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The Parent Backpack

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When my daughter was 11-years-old she asked if I would read Huckleberry Finn to her. Not one to want to miss out, my 8-year old son asked if he could listen to the story as well. I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain the book's apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which Huck Finn existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that Huck Finn is on my son's high school English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground. I told that story recently to M.L. Nichols, author of the very helpful book The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child's Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections. In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that "reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child's education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school."

Middle school? Isn't that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols notes that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to. "They won't tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary."

According to Nichols the best way to support a child's education is to model reading for her. "Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years," notes Nichols. "If a child doesn't develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school." Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children. "Whether you're reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet -- let your kids see you reading."

Nichols' wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children's early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a birds eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering. "I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees. But it wasn't until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I'd learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years."

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child's teacher isanother cornerstone of his education. "I see our children's elementary journey like a winding river," says Nichols. "We're on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we're partners. Each of us does our part." Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions. "Do your part," she asserts.

"Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don't be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I'm also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn't do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. These conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers."

I've always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, "that place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher."

My son is a junior in high school. I'm grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank you note to his long-time academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone. "Teachers," says Nichols, "appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything."