How to Have a Meaningful Parent-Teacher Conference

I’ve been on both sides of the desk for conferences. Some have been more successful than others, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the preparation beforehand that makes the difference. I’d like to offer a few tips on how you, as a parent, can get the most helpful information from your child’s teachers on parent-teacher conference day.

  1. Don’t bring your child with you (unless the teacher requests it): There are times it’s helpful to have a parent/teacher/student meeting, such as when strategizing study skills, organization, or other things where direct communication will facilitate a solution. However, unless you are meeting with that purpose, it doesn’t allow for as much information to be shared between parent and teacher. The dynamic is totally different because when there’s a student in the room, the teacher tends to talk to the student. There may be things I want to say to the parent that I wouldn’t say in front of their child.

 

  1. Ask the teacher how your child is doing socially: A big advantage of attending a school as opposed to home schooling or cyber-school is the social skills that students begin to master only by being forced to interact daily with their peers. For some children, the main stress of school has nothing to do with academics. By middle school, kids aren’t telling you much about their social lives, but their teachers may be able to give you some insight.

 

  1. Come with an open mind: As a parent, I have to remind myself of this often, but my children’s grades and behavior are not a reflection of who I am as a person. They have free will and will make mistakes and decisions that I don’t approve of. It doesn’t make me a bad parent. As a teacher, I remember this too. My goal in working with parents is to be a problem-solver, not a judge. If you are not willing to be open-minded about your child’s challenges, you may walk away from the conference feeling defeated instead of empowered.

 

  1. Bring specific questions or concerns: The toughest opening for a teacher is, “So how’s my kid doing in your class?” Since we only have a few minutes to talk, I’d like to know right away which areas are of concern to you.

 

  1. Share personal information when you can: There are times parents have called to report that a grandparent or a beloved pet recently passed away, there has been a change in home environment for a child, or they are overcoming a serious illness. All of this information helps teachers because students often look or act different in the classroom without explaining what’s bothering them. It’s especially important to tell teachers if your child has been evaluated for learning disabilities or health issues. As a teacher, I have worked as a partner with parents in monitoring kids with food allergies, asthma, and changes in ADHD medication. We are the eyes and ears when you can’t be and can often provide information that will aid you and your child’s health care provider.

 

  1. If your child’s teacher doesn’t provide some positive feedback, please ask for it: The last thing you want is to walk away from a conference feeling sad or hopeless about your child’s school experience. Even kids with the toughest behavioral or academic challenges have redeeming characteristics and good days that we as teachers can point out. If your child is unhappy in school, you may be the emotional dump at home who hears about all the things that went wrong during the day. You didn’t get to witness your children having fun with their friends at lunch or delivering a great presentation to their peers or answering a question that stumped everyone else in the class. We need to focus and build on these little victories together.

 

  1. Tell your teacher what works well at home and what you need help with: You may feel like you’re on your own once your child gets home, but teachers often have tips that may help studying and getting organized at home go more smoothly too. If getting out the door in the morning is an issue, or getting homework done before ten p.m., please ask. Many of your children’s teachers were or are currently raising children. I feel fortunate to have that “insider’s perspective” on how best to work with my children academically and I’m more than happy to share my thoughts because happy, well-prepared students make my workdays pleasant.

 

  1. Take notes: Especially if you are meeting with more than one teacher, you will be hit with a lot of information, too much to process all at once. Taking notes gives you an opportunity to look back on what you learned, possible areas to follow up with the teacher on later, and a chance to see patterns (maybe your child always forgets homework that’s due on Monday, or something else that you may be able to adjust).

 

  1. Tell us what your child loves to do at home: Parents have told me about non-academic skills their children have, unusual hobbies, or passions that lie outside the classroom. When I know these things, I can work to connect them to what I teach, making school more interesting for students and helping them feel like they are essential people in the classroom.

 

  1. Ask your child if he or she thinks there is something you should ask or address: Teachers encourage their students to be advocates for themselves, but there are times kids feel intimidated to talk to a teacher about something. A parent can be the intermediary, at least to get the conversation started.

 

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel Giving Myself Away, available now.

