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School nights are a real challenge for most parents. Just as your energy flags, a slew of parenting duties looms ahead. Learn how to create a two-hour school night routine that works for both parent and child. By following this two-hour ritual, you’ll be able to:
- Bond with your children
- Prepare and enjoy a nutritious dinner
- Support your child’s organization and academic success
- Read with your child
- Follow a book-bath-bed routine to an early bedtime
- Enjoy some “me” time once the kids are in bed
The hours between 6 and 8pm will never be the same!
Parenting in the Digital Age
My working life brings me into New York City schools on a regular basis. As an expert in the teaching of reading, critical thinking, and writing, I work in a wide range of schools to improve learning outcomes in these areas. This gives me the privilege of getting to work with students as young as four and as old as eighteen, sometimes all in the same day.
Recently I walked into a sixth-grade classroom. It was the second period of the day, and a boy was fast asleep in his chair. I drummed my fingers on his desk. When he woke up I asked him if I should send out for coffee. He rubbed his eyes, blinking, still somewhere between waking and sleeping. Then, to the great amusement of his classmates, he agreed that coffee would be a great idea. I smilingly pointed out that I could not get him a coffee because he was only eleven years old, and here we were at school at ten in the morning. The rest of the class found our little exchange highly amusing, and as an isolated incident, I did too.
But it’s not an isolated incident. Throughout the last several years at schools in widely different neighborhoods, I’ve seen young children who are clearly suffering from sleep deprivation. Through conversations with these students, I’ve learned some of the reasons for their fatigue:
Some stay up late doing homework.
Some have flexible bedtimes and end up getting much less sleep than the recommended nine to eleven hours.
Some play video games late into the night with or without their parents’ permission.
Some, after their parents put them to bed, continue to play digital games on their phone, tablet, or other device—or engage with social media deep into the night.
We might expect some of these scenarios in teens, but we’re increasingly seeing them in elementary and middle school children. The digital age has changed how we live—and how our children live. Adults have a responsibility to wisely integrate technology into our children’s lives. That includes carving out significant time each day for screen-free time, opportunities for quiet activities, and face-to-face conversation. Establishing a balance for our children encourages the development of the whole child. However, we can’t give what we don’t have. Parents need to establish healthy screen habits in order for their children to enjoy the same.
Most adults have learned to navigate the subtleties of the digital world. We’ve figured out that a Facebook friend is not the same thing as a friend you roomed with in college. We know that the amazing affordances of Skype and teleconferencing aren’t perfect substitutes for communication with people who are physically present. And we are increasingly aware that our tendency to be tethered to our smartphones damages our closest relationships.
The average American parent spends more than seven hours a day in front of screens for personal use.* When combined with screen use for work, that amounts to more than nine hours each day. As most of us will freely admit, our concentration spans, our sleep habits, and even our conversational skills are negatively affected by over-reliance on interactive technology.
So limiting screen time is a family-wide challenge and requires a family-wide solution.
That’s just what this book is designed to offer. Prime-Time Parenting outlines an evening plan to help parents navigate childrearing and parental self-care in the digital age. Informed by the latest research in child development and cognitive science as well as ancient wisdom on what works best for children, it outlines a two-hour routine that covers the bases of homework, family dinner, reading, bath time, and bedtime. Importantly, it leaves plenty of time for the parent to relax, refresh, and recharge themselves.
Why devote a book entirely to school nights? As challenging as school nights are to tired parents, they are critical to the development of school-age children. Reconnecting with family; processing the events of the day; facing down the challenges of homework and nightly reading; receiving nourishment in the form of healthy food, parental attention and lively conversation; and falling asleep at a reasonable time—all of these habits set the child up for success the following morning. Over time, they teach a child how to care for himself as well as how to care about others too.
While the structure outlined in Prime-Time Parenting excludes screen media between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., I should make clear that I am an avid fan of digital technology. In fact, I’ve worked on cutting-edge educational technology projects throughout my career and have earned graduate degrees from MIT and Harvard Graduate School of Education, both leaders in the study and development of new educational tools. But after more than two decades of immersion in digital media, I simply believe that the best users of any form of technology know when to use it and when to switch it off.
That’s a lot easier said than done, especially where children are concerned. The prospect of cutting a child off from a social media app or video game can feel a lot like depriving them of oxygen. The ensuing temper tantrums and irritability are sure signs that children are spending too much time in front of screens. And if that doesn’t convince you, a look at the data lays bare the facts.
