Volunteered. Whether in the classroom or for school-wide events, volunteering gave me a chance to get to know the boys’ classmates and their parents. Being involved established a natural connection between home and school. Conscientiously avoiding behavior that might embarrass them made my presence at school more palatable. I wanted my participation to be welcomed, not dreaded – a source of pride, not mortification. There have been countless mutual benefits of volunteering.
Established a Backpack Ritual. From the first day of preschool, we made going through their backpacks a part of the daily routine. This made getting forms signed and returned, staying abreast of their progress, and keeping track of upcoming events easier. Establishing this ritual from the beginning made it clear that it was merely a way of checking in not checking up on them. It wasn’t an issue of lacking trust, because I trusted them completely not to have anything in their backpacks they shouldn’t, and they could certainly trust me to take appropriate action if they did.
Helped with Homework. Our dining room table served as homework central. While they did homework, I engaged in activities that kept me accessible. Whether it was acting as a resource, quality inspector, editor, or source of calming support, I was available. Accepting responsibility for their homework did not mean they had to complete it in isolation or devoid of assistance.
Invited Curiosity. Children are born scientists. Their desire to know why, how, and what is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives. Giving the boys names for the things they observed was a starting point for further exploration. General information progressed to more specific, complex explanations. Over time they developed an appreciation for both the tremendous diversity and commonality that characterizes our world. Learning about the world enhanced their ability to understand themselves and their place in it.
Cultivated Creativity. Children are born artists. Their desire to create is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives. Providing access to the tools artists use combined with exposing them to the work of masters in visual art, literature, theatre, dance, and music allowed the boys to discover their own talent. Taking classes and lessons in those areas where they exhibited the most interest and demonstrated the greatest aptitude led to some extraordinary experiences for all of us. Through the arts they discovered that life is both distinctly individual and utterly universal.
Implemented Organization. Creativity does not preclude organization. Neither does gender. As far as I know an organizational chromosome has not been isolated. Self discipline and personal organization are beneficial life skills for anyone regardless of age, gender, or circumstances. Establishing organization was a tremendous time and energy saver. Since the boys knew where things belonged and learned at an early age to put things away when they were no longer using them, time was rarely wasted searching for things and cleaning their rooms was quick and easy. When they were little, making lists provided practice spelling and writing. As they grew older, lists gave them a sense of control over what otherwise seemed like an elusive tangle of tasks swirling around in their heads. They relished the feeling of accomplishment that came with checking off items as they were completed.
Promoted Interests. When the boys demonstrated a genuine interest in a subject or activity we provided supporting books, materials, and experiences. While some interests were short lived, others grew into passions and eventually career paths. They have discovered that when you do what you love and love what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem like work. And actually, if you find something to love about whatever you are doing, it seems less like work.
Encouraged Fitness. Adopting a lifestyle that included a balanced diet, daily physical activity, good personal hygiene, and adequate rest, made it possible for all of us to keep up with the boys’ hectic schedules. Establishing these patterns early on made healthy choices routine.
Nurtured Relationships. Our older son was born during our last year of graduate school. When we finished, we sought employment close to extended family. We arranged our work schedules so that he was always with one of us or a trusted family member. The same was true for our younger son. Knowing they were with someone who loved them allowed complete peace of mind when we were unable to be with them. We diligently populated their world with people who had a genuine interest in their well being, whether family friends or relatives. Including people of varying ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds made diversity the norm and established an early appreciation for how much we are all alike in spite of our differences. We figured the more people who loved them, who they could love in return, the better.
Stayed Connected. When the boys started school, I would include a note in their lunch each day. Before they could read, I used pictures to send simple messages. Over the years, the notes were designed to be commensurate with their reading and comprehension level. When they were beginning to appreciate humor, I would find age-appropriate jokes to include. This simple practice served to remind them that even when we weren’t together, I was thinking about them. Being the recipient of their regular emails, texts, and phone calls makes all those early-morning efforts worthwhile.
Parenting is neither consistently simple, nor easy. From the moment of discovering we are about to become parents, our mandate is to nurture and cherish, shelter and protect, teach and guide, encourage and support in a lifelong succession of letting go. Parenting is one of the few jobs where the better you are at it, the less necessary you become. What I am discovering, to my delight, is that becoming unnecessary does not mean becoming unwanted.