When was the last time you spent time at your child's school? And not just the daily drop-off or the obligatory parent-teacher conference when the clock is ticking, either. When was the last time you made an effort to get to know the people your kid spends most of his waking hours with?
Ah, the change in seasons, the fresh crisp air, the beautiful sound of the school bell welcoming our children back to the building -- and our of our homes, at least for a few hours a day. Yes, it's exciting to have your mornings back to yourself, to get work done without interruption, to remember that whole "life outside the kids" thing, but now that you've had a few days to luxuriate in the wonder of your own little world, it's time for a quick trip back to reality.
Between school and extracurricular activities, your kids probably spend at least 40 hours a week outside the house -- and that's if they have little to no social life or a job of any kind. So what goes on all day in that big building?
Beyond the PTA
Okay, yes, school serves a valuable purpose in, you know, educating the future leaders of the world. Fine. But so much more happens in school, and it's important that you expose yourself to a little bit of it.
Clearly, your kids don't want you to park yourself in the lobby of the school and grill their peers constantly. So how can you learn more about your child's school life? Sometimes, the answer is right there in front of you where you can't see it.
Find an invisible job at school. Does the school sell sweatshirts or other items during the day? Sign up for a shift or two a week. No one notices you, and you have plenty of time to people-watch. Preparing mailings, making photocopies, anything that gives you a valid reason to be in the building with a stack of papers makes you almost unnoticeable to teens and lets you observe on the sly. Ask about opportunities in your school's front office.
Talk to teachers -- but don't stop there
Make a point of getting in touch with your child's teachers. But don't just show up and expect the teacher to have time to talk. Instead, call or email and set a meeting time, and be respectful of the teacher's time. Let her know what you'd like to discuss: "I'd like to get a sense of how you see Junior as a student in general."
Another key person to contact is the school's guidance counselor. A good counselor keeps an eye on cliques and student hierarchy. From the counselor, you can learn whether your child skips lunch to hide in the lavatory, eats alone in the cafeteria, or sneaks out for a smoke behind the gym.
Additionally, pay attention to the names you hear, and ask around for more information. If your daughter constantly talks about Miss Blue, a quick question in the office might reveal that she's actually hanging out with the school nurse, not the art teacher you were envisioning.
Extra credit and extra-curriculars
If your child is involved in an after school sport or club, how much do you know about it? Do you go to the games or show up to the debates or sell tickets to the show? Take the time to meet the coach or adviser, and check out the other students at the same time. Are these kids you're used to seeing? Or does the crowd seem a little off your child's beaten path?
Always be honest with your child about what you're doing. "I'd like to talk to your teacher/coach/whatever -- not because I'm worried about you or because I don't trust you, but because it's in my job description." Work with your child to come up with a way for both of you to get what you want -- maybe you can meet the coach at a backyard barbecue for the team instead of showing up at practice.
You don't have to live vicariously through your child, but it is your responsibility to learn about her life.