In 2018 the average American child spent six to seven hours on digital media a day. The effects of all that screen time can include decreased powers of concentration, increased stress levels, difficulty controlling mood and behavior, poor eye contact, and low frustration tolerance. And that’s before we get into what all those hours in front of screens displaces. After all, if a child is spending six to seven hours in front of a screen, here’s what she’s not doing: playing with friends, drawing, building, reading, making things, working on puzzles, talking to family members, participating in sports, developing extracurricular hobbies and skills, completing school work, helping out with chores, and sleeping. Our children’s ability to develop into thoughtful, creative, and curious people depends on significant daily time engaged in worthwhile, screen-free activities. When screen time nudges these aside, a child’s social, emotional, and intellectual development is compromised.
Tellingly, some of the very people who have created the technology that floods our lives set strict limits on their own children’s use of it. Bill Gates has stated, “We often set a time after which there is no screen time, and in their case that helps them get to sleep at a reasonable hour.” When asked what his children thought of the iPad, Steve Jobs famously replied in 2010, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Hearing this, I was stunned. At the time I was consulting in inner-city public schools, which were making massive investments in iPads. These schools saw it as a bid to traverse the “digital divide.” I remember a principal proudly telling me that each and every child in her school would have their own tablet. That represented an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single school. And yet its creator had not let his own children use it. Clearly there was a disconnect between what educators and technology leaders perceive as important in twenty-first-century education. Today a surprising number of Silicon Valley executives send their children to technology-free Waldorf schools, where hands-on learning and physical activity are emphasized. Many schools in the Waldorf tradition not only ban technology from the classroom; they also discourage children’s use of it at home.
That reluctance to let children use much—or even any—screen media may be informed by an understanding of just how addictive they can be. Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft marketing manager and parent, explained, “Media products are designed to keep people’s attention. It’s not that there’s an intent to harm children, but there’s an intent to keep them engaged.” It’s no accident that children don’t want to get off their devices; these applications and games were designed to be “sticky.”
In contrast, when children read, write, draw, build, or play, they are learning self-control, how to focus, how to solve problems, and how to think out of the box. I saw this in my own child who grew up without a television until the age of nine. When I took him to grade school his teachers commented on his unusually well-developed reading and creative problem-solving skills. I wish I could take credit for this, but the truth is that what I did not do was every bit as important as what I did. By removing a television from our home, Jasper was forced to find ways to entertain himself, and these involved far more creativity and concentration than watching television requires.
When we watch our children engage with interactive media, we cannot deny that they look focused. However, what we are observing is computer-enabled attention, a fundamentally different quality of attention than when a person reads, builds, or writes. Computer-enabled attention may undermine a child’s ability to develop real attentional control, the kind required to read and write in academic contexts. One technology executive observed that there is no harm in delaying children’s engagement with technology; after all, children and teens pick up technological skills with extreme ease. What children do not pick up easily is strong reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Even “gifted” children put in enormous amounts of time to develop their skills in these areas. In fact, acquiring these foundational academic skills is so time intensive that most children need to work at it during the school day and again at home during homework. It takes years and years of concerted, nearly daily practice to produce a college-ready reader and writer. When we underestimate just how much time mastery in these areas require, our children pay for it with reduced prospects.
So Prime-Time Parenting includes enjoyable practices that help children lengthen their attention span and strengthen their literacy and numeracy skills. It also offers tips and techniques for helping children organize their homework and school bags and prepare for the coming day. This will help them arrive at school the next morning feeling relaxed, prepared, and confident.
What is a teacher’s dream? A child who follows a regular routine, such as the one outlined in this book, on school nights. Why? Because that child has completed and organized their assignments, practiced or deepened the skills learned the previous day, read independently and together with a parent, had a nutritious meal, enjoyed rich conversations with family, and had a good night’s rest. That is a perfect recipe for a student who arrives each morning bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready, willing, and able to learn.
Teachers, parents, and students are partners. They each have a unique role to play. If any one of the three falls down on the job, educational progress won’t happen. At this point in our nation’s educational history there are wide spectrums of opinion about the usefulness of homework or the fairness of state exams or the wisdom of the Common Core standards. Wherever you fall on these debates, I hope you work closely with your child’s teacher, gaining clarity on what he or she expects from parents and fulfilling your important role in the educational mission. And if you find yourself with a teacher who strikes you as rather undemanding or hazy about just what parents should do to encourage their child’s academic growth, take note that you may need to do more heavy lifting with your child’s education this year than normal. Prime-Time Parenting and its various segments covers what even the most exacting teacher would expect from a student aged thirteen or younger.
