It’s that time of year again. Ready or not, parents are gearing up for the flurry of activity that always accompanies the first weeks of school. A perennial nerd, I love this time of year. It always feels like a more natural New Years Day, where resolutions and new intentions make the most sense. This is probably a testament to the amount of time I spent in school, or the fact that I’d barely been out of grad school 4 years before my oldest child started kindergarten, thereby never. leaving. the. school. calendar. (I don’t complain: I will be 80 and living by a school year calendar. January to December?! That is no way to organize your year, people.) That being said, I do all my big planning and visioning in August. I do my “what do I want out of life?” pep talks over the summer, so I can hit the ground running in September. Back to School week has always been my reset button, my ready-set-go buzzer.
As a parent, then, it comes as no surprise that I’ve created a little ritual for back to school pep-talking with my kids. It has two parts: intention and introspection. The week before school begins, my husband and I divide and conquer, each of us taking one of our children to dinner at the place of their choosing. During dinner, we first tackle intention, because it’s more direct. We talk about how they’re feeling about school, about what they are hoping for this year, about any fears they have, any worries. We ask questions- LOTS of questions. What one thing do you want to do this year? What new thing(s) can you try? How can you make new friends? Strengthen your current friendships? How do you want to FEEL this school year, and how are you going to make that feeling happen? Is there something you want to reach for? Is there a big goal you want to shoot for?
The second part of dinner is about helping our kids practice introspection. We ask more questions. What about who you are makes you the most proud? What comes really naturally to you? What makes you feel most alive, most happy? How can we encourage you to pursue those things? And, because introspection means knowing yourself fully, we also talk about building character. What do you think is the one trait you need to work on the most? Where do you need to grow? We give them feedback, of course, because that’s a huge part of parenting, right? We mirror back to our kids what they need to know about themselves. “Yes, I see you light up when you do X. I do think you could work more on Y and Z. My hope for you this year is that you become more ____.”
After dinner, we switch. We do dessert with the other child, and we ask for a recap. Dessert started as just a way for us both to have face-time with each of the kids, but it just so happens that this jibes well with education theory books that show, time and again, that summarizing is an absolutely critical part of learning anything at all. It’s when things become real, and stick. If we want our kids to be intentional and introspective, it’s great for them to practice summarizing those conversations in their own words. It also reinforces their sense of agency: they are choosing their lives, they are running this thing. During dessert, we mostly listen, but we get the chance to chime in and agree and add in our own observations. Again, we mirror back to our child what we see, for better and worse, all with eyes full of love.
The reason for all of this is not to put pressure on our kids. We aren’t about that. We aren’t even the kinds of people who set really specific, hard-lined goals. It’s far more big picture than all of that. And we certainly don’t want to be the kinds of parents who set goals for their children. We take our kids to dinner and talk with them about their hopes and intentions and goals for the year because we want to make them conscious of their actions. We want to remind them that they are in charge of their own futures. We want them to be agents of their own lives. We want them to feel the reins in the palm of their hands, and steer the way accordingly.
Do you know how easy it is to live an unintentional life? It’s so easy, it’s scary. You get up, you go through the motions, you do what you need to do…and you look up in a moment of clarity and realize you haven’t been conscious about anything you’re doing. You’re letting life live YOU, instead of acting as an agent of your own life. You have chosen nothing; you are just accepting whatever comes your way, and reacting to it. The only way to change that is to become aware; to wake up and realize that you actually have a lot of control over what you do with your day. You set the course; you determine the attitude. You decide who you will be. You choose what you will practice, and what you practice is who you become.
I want our kids to become, to the fullest extent possible, exactly who God has created them to be. I want them to be whole, and fully alive, and AWAKE to the kind of life they are choosing to live. I don’t care what sport or activity they choose, or what interest they decide upon, but I do want to help them practice virtue, and self-awareness. And I absolutely want to help them learn to do what Parker Palmer calls “listening to your life.” Knowing your passions. Honing your gifts. Finding your purpose. The best way I know how to do that is through a one-two-punch of intention and introspection. Practice intentionality. Set the course of your own life. Think about where you need to grow, and make a point to do things that will help you grow.
Our kids will change so much over the course of this school year. They will become, in so many ways, totally different people by May. That’s all good- it’s part of the process. The hope is to help them notice the changes, and even direct them when possible.
For all of you who are deep in the flurry of back to school insanity, I send you love and hope and prayers for a beautiful year. Let’s walk alongside our kids with intention and introspection, so that all of us can be awake and alive to all that God has in store.