A Single Parent’s
Back to School Handbook
Stepping over backpacks, notebooks, colored pencils, folders, crayons and all the other cool new school supplies, I finally made my way through the living room to the kitchen where I needed to pack lunches for the next day. As I spread peanut butter, the kids were dividing out pencils and trying to decide who would get the extra one. By the time I got to the snack cakes, everything had been carefully separated and loaded into their respective backpacks, and my children were chattering about what they were going to wear on their first day back to school.
Exciting as it was for my children to begin a new school year, getting them to this day had been a tremendous pressure for me as a single parent. If it hadn’t been for prayerful, careful planning, budgeting and helpful friends in the church, our first day of school would have been extremely stressful.
With kindergarten orientations, buying new school clothes and supplies, adjusting to hurried mornings and expensive after-school childcare, starting a school year is enough to make any single parent shout, “I need help!” So help is on the way. The following is a list of ideas to make your back-to-school days flow more easily. This handy guide is a compilation of wisdom gained from seasoned single parents who are experts in juggling back-to-school responsibilities solo.
Create a savings fund with your income tax refund to supplement your income throughout the year. This creative idea came from a single mother who had no supplemental income to help meet the monthly obligations which always seemed to be greater than her paychecks.
Look for name brand clothes at yard sales, thrift stores and resale shops. Name brands tend to be better quality clothing and hold up better. Talk to other mothers with children in the church and let them know your need for school clothes. Most are glad to pass along good clothes their children have outgrown. They are glad to see someone get some good use from them. Network with other single parents to exchange clothing, coats and shoes. If you have to buy new, wait for the back-to-school sales.
If possible, don’t take the kids shopping with you for school supplies. You’ll find it much easier on your pocketbook if they don’t see all the cool new school supplies for sale. Shop the dollar stores for the essentials like notebook paper, crayons, pencils, pens, etc. They are far less expensive than if you bought them in a large “discount” store.
Transitioning From Sleepy Summer to School-time Schedules
Set your bedtimes and stick with them. Getting up early will come easy when they go bed early. Begin an “early to bed, early to rise” schedule at least three days before the first day of school. Teach your child to set their own alarm clock. Get your laundry caught up the week before school begins. If everything is clean and ready to go, it makes the transition a bit easier, not only for the children, but also for the parent.
Save yourself some morning stress by doing as much of the school preparation as possible the night before. Pack lunches and make sure homework assignments are finished and teacher’s notes are signed. Teach your children to lay out their clothes, backpacks, shoes and coats before they go to bed. Take showers and baths at night instead of in the middle of the morning rush to get ready. Children tend to sleep better after they bathe.
Teach your child to make their bed as soon as they get up. Have a set routine for getting up, dressing, eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, and prayer time.
With older children and teens, especially girls, have a limit on bathroom time. If possible, provide a good mirror and grooming items for them in their bedrooms so they won’t put the rest of the household behind schedule while they fix their hair.
With young children, it can be very helpful if they can do some of the morning preparations themselves. Make it easy for them. Provide a step-stool to brush their teeth and wash up. Put milk and juice in small, easy-to-handle sized containers on a low shelf of the refrigerator. Have a kitchen cabinet, below the counter, set up just for them with bowls, plates, cups and cereal. A child will feel like a big boy or girl if they don’t have to come to you every time they need these things.
Because most single parents are their household’s sole financial provider with minimal help in child support or other supplementary income sources, it is very difficult to pay the high cost of after school child care. Sometimes family members, neighbors, or friends can help take care of children from the time they get out of school until their parent comes home from work, but this isn’t always the case. Many become what are known as “latchkey children.” These children come home from school to an empty house. They let themselves in with their own key, and they are unsupervised until mom or dad returns from work. Of the single parents I interviewed, only one was a stay-at-home mom. All the rest, including myself, were working parents with latchkey children. Here are some helpful tips on keeping your latchkey children safe, out of trouble, and productive until you get home from work.
Have a list of phone numbers clearly posted. Sit down with your child and talk about each person’s number and how it is to be used. On this list, include your work and cell numbers, close neighbors, friends, family members, and emergency numbers. Teach your child how to use 911. Talk to a trusted neighbor and ask them to keep an eye out for your child. Have your child call you as soon as they get home from school so they can hear your voice and know you are available—as well as your own peace of mind. Ask church or family members to stop by and check on your child periodically.
Prepare an after school schedule for your child to follow including homework, chores and snacks. Chores can include folding clothes, emptying the dishwasher, and cleaning their room. Restrict television, telephone, video games and computer use until all the required homework and chores are completed. Give instructions on what kind, and how much of a snack they are allowed. Teach them to stay in the house with the doors locked. Have a set of rules for them to follow such as; never answer the door, check caller ID before answering the phone, and follow the schedule until you get home.
Algebra not your strong point? Sometimes a child needs help with their homework that you can’t give them. In this case, ask for help. Go to family, friends at church, dads, moms or teens that might be willing to come over after you get home from work and spend a little time with your child, or be available to help them over the phone.
Ask for Help
All of the single parents I talked with had to carefully manage their finances, and they had needs for which they had to ask for help. This is the case with the majority of single parent households. When we come to the end of our own resources, and we don’t know where the money, time or energy will come from, God will show Himself faithful as we turn to Him in prayer. The key is asking. Jesus said, "For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened (Luke 11:10).” Once we humble ourselves and go to God, he will gladly provide.
It is the same with our family and friends. Without exception, every single parent I talked to said most people were willing to help when they knew there was a need—but they had to ask. Everyone will come away blessed when you provide an opportunity to give by making your need known and accepting help.
Sidebar: A Sick Feeling
Getting a call from the daycare or school in the middle of a busy work day puts a heavy burden on a single parent. One of the most difficult and stressful parts of solo parenting is dealing with a sick child when you have to work. Not only are there guilt feelings over leaving a sick child in someone else’s care, but single parents also carry guilt over leaving their job. Here is what our expert single parents advise.
Budget your time wisely, taking into account those unexpected calls from the school. Most employers have personal time allotments that include vacation, sick and personal leave time. Your employer will be more understanding of this need if you are not one to go home or call in every time you personally have a headache or cramps.
When your child is too young to stay home alone, single parents have to lean heavily on family and friends for help. Before this need presents itself, pray about it and talk to trusted neighbors, friends and family to develop a list of people to call on. Don’t exclude your ex in-laws if they are cordial and available. They love your child too. Add these names to your child’s school listing of people who are allowed to pick them up in an emergency.
Sidebar: How Can Your Church Minister to Single Parents?
To answer this question, I went to Gary Sprague, President and Founder of the Center for Single Parent Family Ministry (www.spfm.org). SPFM encourages and helps churches establish single parent ministries.
Establishing relationships is the backbone of a successful single parent ministry. Couples in the church get to know single parent families and their needs by inviting them into their circle of friendships. Meeting real needs by providing tangible help goes much further than establishing programs requiring a single parent’s valuable time and money. Ninety percent of where single parent families live is kids, car, house and money.
Single parents are absorbed with the task of parenting alone. They need help with this life skill.
Leaders in the church are the bridge that connects single parent families to hope and healing that is found only in Christ. Churches who train and equip individuals to connect and develop natural relationships with single parents can have a lasting affect on their lives. This should not be an “adopt a single parent” thing where the married couple is above the single parent, but rather, where they all become friends.