Starting Middle School: Time for the Kids to Be Responsible

middle school desks

middle school desksDear Mr. Dad: I enjoy reading your columns every week. You recently wrote about kids making the transition from elementary to middle school. Your suggestion of keeping the communication lines open with teens is excellent.  More listening than talking is very good indeed. But I think you focused too much on the parents and how they should stay in touch with the teachers. What about the kids themselves? Don’t you think they should be taking more responsibility for their own education?

A: You’re absolutely right (and so are the other readers who wrote in with similar comments). Middle school isn’t just about the parents; kids should definitely be learning how to be more responsible and self-sufficient. However, early on, they may need a little help. Here’s are a few suggestions (including some from readers)

  • Be Interested: Ask what she’s learning or doing in the classroom, with friends, or on the sports field. Insist on answers that are longer than one word. When I pick my 7th grader up after school, she’s not allowed to fire up her phone until she’s talked to me for five minutes about her day. Knowing you’re interested in her education will help your child stay (or get) motivated to stay on top of things on her own. Other ways to do this include volunteering at the school and attending as many school events (including teacher conferences) as you can.
  • Organization: Many—but not all—schools require kids to have a calendar or planner for keeping track of their homework, projects, and due dates. But having a planner doesn’t mean your child will actually use it, or that completed assignment will make the arduous trip from his desk, into his backpack, and into the classroom. Keeping a checklist by your front door can help eliminate a lot of problems. (Lunch? Check. Soccer cleats? Check. Homework? Check. Are you sure? Yes. Really? Oh, wait, it’s on my desk….) Help your child find a system that works for him, whether it’s lists, separate binders, directories on the computer, or whatever.
  • Prioritizing: Talk with your child about how to identify tasks that need to be done right now vs. those that are due tomorrow or next week. If your middle-schooler tends to get frustrated or overwhelmed, help her break larger projects down into smaller, less-daunting chunks. Instead of doing 100 math problems in one sitting, divide them up and intersperse them with other assignments. Help her come up with a system that works for her and her individual learning style.
  • Routines: Having a set schedule for homework can keep your child on track. A short decompression period before diving in is good, as are regular breaks. If possible, stay nearby. That’s so you can help your child stay focused and be there in case she needs help with an assignment.
  • Praise: Grades offer pretty good feedback on how a child is doing in school, but not everyone gets good ones. It’s especially important that you acknowledge the time and effort your child put into a particular project or homework assignment even if the grades were less than ideal.
  • Trust but Verify: For the first part of the year, it’s okay to make frequent reminders and require your child to show you her progress every day. But don’t turn into a crutch—or a helicopter. Over time, make fewer and fewer reminders.
  • Consequences: As your active involvement and reminders decrease, your child’s freedom to make decisions will increase. Gradually, he’ll also learn to deal with consequences, which could range from winning an award to failing a class. It’s up to him.

Activities and Answers for Grandparents Today

Jan Eby, Laurie Mobilio, Lynn Noel, and Cindy Summers, coauthors of The Grammie Guide.
: Activities and answers for grandparents today.
Issues: Indoor and outdoor activities; reminders on child-development ages and stages; safety guidelines; grandparenting at a distance; music, books, and art for young children; and more.

Seeing Autism as a Unique Way of Being Human + The Grammie Guide

Barry M. Prizant, author of Uniquely Human.
A different way of seeing autism.
Issues: We usually see autism as a checklist of deficits. But in this groundbreaking book, one of the world’s leading experts in the field portrays autism not as a tragic disability but as a unique way of being human.

Jan Eby, Laurie Mobilio, Lynn Noel, and Cindy Summers, coauthors of The Grammie Guide.
: Activities and answers for grandparents today.
Issues: Indoor and outdoor activities; reminders on child-development ages and stages; safety guidelines; grandparenting at a distance; music, books, and art for young children; and more

Now Boarding…. You and Your Family

With airports gouging you for every little thing, you want to keep your bags as small and light as possible, packing no more than you absolutely have to for any trip. Whenever you can, limit each person to a carry-on and avoid those nasty baggage fees. Between that and the one small bag (like a briefcase or purse) most airlines allow, you’ll be able to make every inch count!


comfy commuter travel pillowComfy Commuter travel pillow (Comfy Commuter)

The first thing you want to pack—and this one won’t count towards your carry-on-and-one-personal-item limit—is a head-and-neck pillow for the flight. Unless you’re in first class, those seats tend to be awful, and there’s no comfortable way (especially if you’re over about 5’ 8”) to sit that doesn’t cramp up your neck. And trying to sleep? Dream on… Comfy Commuter’s new travel pillow will make you comfortable as possible, the plush material enveloping your neck so your head stays upright. (We travel a lot and this is one of the most comfortable pillows we’ve come across.) It has a chin strap to keep it from falling on the floor. It’s available in several colors for $40 at .


waldlauferWaldläufer shoes (Waldläufer)

Travel generally involves a lot of walking and Waldläufer has shoes for every journey, no matter where life takes you. A new take on the “comfort shoe,” Waldläufers are comfortable and stylish—none of those giant, clunky soles or orthotic-looking designs here. They come in a number of categories (dress, casual, walking, outdoors, sandals, and more) and you’ll usually have a choice of colors and materials. Women have more than 40 models to select from. Men, sadly, have only six. Just put ‘em on and get ready to hit the road—and you’ll be looking sharp while you’re on it. To see their entire line and find the nearest store that sells them, visit


eagle creek bagMarket Handbag (Eagle Creek)

Besides what it does to your neck and your feet, travel can also be hard on your gear, so everything you bring needs to be able to take a punch (or a kick or survive a fall). Eagle Creek’s Market Handbag is aimed mostly at women and it’s comfortable, durable; lightweight; has plenty of pockets for all your big items; smaller, easily accessible spaces for things like pens, keys, pens, phones, and business cards; and even outside pockets for water bottles or sippy cups. Speaking of water, the outside is water resistant, just in case… The strap is adjustable so you can wear it over the shoulder or across your body, and one end is detachable so can secure it to your chair or table to keep purse-snatcher wannabes at bay. The Market Handbag also has a lifetime warranty, which gives you some indication of how much confidence the company has in this product. Costs $80 at


eagle creek specter pill organizerSpecter 7-Day Pill Organizer (Eagle Creek)

It’s hard to find a family in which there isn’t at least one person taking medication, vitamins, or supplements every day. Pill bottles can take up a lot of valuable space in your luggage and many hard-plastic pill holders randomly pop open. The Specter has seven clear, numbered, zippered pockets that show what’s in each compartment. The Organizer itself zips shut and you can even lock it. The Specter also has convenient pockets for a pen and emergency numbers. Comes in three colors and costs $25 at



Interfaith Marriages: There Is Hope

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are in a religiously mixed marriage. Before we had kids, it wasn’t an issue and we usually just did our own thing. But ever since our daughter was born, everything seems a lot more complicated. Each of us is committed to our own religion and to our marriage. How are we supposed to raise our children?

Well, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that you’re not alone. Before getting married, fewer than half of interfaith couples discuss the religious upbringing they plan to give their kids, and 80 percent say that having “the same values” is more important than having the same religion, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.” Interfaith marriages are getting more and more common. Back in the 1960s, only 19% of marriages were interfaith, according to a new Pew Research Center report. But among couples who married since 2010, 39% say their spouse is of a different religion (and 49% of cohabiting couples are in interfaith relationships).

The bad news is that, according to Schaefer Riley, interfaith couples are significantly less satisfied than same-faith couples, and that the more religiously active spouse is usually the unhappiest one.

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