I walked into the huge doors of the high school, overwhelmed by emotion. It was all mixed up – joy, excitement, fear, pride, worry, disbelief.
My daughter was oblivious to it all. As she walked beside me she had her own feelings, but she hid hers beneath a cool smile, chatting with her best friends.
We were walking in to her high school orientation. This was her first glimpse at the next four years of her life. It was my first glimpse of how fast time had truly gone.
There are big transitions we face with our kids when they’re little. First steps, potty training, first day of kindergarten. So many milestones in such a short time. As they get older the milestones are harder to see.
There’s driving and first dates and graduation. All of them monumental in their own right. If we rush or blink too much we might miss some of the other things: middle school, first dance, first A, first F. They’re all part of a lifetime of steps on the way to adulthood.
My oldest starts high school in the fall. And this feels like a big deal. Even in middle school I was able to reason through how she’s still a kid and life might be going fast but we’re in the middle.
High school feels so much bigger, older, more like a getting ready for a goodbye. This shift feels complex for both of us. We are doing our best to feel ready. But not by looking at grades and course selection.
Here are 10 things that will help you both prepare for the high school years, no matter where you are at the moment.
Start Getting Ready Now
If you have a toddler you don’t need to start buying her a high school backpack or prom dress, but you do need to start thinking about the trajectory of your child’s life.
So often we are busy trying to survive the day or get through the stage they’re in, but knowing they will get through it and move on is helpful.
We need to think for a moment about high school.
What are you hoping your son or daughter will know before she goes?
What do you want her time to look like? How many activities will he do?
How will you preserve family time as she’s embarking on more independence?
Even in elementary school, we thought about how our time would look as a family. We decided our kids could do one activity at a time. When my oldest was in second grade she wanted to try dance. She knew that meant she had to stop gymnastics to try it. This helped her understand the value of time, and it helped us keep our family priorities in check.
We don’t need to plan their courses for high school the day they enter kindergarten, but our decisions can help set the whole family up for success as they grow.
These things are not meant to scare you, but to remind all of us that they will grow and we can prepare for that.
Think About Your School Experiences
Picture it all. Did you have a locker? Did you fall in love? What class was insanely hard? Walk down memory lane. Seriously. Now file it in the back corner of your brain.
Your teen doesn’t want to hear story after story of your experience.
Even your elementary school children will tell you to keep your stories to yourself. He’s living his own life. Your experience will never be his experience. He’s breaking free and you, his parent, could never understand what he’s facing.
At least that’s what he thinks.
You don’t need to completely discard your experience. But only share pieces when it seems right and wanted. One or two short stories from your experience will go a lot farther than talking about your experience so much your child tunes you out.
Find Someone They Can Relate To
Maybe it’s a cousin or an older sibling. Maybe a family friend that’s a few years older than they are. Find people you trust to speak wisdom into your child’s life.
Ideally, they are no more than 10 years older than your child. This is the perfect window for your child to look up to them and still listen to them. Beyond that, they’re just old (at least to a fourteen year old.)
My daughter has an aunt in her early twenties. Her aunt and I could say the same exact thing to her, but it would mean more coming from her aunt because she relates to her differently.
Start building that relationship now, while they are still young. Start bringing people into their lives for them to look up to. Paving those paths of communication now will pay off when those hard-to-discuss issues come into their lives.
You’ll both be grateful to have these trusted voices in his life as he walks through these years.
Give Them Responsibility
High school years are the final practice for adulthood. It is the perfect time for kids to try new things and become responsible. But children should be given responsibility long before high school.
Learning responsibility begins right now – at whatever age they are at. According to Jessica Lahey in her book, The Gift of Failure, “children are starved for responsibility.”
Right now your 3-year-old can help to bring the silverware to the table and lay out the napkins. Your 6-year-old can be taught how to wash towels. Your 12-year-old can run into the store for you and pick up a gallon of milk and some bread.
“Kids flourish when they are given responsibility,” Lahey goes on to say. Encouraging them to take more responsibility is healthy and gives them a chance to make mistakes while you’re there to help them through.
Having opportunities for things to feel hard or to fail or to work through a problem with a friend are all essential life skills. And right now, you get to be their backup.
If they fail, they will learn. And Jessica Lahey reminds us that failure is one of the greatest teachers kids could have.
But Let them be Kids
While we do want our children to be responsible, the goal isn’t to make them act like they’re 40.
My son asked for Legos for Christmas last year. He’s 12 and I hesitated because I wasn’t sure he’d really use them. And if he did, it wouldn’t be for long. I knew his Lego days were numbered. As I thought about it, I chose to buy the Legos. Why? As long as my son wants to play, I want to encourage him to do that.
Do your kids ask for toys they will soon outgrow? Give it to them for birthday presents anyway. I know, they won’t play with them like they used to, but if they want to hold onto their childhood for a little longer, let them.
Does she still want to snuggle up and watch a movie with you? Say yes every chance you get.