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Photo credit: stock photo by patrisyu http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

10 Things I Learned About Teaching From My Kids’ Coaches

As a teacher and a parent, I’m always looking for role models on how to do my job better, and some of the best examples I’ve seen have been my kids’ coaches. My children have had the privilege of trying many activities ranging from kung fu to horseback riding, and I love to watch the grace of a skilled coach bringing out their best effort. Here are some tips any teacher can take away from best coaching practices.

  1. They emphasize that team effort is what really counts. Good coaches know they need the whole team to win games and keep morale high, rather than relying on a star player. In the classroom, there are always going to be a few students who excel and know all the answers, but you quickly see the class become passive and disinterested if you only pay attention to those top students. It’s important to make sure all students know they are expected to be contributors to the class’s success.
  2.  They praise more than they criticize. I’ve noticed that my kids’ coaches hand out far more compliments than reprimands, and it’s not just a general “great job,” but more like, “Your form was excellent in that kick” or “I love the way you remember all the parts of the bridle.” When kids feel confident, they are more ready to accept redirection. It may be easier to hand out grades with little feedback or to point out only what needs to be fixed, but after watching coaches, I’ve realized that my students thrive on pep talks, both individually and as a whole class.
  3.  They find a gift or skill in every child. Great coaches set the bar high with ever-increasing expectations, and the kids meet them. They do this by looking at each child as an individual and rewarding that child’s skill set. We don’t have offense and defense in the classroom, but there are still many ways to utilize kids’ particular talents. I can be forgetful, but I know I always have a student who will remember what I was talking about if I get interrupted. I have students who keep me on the ball with class planning by asking what’s due two weeks from now. I have students who love to organize my bookshelves and ones who enjoy collecting forms. Some lead discussions and some motivate a group during teamwork. Everyone brings something to the table.
  4.  They employ other kids to help coach. Sometimes kids make the best teachers because they are more relatable and use kid-friendly language to explain a concept. I’ve noticed that kids are awesome at sharing tips on how to review for tests and how to keep organized. Some students are visual, some are auditory, and some are kinesthetic learners. It’s like giving kids a whole toolbox of skills to choose from.
  5.  They recognize that good sportsmanship is more important than winning the game. Great coaches emphasize the fact that effort counts more than achievement. In the classroom, we are encouraged to promote a growth mindset. For example, instead of saying, “You got all of the answers correct on that test,” you might say, “You did a great job of showing all your work for these word problems.” Kids who label themselves as poor students (or who have been labeled by others as such) tend to look at a grade as an indicator of who they are as a person. Likewise, strong students are sometimes afraid to try new things because it might show them as a failure.
  6.  They explain and repeat. Coaches do not say things once and assume they will be remembered. In fact, you will hear them give the same directions week after week. At any given time, some kids are not listening because they got distracted, some had a bad day and can’t take in much more, and some didn’t have enough sleep or nutritious food and they’re not at their best. By repeating key information, it gives more chances for those kids to remember what they need for success on an assignment.
  7.  They warm up and cool down. Coaches never start practice with a new skill. First they follow a warm-up routine and they practice skills that are already familiar before adding new ones. In teaching, we call that scaffolding, where we are adding more onto an already solid base. It takes kids a little bit of transition time to ease into practice or class, and after working at a new skill, they need a little time to decompress at the end as well. A mini-game or other reward after some new skills reinforces the fact that it’s fun to try hard and learn new things.
  8.  They know when to back off. I’ve seen coaches let a tired or frustrated kid sit on the sidelines for a few minutes or take a walk around the field to get re-centered. Sometimes a student isn’t going to get the most out of class no matter what. I’ve learned by watching coaches to say, “Okay, you’re having a bad day; you can sit this one out, but I’m expecting your best again tomorrow.”
  9. They are genuinely happy to see each child. Most years, I have more than a hundred students, and it’s easy to lapse into viewing each class as one amorphous group. But great coaches notice who skipped practice or who’s not bringing their all and they comment on it. They tell those kids they were missed and offer some encouragement to get back into the game. Sometimes you might be the one person in a child’s whole day who notices they need some extra attention.
  10. They use routine to make everyone comfortable. Coaches use predictability to build good habits and ease anxiety about what happens next. We all thrive on routines, but it’s even more important for kids, who have less control over their day than we do as adults. Routine helps us build good habits.

