How Working Parents Can Manage the Demands of School-Age Kids
As originally published in the Harvard Business Review
For working parents with school-age children, this time of year is especially chaotic. The season brings end-of-the-school-year projects, state testing, report cards, parent-teacher conferences, the transition to 10 long weeks of child care arrangements, the awkwardness of explaining to colleagues why you’re out of the office again, the need to follow up with the pediatrician about health forms for September (they’re overdue already), and the worry about whether your child will do better in math next year with a different teacher.
Your task list is endless, your stress level high. And a lot of the work and worry seems to be coming from one place: your child’s school.
As a working parent, you’ve already got two jobs — and having two jobs isn’t easy. But you’re also going to spend a minimum of 13 years with a third critical role: stewarding your child’s education. It’s a position that comes with enormous hope and pressure. You want the absolute best for your children, and you’re determined to oversee their school experience in a way that will set them up for success in college and life beyond. But it’s a position that can create significant practical challenges for any family.
But here’s the good news: There are effective ways to manage the overwhelming demands of drop-off, homework, and parent-teacher conferences while still delivering and succeeding at work.
Here, gleaned from teachers, school administrators, and experienced parents themselves, are a few of the simple, specific techniques that put any working parent of school-age kids on their front foot — and they’ll work for your family, too.
Explain the why, not just the when, of time away from work. Instead of telling your boss and colleagues that you’ll be “out of the office tomorrow afternoon,” explain that “I’ll be leaving the office tomorrow afternoon for two hours for a parent-teacher meeting at Brandon’s school. We’ve been concerned about his math scores, and we’re talking with the teacher about how to support him over the summer and into next year. I’ll be back online by 6 PM, and we can go over the budget draft at tomorrow’s meeting.” The second statement makes it vastly easier for colleagues to understand, sympathize, and ally themselves with you — and does a better job of telegraphing your commitment to the job as well.
Plan and bundle volunteer commitments. Even with a very flexible job, it’s unlikely that any working parent can make it to every bake sale, library fundraiser, and field trip. Here’s what you do: In the first week of school, tell your child’s teachers and/or the school’s volunteer coordinators that you’re eager to do your fair share — but that you will be doing it all in one go. You’ll schedule a personal or vacation day well in advance and use it entirely for school volunteerism. Maybe you’ll be the “reading helper” in your daughter’s second-grade class in the morning, walk the school’s neighborhood safety patrol in the afternoon, and take the minutes during the PTA fundraising committee meeting at 5 PM. When the day is over, enjoy knowing that your yearly contribution has been made in full — and efficiently.
Invest your time where it matters most. All working parents have packed schedules, yet “in our desire to fully engage with our children’s education, many of us gravitate to time-intensive activities that may not actually have much impact on their success in school,” says Ariela Rozman, a leading K-12 education expert and founding partner of EdNavigator, a not-for-profit that provides custom coaching and tools for parents seeking to keep their children on track in school. Rozman adds: “There may be great reasons for you to take part in school fundraising, attend school events, or help your child with their homework each evening. Maybe you want to support the school community or simply to spend time together with your kid. But think about putting some time toward the things that are proven to produce great results too.” Rozman cites “The Broken Compass,” a groundbreaking and comprehensive research study done by professors from the University of Texas and Duke University. They found that a handful of habits that make a real difference, such as reading aloud to young kids and talking to teenagers about college plans.
Make “family study hall” a habit. Beat the nightly homework drama (the nagging, the power struggles, the bargaining, the tears) by setting a hard-and-fast time each evening that the whole family has study hall: silent, dedicated work time around the dining table. The kids do their homework and you catch up on office emails or reading. When the kitchen timer rings, study hall is over, and the whole family gets to enjoy downtime or a relaxing activity like watching a favorite TV program together. This routine may not be easy for the first few nights you try it, but the kids will quickly adjust, and the benefits are many. They will learn how to focus better, to work more efficiently, and to use the “sprint and recover” approach when tackling a large workload — all skills that will make them more successful and happier in school and in their futures. You’ll also have established a clear boundary between work and play — something that’s vital and healthy for the entire family in our always-on world.
Treat teachers and administrators as you would valued colleagues (because that’s what they are). For many parents, the parent-teacher relationship is fraught and unclear: Is the teacher an all-powerful evaluator, capable of changing your child’s future with a few strokes of a red pen? Or a vendor who needs to be constantly nudged if you’re going to get decent service? Will there be terrible consequences for your child if you dial into a parent-teacher meeting while on a business trip? The answer to all of those is no — but you do need to develop strong working relationships with the professionals teaching your child. To do so, think of a favorite coworker, one who you enjoy being staffed with on tough projects. The coworker is someone you constantly communicate with, sharing all critical information; someone you greet setbacks and roadblocks with by saying, “Let’s figure out how to solve this together”; someone whose constructive comments you take graciously, offering your own in a spirit of respect, trust, and good humor. Take this exact same approach with educators: Tell Mrs. Wilson that you’ll be away on business next week, in case your third grader acts out; flag it when Susie is struggling with her Spanish homework — and ask what the best way is to support her; let the science teacher know your son loved the chemistry experiment. Teachers are professionals — and humans. They’ll notice and appreciate your collaboration, and likely respond in kind.
Remember what you’re managing toward. School, with all of its deadlines, complexity, evaluations, and social pressures, can be a daunting experience, for kids and for their parents. Amid all the noise and busyness, it can be helpful to re-center by remembering the two key outcomes you — and every parent — are really shooting for: independence and opportunity. You want your son or daughter to develop into a competent, responsible adult capable of managing in a complex world. And you want them to find the maximum possible number of open doors in terms of college and, later, in terms of career. But you don’t need to ensure your child has a flawless, completely bump-and-bruise-free experience at school in order to get there. It’s OK — desirable, even — for your child to struggle with long division or have an argument on the playground, or for you to miss a few soccer games. These things may be upsetting in the moment, particularly to you as a high-achieving professional, but they’re the experiences your child needs to become resilient, independent, and ultimately successful in their own right.
Parenting school-age children while making it happen in a full-time career can feel like an uphill marathon of a task — long, constant, and steep. But remember: School won’t be the only place your child gets their education. Like all parents, you will teach your child the greatest lessons: the importance of hard work, the value of commitments to family, and the satisfaction that comes from a tough job well done.