I’ve worked with many schools and have seen everything from schools that expect several hours of homework at middle school, to schools where homework was assigned without any expectation of it being completed, to schools where it was not assigned at all because the school believed that students needed time to relax in the evening. And I am aware of schools that have taken a “no homework” position because they believe that children are better served in self-chosen after-school activities. I am unapologetically pro-homework. Students need the independent practice that it offers, the self-discipline and organization that it engenders, and the chance to extend work in ways not possible within the school day. Homework should be interesting, challenging, and relevant to the overarching goals of the curriculum. Even skill drills designed to build automaticity can be made interesting and designed to involve higher-order thinking. If your child’s school does not assign homework at all or assigns homework that is inadequate in terms of challenge, I would strongly suggest that you assemble a homework program of your own to supplement it. (See the Resource section for more specific suggestions.)
The time you spend during the Homework Hustle segment of the evening is especially important to your child’s attitude about school. By devoting that time, you are sending a clear message to your child about how important schoolwork is—and, at times, how difficult. Sitting with a child and ensuring that they are staying on task and encouraging them as they struggle with a difficult assignment tells the child that it is natural and normal to have to work hard, even when you don’t feel like it and even when you don’t quite know what you are doing. Over time and perhaps counterintuitively, this enables children to become self-reliant. They don’t shy away from challenge, and they know better than to quit just because they’re bored.
The parental role in homework that I’ve described in the Homework Hustle section of the book also communicates parental expectations about education. Not surprisingly, parents who express high expectations for their children’s academic achievement—and follow through with warm support and firm structure—do much better than students whose parents take a more casual approach. As we all know, children learn from what parents do more than from what they say. And when parents commit themselves to ensuring that homework is done and correctly put away, their children understand that the responsibilities of schoolwork are very serious ones.
Contrast that message with a parent who believes that their child is entirely responsible for completing their homework and putting it away. The parent may believe themselves to be encouraging their child’s self-reliance. In fact, they are sending a rather wishy-washy message about homework’s importance—and the importance of fulfilling one’s responsibilities. The parent who takes the stance that children should opt out of homework altogether on the grounds that it is worthless has now provided a very confusing message to their child, one where the teacher and the school are misguided. That sets a very difficult context for the child to succeed and grow within. Children need to “buy in” before they can lean in—and they are unlikely to do either if they don’t see their parents doing the same.
One of the most notable attitudes in classrooms today—at every educational level—is an inability to rise to a challenge or grapple with an unfamiliar task. Many students simply do not have the patience to buckle down and work something out on their own. This lack of tolerance for difficulty shows that they haven’t had to problem solve on their own enough. I see this in elementary school students all the way through to college students. What will happen to these students when they go on to professions? The ability to learn, to self-teach, and to adapt is absolutely critical in the fast-moving Information Age.
Students need to be able to sit quietly with a problem and struggle through it on their own. A child who is actively trying to produce something she has never done before, whether it’s a solution to an algebra question or a new type of essay, is a child who is learning. If it is difficult for them, that’s a good thing! When they conquer the challenge, they will have acquired so much more than the target skill: they will have the self-knowledge that they can tackle new and even harder challenges in time to come.
My hope is that this book provides some new ideas and inspiration for the night shift of parenting, the most challenging job of all, no matter what age we live in.
New York, New York
*Parents here are those with children aged eight to eighteen.
Prime-Time Parenting at a Glance
If you’re like most parents, 6:00 p.m. isn’t the end of the day—it’s the start of your second shift. Whether you work in the home or outside of it, 6:00 p.m. finds you tired, zapped out, and ready to put your feet up. Unfortunately, just as your energy flags, a series of parenting tasks lie in wait:
• Preparing dinner
• Having dinner
• Checking your kids’ homework
• Getting your kids through bath time
• Reading with your children
• Putting your kids to bed
How do we do it all? The answer is: too often, we don’t.
We order dinner online or pick it up on the way home. The kids turn up at the dinner table with their eyes glued to their phones or tablets, and although you ask them to turn them off, you yourself sneak looks at your phone between mouthfuls. Dinner conversation? It’s a staccato blend of one-word answers, nagging about turning the devices off, and silent pauses while everyone reads their screens.
After dinner the kids sulkily depart to do homework. At least, that’s what you hope they’re doing as you throw away the trash that contained your dinner. Then it’s nag time. Nagging about homework. Nagging about bedtime. Looking over their shoulders at computer screens that ostensibly are being used for academic tasks. And prying them away from their devices. By the time the kids are more or less in bed, it’s your bedtime too.