 

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel Giving Myself Away, available now.

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Photo credit: “Soccer Ball” by Satit Srihin http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

Why clinging to the past (or the future) makes you suffer

Being a parent forces you to constantly be aware of the passage of time. Your life runs to the rhythm of school years and holidays and sports seasons and annual checkups. Parents feel it, and kids feel it too. I don’t know how many times my kids have said they can’t wait for this day or that trip or alternately, that they don’t want summer to be over or to grow up too fast.

If you haven’t seen this video about the girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up because he’s just sooo cute, it hits you in two layers. The first is how adorable she is (and she’s right about her baby brother). But there’s also a deeper undercurrent of the pain we share with her of wanting to stop time.

I recently read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle explains the difference between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is what you use to function day to day, to get places on time and do what you need to do. Psychological time is the attachment you feel to the past or the future, anything that is pulling you away from the moment you are in right now. Psychological time can bring suffering because you are either comparing now to the past and finding it lacking, or you feel that you need something in the future to make you happier.

The girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up was experiencing the pain of living on psychological time. I see it in my own life as well. I am flooded with old emails that I don’t want to get rid of in case there’s an important memory I’ll lose. I sometimes feel sad when I look at family pictures, even though they are from happy events, because I long to relive them or to be younger (or especially to see my kids be younger again).

When we hold on to the past like this, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to fully experience the present. By lamenting about how short the summer seems or how quickly a vacation passes, you are robbing the event of its enjoyment by anticipating its end. If you are a planner like I am, you might spend a lot of your present time with your thoughts on the future. People say I’m “organized,” or but it’s really a form of anxiety about things that haven’t happened yet.

Since reading Tolle’s book and watching Sadie cry over her baby brother, I am trying to keep re-centering myself in the present moment, to stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. I hope that my kids see a difference in my attentiveness toward them and that they too practice living in the now.

As Oogway says to Po in Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel, Giving Myself Away.

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I hope my kids will always be able to look up to me

“Mommy, I don’t want to grow taller than you. I always want to be able to look up to you,” my tween son told me last night. I’m sure he meant that literally, but I couldn’t help but take the message as a figurative one. Can I be a mom who will always be worth looking up to?

I give a lot of thought to what I can pass on to my children because I realize that I have limited time left in which their parents will be the central figures of their lives. Soon their friends will matter more, followed by girlfriends and wives. I can only hope that the seeds of what I’ve tried to plant in their hearts will take root and bloom.

These are the ways I hope to be a mother worth looking up to:

  1. Faith: My faith brings me comfort in this modern “I need proof” and “I need answers now” world. No matter what your belief system, just the thought that there’s something out there larger than ourselves that there’s a plan for us (though we may not understand it yet), eases the pressure to feel like I need to know it all. This leads me to

 

  1. Humility: Our privacy has been replaced by the overwhelming popularity contest of social media. For many of us, our jobs depend on what others think of us and how many people know and care that we exist. To be humble today takes an extra measure of self-control. Of course I hope you read this and enjoy it and comment on it and share it, but whether you do or not, does that have bearing on my worth as an individual? I need to say what I believe and live my live according to my principles, which leads me to

 

  1. Openness: I never want to offend anyone and I can see multiple points of view on just about any issue. I tend to be a private person as well, but two years ago, I adopted a “theme” for myself of Put Yourself Out There. This simple statement brought about so many wonderful changes in my personal and professional life that I became determined to stop hiding. Kids (especially firstborns) try hard to please adults, a habit I never fully outgrew, but now I accept that not everyone will like what I say, and that’s okay. My desire to respectfully be who I am leads me to

 

  1. Kindness: The comedian Louis CK in one of his hilarious skits pointed out the fact that even the most mild-mannered people can turn aggressive in their cars. I have been known to utter “What are you, an idiot?” (and much worse) while driving. I’ve had uncharitable thoughts about other people that I wouldn’t say out loud, but my goal is to not even think them. It is so easy to get caught up in our own egos that we forget the struggles and fears and tragedies that have molded the people around us. And going back to the principles of faith and humility, who am I to judge? My desire to believe in the innate goodness of people leads to

 

  1. Optimism: There are two ways you can go through life: believing that humankind is selfish and inherently evil, or that people (for the most part) do their best with the resources they have to be cooperative and generous. The filter you choose is the one through which you will measure everything that happens to you, both good and bad. The good things will seem less good because you’ll attribute them to chance, while the bad things will seem predestined, part of life’s agenda of screwing you over. Like everyone else who exists, I’ve had some really good parts of my life and some really bad ones too. It’s a decision I make every day, but I choose to believe the universe is fundamentally good.

