School's out - now what? Parents can trust their instincts

''The Elliots chose Friday as their designated family evening. ... Each of the five family members took turns selecting and scheduling an appropriate event. One week, Mrs. Elliot planned for them to build a bookshelf. ... For his week, Mr. Elliot chose a funny play for the family to read aloud. Paula, 13, made arrangements for the family to attend a free concert on the town Common. Ten-year-old Adam found a recipe for homemade pizza and bought the ingredients. ... Eric, aged 6, asked his mother to help him arrange for the family to dine at an Italian restaurant in a neighboring city.''

That's just one of dozens of examples of how real families plan their time together in creative ways. It's not offered as a formula or as a model to be followed. It's simply one educator's way of answering an often-heard question from parents: ''What do other people do?''

''In the mass media there's been so much emphasis on everybody being a one-minute manager or a super parent that often people think their own ideas are too humble,'' says Joan Bergstrom, chairwoman of the Department of Professional Studies in Early Childhood at Boston's Wheelock College. ''The fact is that in most instances parents' instincts are right on target. They know their kids, and all one has to do is to get them to articulate what their children like. You have to encourage them to follow their own intuitions instead of thinking that someone else is going to have a better solution.''

When her own son was in third grade, Dr. Bergstrom says, she had plenty of questions herself. She wanted to know how many activities her son should be involved in outside school. She wanted to know how she could encourage a sense of excellence while exposing him to a variety of experiences. ''If it's an issue for you, it's an issue for other people,'' a colleague advised her - and the search for answers was on.

During the past five years, as Dr. Bergstrom has interviewed children and parents and conducted workshops for families, she has also been collecting their experiences and refining her own observations. Her conclusions are being published this month in a helpful new resource guide for parents, ''School's Out - Now What?'' (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., $9.95).

''It's a one-of-a-kind book,'' says Irving Lazar, professor of human service studies at Cornell University. ''It's a very practical collection of suggestions and procedures for dealing with your kids after school, and I don't know of any other book which puts it all together like this one.'' ''School's Out'' is addressed to parents of children between the ages of 6 and 12. It's been calculated that in these so-called ''middle childhood'' years youngsters spend nearly 80 percent of their waking time out of school each year. Although Dr. Bergstrom agrees with other experts that children need their share of unstructured time for daydreaming and even for getting into mischief, she argues that they also ought to spend a minimum of three to six hours each week in some meaningful activity, such as playing baseball, taking clarinet lessons, attending Cub Scouts, or learning to tie-dye.

During these early school years, she contends, children are developing the capacity to love, learning to modify their behavior, and honing problem-solving skills. But because few of them can organize time for themselves at this age, they need to be taught how to do things on their own.

It's during this time that children either develop habits of resourcefulness, responsibility, and reliability - or they don't,'' Dr. Bergstrom explains. ''For example, I know kids who at 13 and 14 can assume the responsibility of bringing along a bag of toys with them to baby-sit for a young child. These are kids who were helped and cared for, and who are now learning how to care for others.''

Helping to schedule a child's time after school, on the weekend, and during vacation doesn't imply that parents are imposing their own ambitions on their youngsters, and it needn't require extra expense, according to Dr. Bergstrom. In a number of chapters, she shows how parents have located community resources, organized their households, planned special times together, encouraged reading, included time for homework in between chores, and set limits for television watching. She cites examples of families who have rules against children participating in three sports during a season, against missing family dinner more than once or twice a week, and against out-of-school activities beyond walking distance of home or school.

Throughout the book, Dr. Bergstrom is intent on encouraging parents to trust their own feelings, whether they're heading up traditional households or juggling the challenges of being a single parent. She suggests questions for them to ask prospective coaches and tutors, and also includes warning signs to be aware of in children who are involved in too many activities.

''She's really addressing the nagging questions that many parents have,'' says Michelle Seligson, director of the School-Age Child Care Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. ''There are plenty of books out on survival skills for children and adults, but none of them talk about development issues - and Joan does. She's really saying, 'Take a look at who you are, and who your child is, and what role activities can play in his or her development.' ''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.