This unfulfilling cycle of nagging and negotiating turns what should be the happiest time of the day into a grueling grind. It doesn’t have to be that way. The answer is what I call Prime-Time Parenting: a two-hour window that is going to change your life.
If we think of the two hours between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. as our “prime-time parenting” hours, we can focus our energy on the critical parenting tasks of dinner, homework, reading, and bedtime. And then we can punch our card. We can clock out. We can claim our adult right to peace and quiet for an hour or two before we go to bed. And what are our kids doing during the adult time we have claimed for ourselves? They’re doing what children are supposed to be doing after 8:30 p.m. They’re sleeping.
Bedtime at 8 or 8:30? Even for middle schoolers?
Yes, you read that right. Children need enormous amounts of sleep. It’s a fact we have largely forgotten over the last several decades. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a child between the ages of six and twelve needs nine to twelve hours of sleep each night. With adequate sleep, children enjoy better concentration, stronger memory, improved emotional regulation, and overall physical and mental health.
But my child is different! you say. He doesn’t need that much sleep!
Many parents think that because a child does not appear sleepy at 8:00 p.m. that it’s okay to let the child stay up later. And some parents—and even some parenting gurus—claim that “sleep anxiety” is caused by insisting a wide-awake child go to bed.
But a child who seems energetic and alert at 8:30 p.m. needs sleep just as much as a child who is visibly cranky from fatigue. Moreover, if your adorable night owl doesn’t get the recommended hours of sleep tonight, he will probably be making up for it during tomorrow’s math class. All children need sleep and lots of it. With a structured bedtime routine that includes a warm bath, a nice conversation with mom or dad, a little reading together, and a proper tucking in, even the most rambunctious child or energized tween will begin to power down.
The bottom line: while there are individual differences between how much sleep a person needs, all children need a lot of sleep. Don’t let your child’s charm or energy—or even your desire to have more face time with him or her—convince you otherwise.
Screen Time Interferes with Dreamtime
There’s a good reason why so many of our children appear wide-awake at bedtime, and it’s in front of our noses. Or, more accurately, their noses.
As children spend more and more time in front of screens, more and more children are having difficulty falling asleep. And the same is true of adults. The reason is biochemical. When our children interact with screens, they are exposed to the blue light that most of these devices emit.
The blue light from screens tricks our body into thinking that it is still daytime. And, in turn, our body does not release the hormone melatonin, which tells our bodies to go to sleep. This is why your nine-year-old may be super-alert at 10:00 p.m. If she’s been gaming or working on a computer or even reading off of a tablet, that blue light has convinced her brain and body that it’s the middle of the day, not the end of it.
Try going to sleep immediately after several hours of screen time. If you’re like most people, you will have some difficulty. The blue light has thrown your body clock out of sync with the natural world. The solution: shut down the screens two hours before bedtime.
Sleep and School Performance
One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I can see the effects of lack of sleep on a day-to-day basis in schools. As a consultant to schools on improving learning outcomes for children, I get to visit many different schools and observe children in the process of classroom instruction. In recent years I have noticed an increase in children who are visibly drowsy, not just in the afternoon or immediately after lunch, but in the midmorning. I don’t remember the same fatigue in students of the same age, even just five years ago.
“You’re ten years old!” I sometimes chide them. “You should have plenty of energy at 10:00 a.m. You should be raring to go!” One time recently a young girl responded, “But Ms. Miller, isn’t it normal to be tired? I mean, just because we’re kids, does that really mean that we should never be tired?”
I looked at the young girl for a moment. I thought about what her comment revealed. Her experience had told her that it was perfectly normal to be drowsy as a ten-year-old at 10:00 a.m.
I told her, “Of course you should feel tired sometimes. But not at ten in the morning. It’s not as though you’ve been working in the fields since 5:00 a.m. By now you’ve been up only a few hours. You should be wide eyed and refreshed.”
Drowsy children are increasingly the rule in class, but there are also some students who are just flat-out asleep. And I’m not talking about half-asleep—I’m talking deep REM sleep. And while these children are often taking medication for ADHD, it is possible that a mixture of sleep deprivation and the effects of medication are combining to produce this deep, midmorning slumber. Either way, certain students are downright unconscious when their teacher is explaining fractions or the causes of the French Revolution. Why? Because their bodies are desperately trying to make up for the sleep they lost the night before. Teachers are put in the agonizing position over and over again of having to wake up a young child who is fast asleep. To my eyes it feels torturous for the child and deeply unfair to the teacher.