There are so many things I could wish for my children: that they find good partners, do well in school, have fulfilling and well-paid careers, and become good parents themselves. But instead of wishing they become certain things that may or may not happen, I will try to nurture who they are right at this moment. I hope that regardless of height, they see my path as one worth taking.

 

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When did you bond with your baby?

My brother and sister-in-law recently welcomed their first baby into the world. I am so excited for them and can’t wait to hold my niece and see the people I love in their new role as parents. Part of me envies the wonder and joy of becoming a first-time parent, while the other part thinks whew, glad I don’t have to go through that again!

Naturally, a birth in the family causes people to reminisce about their own baby stories. I have two sons, but because of circumstances surrounding their births, the bonding process felt instant and natural with my first child, but came much later with the second.

I had a healthy first pregnancy and delivery, and when my older son was born, he spent the entire hospital visit in the room with us. I don’t think he spent a minute in the nursery. He took to breastfeeding immediately and seemed very content from the get-go. I wasn’t nervous during my pregnancy because I felt no reason to be. Other than the typical fatigue and weepiness a new mom faces, becoming a parent was a natural transition.

Halfway through my second pregnancy, I found out I had a rare condition that could cause me to suddenly hemorrhage and bleed to death. Needless to say, this put a damper on the normal joy of pregnancy. I was fortunate to have skilled medical care and a safe delivery, but nevertheless, my second son was born premature at 35 weeks. He didn’t yet have a sucking reflex and his blood sugar dropped easily, so he spent his first two weeks with a feeding tube in the NICU. We could only see him by showing identification and passing through locked doors, then scrubbing up as though preparing for a medical procedure. I couldn’t nurse him. And when I was discharged from the hospital, I had to go home, an hour away from where he was. I didn’t even see him until the day after he was born.

He did not have formula because I was able to pump milk for him, but even when he came home from the hospital, he was only taking milk from a bottle. It left me in the frustrating position of having to get up in the middle of the night to use a breast pump and then feed him with a bottle. I was agitated, he was agitated, and it took us a while to get in sync. To me, breastfeeding was one of the easiest ways to feel bonded to my babies, so I was relieved when, a month later, he finally got the hang of it.

I think the major bonding experience for me and my younger son did not come until last year, when he was seven years old and spent three days in the hospital for a severe asthma attack. He endured needle sticks day and night, all kinds of pulmonary testing and chest x-rays, and an entire night in the ER. It was just the two of us (and many medical personnel) for three days together in the ambulance, the ER, and a hospital room. I gained so much pride and appreciation to see how my son handled himself under duress. I will never know how he felt in the hospital as a newborn because obviously he couldn’t tell me then and he doesn’t remember it now. His more recent hospital stay felt like our better-late-than-never bonding experience because I was fully focused on nothing but him and we spent the days and nights together that we should have shared when he was first born.

In my first novel, Giving Myself Away, my main character, Adrienne, who is already a mom, faces the heartbreaking decision of whether to give up her third baby for adoption. I incorporated some of my birth story into hers, but it was fascinating for me to explore this dilemma in writing because it’s an experience I could never imagine going through myself.

At a writers’ conference this past spring, I met a woman who found herself exactly in this situation and her story was amazing. If you are willing to share, what was the moment you felt bonded to your baby? I’d love to hear it (and it might inspire a story for a future novel!).

 

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Photo: A moment of bonding with my little guy while he was in the NICU.

When did you stop picking up your kids?

 

I am usually a forward-thinking parent. I celebrate all the milestones and enjoy them – my kids taking showers instead of baths, cutting their own fingernails, making their own lunches and beds.

