Back to School: Whose Job is It?

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by Dr. Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.

Back to School
The back to school honeymoon is beginning. Many children (and teachers) are making vows that this will be their best school year ever. How long will the back to school honeymoon last? That could depend on how you and your children prepare.


How can parents help children prepare for a more successful school year that will last after the excitement of shopping for new clothes and school materials?

Plan and shop WITH your children, not for your children. Before you go shopping with your children, ASK (don’t tell) them what they need. This engages them in thinking and planning skills. Of course you can set the budget and invite your children to do some research to discover if their list of “needs” fits within the budget. Increase their interest by engaging them in a discussion about the products they want to buy. 

Help children create their goals for the school year. Please note that helping does not mean doing it for them. Set aside some time (that you and your child both agree to) where you can sit down with paper and pencil to make a list of goals. You job will be to ask questions that invite your child to think about what he or she wants to accomplish.

Be supportive without taking over. This is the touchy part. Many children are rebelling because they believe their grades are more important to their parents than they are. Some children will turn this into a power struggle, “You can’t make me.” Others will get revenge, even if they hurt themselves while trying to hurt you back, by doing poorly or even failing. Avoid the power struggles and revenge cycles by showing unconditional love and continuing to engage your children in discussions where you invite them (through curiosity questions) to think about what they want and what they need to do to accomplish what they want.

When he was 16-years-old, my son hated school. I engaged in classic power struggles every morning trying to get him out of bed and off to school on time. Then I remembered Curiosity Questions:

Me: Why don’t you want to go to school?

Son: It is stupid?

Me: I can see why you would think that. And, I no longer want to have power struggles with you about going. You are now old enough to drop out if you want to get a job and pay rent here until you are 18. Before you decide, I have a few questions?

Son: (Glare.)

Me. Have you thought about what will happen if you don’t get a high school education?

Son: Lot’s of people, even millionaires, have dropped out of school.

Me: I know that is true. Do you know anyone who has dropped out of school and how they are doing?

Son: No. (He didn’t want to talk about the friend who was in jail or the one working in a fast food restaurant.)

Me: What kind of job will you be able to get if you don’t have a high school diploma? 

Son: I could be a contractor.

Me: Yes, and that is an honorable occupation, and I’m sure you could do that. What have you thought about doing that you wouldn’t be able to do without a diploma?

Son, reluctantly: I couldn’t be an engineer or a pilot. (This is where I could see his thinking wheels turning before he blurted out this conclusion:)

Okay, I’ll go, but I’m not going to like it.

Me. That is brilliant thinking. Many successful people know they have to do what they don’t like now so they can do what they want in the future.

Allow children to learn from their mistakes. Once you have been supportive by engaging your children in planning and goal setting, have faith in them to carry out their plans and learn from their mistakes. What does this mean? No nagging. Their homework is not your job; it is theirs. If they don’t do it, allow them to experience the consequences of a poor grade. Show empathy, not disappointment. Let them know that you have faith in them to figure out what they need to do to accomplish their goals.

Limit your involvement. Allowing children to do their job does not mean your job is over. You job is to continue to be supportive without taking over. You can set times that you will be available for homework support, and make it clear that you will not be available for last minute rushes. You can continue to be supportive through empathy (validating feelings) when mistakes are made, and brainstorming sessions to help your children find new solutions that work for them.

Your toughest job as a parent is to accept that school is your children’s job, not yours. The more you involve them, so they see school as their job, the longer their enthusiasm for school may last.