For many parents of middle schoolers, time with their children is dwindling. "Those who stopped working when their kids were born may no longer be able to afford that luxury," says Eileen Kugler, author of Debunking the Middle Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids. "If you have to be at the office, you can't be backstage at the school play at the same time." Others mistakenly believe they should back off to teach children to be more independent — a message reinforced by a preteen who bans you from watching him play basketball and is mortified to discover that you've volunteered to supervise community-service day.
Finally, middle-school parents often feel like strangers in a strange land. "Schools in general prepare students for the next step in their education better than they prepare parents," says former president of the National Parent-Teacher Association. "They don't realize that there are many ways to stay involved."
To stay on top and in touch at school:
- Broaden your definition. Ensuring that your child is ready to learn means more than attending a semester's worth of PTA meetings. Create an atmosphere at home that encourages learning: establish a predictable school-night routine, limit TV, and make sure he's well-rested. Carve out family reading time. You can read aloud (yes, even to your preteen) or have each person choose his own book. Listening to an audio-book while carpooling to hockey practice counts too.
- Find out what the school needs — and do it. Stuffing mail folders, drafting notices, or shelving library books are tasks overburdened schools love to farm out to parents. At one school, parents set up and staff a homework hotline. At another, volunteers help translate a school newsletter and other notices from English into Spanish for parents new to the community. There are even some tasks you can do at home, working alongside your child as he does his homework.
- Get the lay of the land early on. You'll annoy your preteen fast if she has to remind you, again, who she has for history or that assembly is first period every Wednesday. End the information embargo by attending back-to-school night each fall. Find out how teachers prefer to be contacted (telephone? email?) and let them know how to reach you, too.
- Organize parent socials. Many middle schoolers get to school by themselves, so you have fewer serendipitous opportunities to meet other parents. Help everyone network by planning casual get-togethers throughout the year. Nothing fancy: potluck or cheese and crackers. Invite the school principal, coaches, and the art and music teachers. You just may find out about after-school classes, meetings, or special events that your shy/forgetful/distracted 6th grader forgot to mention.
- Create a school-wide calendar. School plays, baseball games, chess tournaments, multicultural night, midterms — there's a lot going on in middle school and it's hard for everyone to keep up. If your school doesn't have one already, organize a committee to coordinate schedules from every department for a master calendar. Distribute it far and wide, online and on paper.
- Consult your kid. At the beginning of the year, jot school events in your date book and discuss which ones your child wants you to attend. If he's apoplectic at the thought of you sitting in the bleachers and cheering wildly, tell him you'll stand quietly in the back of the gym. If you're dying to chaperone a trip to the art museum, take charge of another section, not his. At dinner, you can share your impressions.
- Share your skills. Maybe you can't make it to PTA meetings. Or maybe you're turned off by the hard-charging parents who dominate every committee. You can still provide invaluable help by using your interests and expertise to supplement what students are learning. Offer to talk about what you do for a living, an interesting place you've visited, or your passion for pottery. Photography buff? Snap shots of school plays or sports. Engineer? Mentor a child who's having trouble with her science fair project. Computer experts can create or maintain the school Web site or volunteer time in the computer lab. The point is to be present — in whatever way you can.