But sometimes the whoosh of passing time strikes me so hard that I can’t help but get sentimental about how fast it’s all going. On vacation recently, my son told me he felt sad because he missed his friends. That was the first time he had ever mentioned such a thing and it made me realize he’s making the transition to a point where his friends equal, if not surpass, his parents in his sphere of influence.

In this tenderhearted blog by fellow mom Kara Uhl, she wrote about her husband’s lament that there comes a time when you no longer pick up your children. That point passed for me long ago; I’d hurt my back if I even tried to pick up my sons. But sometimes I still grab one or the other of my boys, get as much of them onto my lap as will fit (pretty much just head and shoulders at this point), and talk baby talk to them. They still tolerate my fits of maudlin mushiness and probably secretly enjoy them.

Now and then I tease them and tell them they’re not allowed to grow up or get taller, but I know it’s their job to grow up and my job to let them grow up. I am proud of every new accomplishment and often find myself pushing them to try more than they thought themselves capable of doing on their own.

I am simultaneously drawn to cuddling my boys and pushing them away, knowing that soon the boundaries of our physical and emotional relationship will change. Other mammals go through the same weaning process that we do, and sometimes the young will live with their mothers for years before striking off on their own. In many animal groups, the female young stay with their mothers their whole lives, while the boys are cast out to find a new family group.

Even if I can’t pick up my children in my arms, they still need me to pick them up in other ways. There are days and nights of tears and anger and slights and things to be fearful of. Little problems turn into bigger problems as kids get older. There’s a comfort in knowing that no matter how grown up my kids are, they’ll always need me.

The best part of all is knowing that now they pick me up too.

 

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel Giving Myself Away, available now.

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Photo credit: “Mother Giving Hand To A Child” by David Castillo Domini / http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Do you give your ex a Father’s Day gift?

 

The first few years after our divorce, I attempted to ignore Father’s Day as I dropped off the kids to spend the day with their dad. But as time has healed the pain of our failed marriage, I found myself wanting to acknowledge his continuing role in my life: the co-parent of our children.

I’ve decided to let go of things that disappoint me and celebra te what he means to the kids. They adore him and I believe that showing my appreciation boosts his confidence and shows our kids that they don’t have to fear they are “taking sides” by wholeheartedly and unreservedly loving their dad.

I am grateful that we are the kind of divorced parents who can peaceably go to parent-teacher night together, who can sit side by side at sports events, and who can talk without getting into the blame game.

Last year, I went through old pictures and made my ex a little photo album of our kids. He had very few baby photos because I seem to be the keeper of family history, so I knew it would be something he’d like. I felt I had reached a new place of acceptance that I could look at those photos without feeling angry, sad, wistful, or any other negative emotion. Instead, they reminded me that we had two beautiful babies who will always tie us together. We aren’t married anymore, but we will always be linked through our children, and maybe someday our grandchildren.

Now I can wish him Happy Father’s Day and mean it, and I can look for ways to let him know all year that I value his role in our children’s lives.

If you like reading about families, parenting, divorce and tough decisions, please check out my novel Giving Myself Away, available now.

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Tips for family game night

family game night

“Mom, can we play Monopoly?”

This is one of the most dreaded questions ever, because I know that “playing” Monopoly is likely to end with money and property cards on the floor, accusations of cheating, and at least one child in tears. However, family game nights are getting better with a little pre-planning, some growing maturity on the part of the kids, and reduced expectations from me.

I’m determined to make this work because my kids are at the golden age where they can read and write, they have an attention span of at least a half hour, and they don’t have much social life to get in the way of our evenings together.

Here are a few of my suggestions for making family game night go more smoothly.  I’d love to hear yours as well!

1. Make a list of games that all of the family members can play (appropriate age level, length of game play, interest level).  Some of our favorites are Sorry, Uno, and Clue.  Sometimes we enjoy easier games that don’t require a lot of strategy, while other times we like more cerebral games (Pandemic is a new favorite and you have to work together to win this game rather than compete against each other).

2. Take turns getting to choose the game of the night.  Because you’re choosing from the “approved games” list, no one is allowed to whine “I don’t feel like playing that one today!” (myself included).

3. Set a time limit for how long your gameplay will last, even if the game hasn’t ended yet.  If everyone agrees at the stop time that they want to continue, go for it, but if anyone wants to quit then, game night is over.  No one is allowed to quit early either.