Just a few more blinks and they’ll be moving out to live at college or on their own. Make the most of these years while they’re still kids.
The best way is to lead by example. Be silly. Sing really loud in the car, have a water balloon fight, challenge them to a game of HORSE at the basketball hoop. They may roll their eyes, but that little kid inside will secretly love it.
Think About Time
This is one of the hardest things for teens to navigate, mostly because they don’t even know it’s happening. But it is so important! Time management is a skill they will need for their whole life.
Scholastic has a great guide that takes you through teaching your kid about time management at all ages. You can start just by talking to your 3-year-old about how time works. Talk about the changing of the seasons or creating a picture schedule to help them work out what happens in a day.
When they reach grade school you can teach them how to read a clock and give them set time amounts for things like eating breakfast or doing homework. As they get older you can help them work through setting homework priorities or planning out a big project.
In high school, talk about courses available and which ones make the most sense time wise. Would a study hall be helpful during the semester they’re taking that Honors course? Maybe having a break for an art class will help him focus when he’s in Biology. Help them think about their school day beyond cramming in all the classes they can.
After school time is even more important to think about. It’s tempting in high school to do all the things. Sports? Yes! Clubs? You bet! Driver’s ed? Absolutely. A job? Of course! With so many opportunities it’s hard to know how the puzzle pieces will all fit.
Talk about their time. Help them plan time for homework and activities and family. But also make sure they understand the value of free time. Again, the best way to do that is to model the behavior. Taking breaks and have space in your day good and healthy.
It feels like everything is higher stakes once you hit middle school. And when they hit high school? Boom! We hit another level. Suddenly, it’s all about getting into college. And there is merit in that. But it’s a lot of pressure.
Find ways to navigate when your child needs to be pushed and when to back off. And start now, preferably before they are in middle school. Back off on sports. Lighten up around grades. Be a gentle supporter around homework.
In all likelihood, the school is doing quite a bit of pushing. While we need to help our kids be responsible, we also need to give them opportunities to relax.
We can be the soft place to land when the world is pushing them on to succeed and do great things.
We have the ability to show our kids to be serious and focused while maintain opportunities to lighten up.
Middle school and high school can be a wild ride when it comes to friendships. There is no shortage of hormone induced drama during these years. Finding ways to encourage solid, healthy friendships can be a lifeline for your child.
Make opportunities to have kids over. Start as soon as they start to make connections in preschool or elementary school. Make your home a safe space to have fun with peers.
As they get older, take time to talk with your child about his or her friends. Remember this is not a time to try to dig up problems. Rather, these conversations offer opportunities for your child to talk with you. Special Time is a perfect tool to use for creating space for your child to confide in you.
Laying this foundation is essential for when he or she encounters a problem. Your child will feel more comfortable talking with you, giving you the opportunity to help him.
Spend Time Together
Making time to be together is something that you will appreciate, as your child is getting older. But your child will appreciate it as well. Your availability is key to her feeling secure as she faces these transitions.
Remember, she may appear to be independent and capable of conquering the world, but she still needs your presence, support, and advice.
This can, and should be enjoyable for both of you. From reading the same book to letting them plan a day for the two of you, there are a variety of ways to make this fun. Find what works for you and your child.
I like to have dates with my kids. I take one of them out for a lunch at their favorite restaurant or we go to the museum or the park of their choice. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate and expensive affair. Just something that tells them they are special.
When Overwhelmed Ask, “What’s Next?”
As your child gets older, there may be moments for them (and for you) that feel overwhelming. It’s easy to look at middle school or high school as one giant thing you both have to face. When either of you feel overwhelmed the best place to start is with what’s next.
When my daughter made her freshman schedule, she struggled to decide whether to keep taking band. She felt pressured to stick with it, but also wanted space to try new things. Instead of thinking about band for four years, we talked about whether she wanted to do it for the first semester.
So often we lump all 4 years of high school together as one unit. Looking at the pieces, the years, the semesters, we can break things down and focus on the decision right in front of us instead of a 4-year decision.
We don’t need to figure out what they’re going to do for a senior project the first day they walk through the door their freshman year. Just look at the next thing and face that together.
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Think about the stage your child is in. Look at all the pieces of where he or she is right now and begin to think about the trajectory toward high school. Don’t use this as a planning time, rather, use this as a time to consider the stages to come and the challenges and joys you will face together.
What is one responsibility you can give them today?
Look at your daily schedule. When can you fit in some Special Time? When can you take them out on a date?
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
How are they doing on time management? What can you do to help them become more conscious about time? How can you help them determine their priorities?
How are you doing balancing the goal of giving them responsibility while still letting them be kids? How can you do better?
Think about your own school experiences. How can you keep yourself from oversharing?
Who is someone in your family or friend circle that your child can relate to? How can you help to build the relationship between them?
Also, give yourself time and space to think about your feelings as your child grows older. Acknowledge your emotions and thoughts to help you both through this exciting process.