Ahhhh... the beauty, the certainty of 20/20 hindsight. As my youngest nears the end of high school, I have reflected upon what qualities, learned in our home and at school, allow kids to perform at their best and enjoy their four years to the fullest. What were the most important things I could have done for my kids, starting in perhaps sixth grade, that would have impacted their chance of surviving high school and beyond? Not surprisingly, they were not the things uppermost on my mind as my kids turned 12. If I had it to do again...
I would make sure that my child, if possible, was above average at a sport, music, art or another activity. Not get-recruited-at-a-D1-school good, but get-picked-for-the-JV-team good. Part of high school is finding your place and that is much easier to do if you are selected for the field hockey team or given a role in the school play. I know educators often advocate the benefits of being well rounded, but competence and accomplishment breed self esteem and social well being.
I would have taught them that sleep is the elixir of the gods. It repairs sick bodies. It allows teens to perform better intellectually and athletically. It improves mood and helps maintain healthy weight. Teach your child to worship at the altar of an eight hour nights sleep and you have set them up for life.
I would have worked long and hard helping my child develop the ability to concentrate on books or art or anything but video games. Humans seem to be born with an innate ability to concentrate on electronic devices but high school demands a level of concentration on the written word that can be challenging for a 14-year-old. I would make them read, even if it meant tying them to a chair in order to do so.
I would have given special attention to helping them develop good eating habits. I don't mean organic food-kale-quinoa good eating habits, but that the ability to resist soda and candy and cheesy fries because only their own will power and habits stand between them and a weight problem.
I would have thrown my child into the metaphoric deep end, more than once. Experiencing helplessness and frustration, the overwhelming feeling of wanting to give up, is something that is good for all of us, early and often. Many kids do not experience this until high school and by then it is almost too late. If you haven't been tested and found out what you are made of, you haven't lived.
I would have focused on impulse control, be it with regard to temper or sex or driving. Impulse control is taught by example and middle schoolers, who spend far more time with their parents than they will later, are watching closely. It is no coincidence that the kid who regularly gets a red card on the soccer field has a nutjob parent shrieking obscenities on the sidelines.
I would give them the message that their body is theirs and it is beautiful and precious and they only get one. How they treat it will have everything to do with how it functions. Teenagers think they are invincible and in some ways they are. Their body's ability to repair itself is the envy of every adult. But it will not always be thus and they need to learn respect for their physical selves.
I would have focused heavily on organizational skills and their twin, time management. For some lucky kids this comes naturally and for others it is a huge uphill struggle. Engage in the struggle early while the stakes and complexity of tasks are lower. This is hard to remediate junior year in high school.
Most important of all, the window in which to reach our kids on lessons about character and values can be shorter than we think. By 15, most kids are adept at rolling their eyes at their parents, the universal sign that they prefer to listen to their peers or their teachers and coaches, anyone but their mom or dad.
The middle years of childhood are a time when moral decisions -- be it cheating in school or how to treat others -- are all established. It is when many of the values our families hold dear need to be cemented into their beings. If I could do only one thing, if parenthood had been a one dimensional activity, I would have focused on character recognizing how fast that opportunity would slip away.