4. Make sure you hold family game night on an evening where no one is exhausted or overwhelmed with homework or household chores. Sunday evenings work best for us.

5. Build excitement for game night by planning ahead with a special meal or other pre-game ritual to get the kids enthused.

 

How do you deal with sibling rivalry?

sibling rivalry

This picture is captioned “I used to be the little one.”  If you have more than one child or you have siblings, I’m guessing you can relate to at least one of the girls in this picture.  I’ve noticed my older son sometimes gets jealous when I give attention to other adults, while my younger son only gets jealous of my attention toward other kids (especially his big brother!).  Sometimes he’ll actually push his brother out of the way and say, “She’s my mom, not yours.”

I was one of four children, and what that meant is that you had to do something REALLY good or REALLY bad to get any parental attention focused solely on you.  Sometimes that was a blessing.  I liked not having to be the only one to take the heat when household objects disappeared or got broken.  Even though my brothers annoyed me, spied on me, and took things from my room, I liked the feeling of being in a “pack.”  Anywhere we went, there was always a pile of us.  I rarely spent time alone.  An important part of my identity is being a sister.

On the other hand, it may have been good to learn early on that I wasn’t the center of the world, but sometimes I wanted to be, and that wasn’t going to happen with three younger siblings.  I rarely knew what it was like for the house to be quiet.  Sometimes we all got in trouble when my parents didn’t feel like parsing out who did what to whom.  At the time, it seemed so unfair, but I find myself doing the same thing when my kids argue now.

I try to spend some time with both of my kids separately.  I try not to compare them to each other.  They may look alike, but they have very different personalities.  I even motivate and discipline them differently, based on what works for them.  What do you do to handle sibling rivalry in your household?

[photo source: http://failblog.cheezburger.com/parenting]

If you’re interested in reading more about family, please check out my novel, Giving Myself Away.

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Should you do your kids’ homework with them?

Adriennes blog 22 homework You’ve probably heard the phrase “helicopter parenting” — you know, those moms and dads who hover over their kids and micromanage every move they make, whether it be in academics, sports and activities, or socializing.  Nobody wants to be called a helicopter parent, even if it’s what we do.

 

I can understand why we hover.  We’re told over and over as parents that we “need to be involved” in our children’s education.  What does that mean, exactly?  I think a lot of helicopter parenting comes from the insecurity that parents feel when they hear that vague directive.

 

Sometimes we allow our children’s performance to define who we are or how successful we perceive ourselves to be. We forget that our children are not extensions of ourselves, but independent beings who must grow and learn, just as we did.  We want to protect our kids from failure both because we know it hurts and because we’re afraid of looking like bad parents.

 

We can’t always cushion our children from failure, nor should we try.  I work as a teacher, and I’ve done my best to remove the temptation for parents to get involved in the wrong ways.  I don’t accept papers as “on time” if parents brought a copy to the school office when their children left it on the table at home.  I speak to the child first about late homework or poor performance. We do a lot of writing and projects at school, where I can watch and supervise, but can’t micromanage or “do it for them” as I could at home with my own children.

 

What are the ways we should get involved?  There’s a difference between needing help on a specific assignment and sitting down every evening with your children to monitor all of their homework.  That just allows kids to become complacent and hurts their chances of becoming self-motivated and independent learners.  I’ve taught kids who are accustomed to having a mom or dad literally sitting with them for every minute of homework and then feeling lost when they are asked to do something independently in school.

In my mind, we should strive to be good role models rather than directly supervising every move our kids make.  One thing I admired about my parents is that they pursued their own passions and talents.  They had four children and spent a lot of time teaching us their values, but they did not live through us.  They did not focus on our successes (or our failures).  Instead they showed us that adults are still learning and changing.  Parents aren’t static people whose identity comes solely through their children.  It took a lot of pressure off of me to know that, and it’s made my life as an adult and a parent more fulfilling.

 

I tell my children what my goals are and how I’m achieving them or falling short.  I tell them what my dreams are and I ask them about theirs. This to me is what it means to be an involved parent.  What do you to be involved in your children’s lives?

 

[photo credit: dreamstime.com]