Back to School Happy and Healthy

The end of August signals not only the close of summer, but also the beginning of the school year, which can be a major cause of friction between parents and children.

TV commercials show parents dancing through the aisles as they purchase pens, pencils and notebooks for their kids who look on despondently. But the misery can cut both ways as parents battle with children who are adjusting to new sleep schedules, doing homework and following stricter routines.

With a little planning, experts say that the transition can be almost painless.

Establishing Routines

The first major area of conflict revolves around getting rest. "Sleep time is frequently an area of contention between parents and children," says Dr. Herman Gray, chief of staff at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. "Kids always want to stay up later than parents want them to."

But getting too little sleep can make your little ones grumpy, unable to focus and may compound feelings of anxiety over the start of school.

In a perfect world, one month before the start of school the bedtimes for all kids everywhere would start to get earlier and earlier so that kids can make the adjustment gradually. In the real world, a few parents may be looking at the start of school in a few days with no adjustment in sight. Even then, a little bit of schedule tinkering can go a long way.

"If parents have a shorter time, they can still start doing it now — even if it's just a weekend," explains Pete Stavinoha, a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center of Dallas, Texas. "What you don't want to do is let your kids sleep until 10 on Saturday and Sunday if they are starting school on Monday."

Lunch Time

With what many pediatricians characterize as an epidemic of childhood obesity making headlines, encouraging healthy eating is one part of a crucial equation for maintaining a healthy weight. Packing a healthy lunch for your child can help them make healthful choices, but don't forget their input.

"Talk to your youngster about the kinds of things they want in their lunch bags," advises Gray. "What you provide in their lunches should be nutritious, but not boring. One of the ways to do this is to ask your youngster and give them some say-so over it."

But even when you have little direct control over what your child or teenager is buying at school, your own nutritional choices can speak volumes in helping them make the right decisions. "Parents have to demonstrate good nutritional habits," stresses Gray. "It's not enough to tell your youngster 'here eat these carrots' and then stuff yourself with something completely non-nutritious."

Staying Active

Exercise is the other important piece of the weight-control equation. Making sure your child gets enough may take a little encouragement.

"Some schools don't have physical education programs any longer, so encourage your youngster to be active," says Gray, who suggests participation in athletics, dancing or cheerleading as a way for your kids to stay active out of school.

But encouragement may mean very little without your own action. A parent's own level of physical activity can speak louder than words.

"There's hardly a kid who's going to resist dad saying 'Hey, let's go and throw a football around, or let's go for a walk or a bike ride," says Stavinoha. "Because you're not just saying 'let's go do this activity,' you're saying 'do it with me.'"

Books and Notebooks and Pens and...

A too-heavy pack may easily be overlooked. But experts warn that too many schoolbooks can place a serious burden on your child's shoulders.

"My own daughter suffered from that one," says Gray. "We ended up having to take her to physical therapy for six weeks."

To ward off these problems, experts say that the weight or your child's book bags should be assessed periodically throughout the year. Your child should be able to lift them easily and put them on their backs. "If they appear to be struggling with the bag, it's probably too heavy," says Gray.

If the bag seems too weighty for your liking, talk to your child's teacher to see if they really need that many books. Talking to your child may help as well. They could be having problems with their lockers that leave them wary of returning too frequently to exchange books.

Homework

Although it may be less obvious, experts say that modeling is also important when it comes to getting your kids to do their homework with less resistance.

"If the dad or the mom is sitting there with the remote just surfing away and they're telling their child to do homework, that rationale does nothing for a 7- or 8-year-old," says Stavinoha.

Instead, Stavinoha suggests that mom and dad do their own "homework" and shut off the TV to pick up a book or pay some bills, "So that the child isn't set up to seem like there's something really fun happening in another part of the house while they are feeling punished because they've got to sit and do homework."

Making the transition from lazy summer days to the packed schedules of fall and spring can be less problematic. "It's all a matter of how you are communicating your values to your kids," Stavinoha adds.

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