As of this year, I have spent 45 Augusts getting myself or my sons ready to go back to school. That is a lot of school supplies! Now, with only a high school sophomore to shop for, the supply list is shorter, although he is taller.
Following in the shadow of his nearly 6-foot frame while he scans the fully stocked store shelves for items, I surreptitiously open a new box of crayons, delighting in their colors, fragrance, and the memories. The message Joe Fox sends Shopgirl in “You’ve Got Mail” comes to mind: “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
However, being ready for school involves more than a backpack full of supplies and new clothes to wear. In addition to fulfilling their basic needs for nutrition, rest, health, and safety, we can deeply enhance our children’s school experience by equipping them with desirable habits and skills. Whether entering preschool or grad school, these ageless, timeless, universal qualities benefit not only our kids, but everyone with whom they interact.
I am presenting these personal qualities in a list, but please be mindful that in reality, they cannot be prioritized. They do not exist in isolation. They do not develop in a linear sequence. They are profoundly interrelated, mutually inclusive, and utterly interdependent. They are completely free, totally renewable, and inherently priceless. Unlike school supplies, the more they are used, the better they get.
Curiosity. Noticing and observing one’s surroundings by using all of the senses. Recognizing how the small details work together to make the larger picture. The desire to know and understand. A willingness to learn. The inclination to wonder.
Confidence. The assurance that one is competent and capable of learning. Eager to try, even in the face of making mistakes or failing. Recognizing the valuable lessons in mistakes and failures. The determination to put forth a best effort.
Self-discipline. The ability to monitor and manage one’s words and actions. The desire to control impulses in an effort to behave appropriately. Being able to listen carefully, follow directions, ask relevant questions, and complete tasks.
Courage. Choosing to do what is right, even when it is not easy or popular, and even in the presence of fear. Knowing when to stand firm, when to admit fault, and when to seek help. Being gracious in the face of success or failure. Eager to extend sincere apologies and make amends.
Generosity. Recognizing and accepting the need to take turns and share. Pitching in to help without being asked. Assisting those in need without expecting recognition or reward. Finding pleasure in doing for others.
Empathy. Being able to imagine oneself in another’s circumstances and respond in a fitting manner. Treating others the way one wishes to be treated, not necessarily the way one has been treated or seen others treated.
Courtesy. Demonstrating good manners. Using “please,” “thank you,” “may I,” and “excuse me.” Exhibiting respect for other’s feelings, opinions, and rights.
Perseverance. The determination to keep trying in the face of challenges. Comparing current performance with past performance in working toward improvement. Seeking excellence, not perfection.
Accountability. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions and the resulting consequences. Being reliable with personal possessions and cleaning up after oneself. Leaving things in the condition they were found, or better.
Kindness. Treating others with consideration and compassion. Acknowledging others with eye contact and a smile. Expressing thanks and appreciation. Thinking twice before speaking. Using encouraging words and actions. Realizing that to have a friend, one must be a friend.
Conscience. Knowing the difference between right and wrong. Accepting that just because one can do something, doesn’t mean one should. Deciding to be honest, without being cruel. Listening to and complying with that “still small voice” inside.
Instilling personal qualities in our children is an ongoing process, most effectively accomplished in an atmosphere characterized by patience, consistency, and love. The kind of patience that adopts age-appropriate, realistic expectations; takes the time to express those expectations clearly; and understands that the ability to meet expectations will improve with experience. The kind of consistency that expresses appreciation and approval when good choices are made and institutes reasonable, relevant consequences when poor choices are made. The kind of love that says, “You are more important to us than anything you do or don’t do at school. We will be there to help you work through any problems that arise as well as celebrate your accomplishments.” The kind of love that makes our children stronger and encourages them to strive for their best. The kind of love that is committed to modeling the qualities we expect them to exemplify.
I am convinced that children equipped with this supply of personal qualities will not only be ready for school, they will be ready for life.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in Child Development, Family Studies, and Marriage and Family Therapy. Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons, ages 24 and 14. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. After six years as Arts Facilitator for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she chose to return to her favorite place of employment – home. To contact her, please e-mail paren