Fortunately, there is an easy fix for this. The Prime-Time Parenting method ensures that your children really are getting enough hours of sleep and are not interacting with screens in the last hour before bed. As a result, they can feel as tired as they actually are.
Prime-Time Parenting keeps kids (and parents) busy for the two-hour lead-up before bedtime. There is no window for screen time here. This ensures that your children’s natural sleep process will occur without interference from melatonin-lowering blue light from screens. Moreover, your child will get into a more peaceful state of mind, knowing that homework is complete, the backpack is packed and ready for tomorrow morning, and they have had some high-quality time with their favorite person—you.
If you don’t get home until after 6:00 p.m., you can still do Prime-Time Parenting. You might shift the start of Prime-Time Parenting to 6:30 or have a caregiver follow the routine until you get home.
Lessons from Long Ago
A few generations ago parents didn’t have the science to support basic wisdom about parenting, such as children’s need for active play time, affection, physical activity, good nutrition, many friends, predictable routines, and appropriate challenge. Nevertheless, most parents knew what their children needed from common sense. In today’s world, awash with new technologies that have rapidly changed how we communicate, play, work, interact, and record our experience, we may temporarily lose track of age-old best practices in the raising of children. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we are largely unaware of the biochemical changes that extended screen time can have on our children’s behavior. We can and should take a step back now, reflect on the role of screen media in our family’s lives and create habits that reflect our hopes and dreams for our children, as well as our priorities for ourselves, as adults. This book helps parents identify an approach to parenting that integrates the best of new insights into child development with ancient wisdom about child-rearing.
The exclusive focus on active parenting for two hours each evening enables parents to:
• pay attention to each of their children
• ensure homework is complete
• support their child’s organizational skills
• nourish their child with healthy food
• have rich conversations with their child
• support good social skills and manners
• play with their child
• read with their child
• respond to messages from school
• foster healthy sleep habits in their child
• provide a bedtime ritual that includes bath time, conversation and reading
• ensure well-deserved rest and relaxation for the parent
That is a long list of achievements for an investment of just two hours. And it leaves parents with the time they need to nurture themselves and each other.
My hope is that the Prime-Time Parenting routine will help transform the evening grind into what it should be: the best part of your day.
- "Prime-Time Parenting is a much needed and detailed guide for contemporary parents rearing children in a new and challenging digital society. Heather Miller provides a wealth of concrete practical suggestions for helping parents deal with the many obstacles screen technology poses for healthy parenting."—David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play
- "The step-by-step guide to school nights families have always wanted. Kids thrive in structure and Miller has created the perfect weeknight routine that helps children feel nurtured and families feel connected...all while getting things done!"—Kyle Schwartz, teacher and author of I Wish My Teacher Knew
"Prime Time Parenting belongs on the bookshelf of every parent who means well and tries hard, but is often so tired and stressed that the precious time we have with our families at the end of the day can unravel in chaos. Heather Miller has written a no-nonsense and supremely helpful guide designed to not only to bring sanity and structure to family evenings, but to create the space to connect with the very people who give our lives so much joy and meaning."
—Brigid Schulte, award-winning journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling Overwhelmed and director of the Better Life Lab at New America
- "In a fast-paced, information-rich world, parents need to work harder than ever to provide a nurturing, predictable and upbeat home life. Heather Miller's Prime Time Parenting helps parents define the best uses of technology for their growing children. This makes it an indispensable guide for the busy, modern parent."—Dr. Mariko Gakiya, SHINE Advisory Board Member, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
- "No longer can parents complain that there are no owner's manuals for raising children. In Prime Time Parenting, Heather Miller presents an exemplary step-by-step guide to help parents make productive use of every minute during a critical and often stressful time in a family's day--six to eight p.m. weekdays. Based on best practices and organized around family routines and meaningful rituals, this engaging book provides a valuable resource for any parents interested in strengthening their family's health, happiness, and well-being."—Ron Slaby, PhD, Senior Scientist, Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children's Hospital
- "Prime Time Parenting is a simply brilliant balm for the digital age. Heather Miller provides a realistic blueprint for giving your children the childhood we all crave: one where families gather around dinner tables, linger over bedtime stories and tuck children into bed. As a parent of three boys and an expert in social and emotional learning, I think you'll find that this book helps you to regain connection with your children and enjoy valuable adult time, all while supporting healthy development for every member of the family."—Laura Parker Roerden, Author of Net Lessons and Executive Director, Ocean Matters
- "Could revolutionize American households."—Seattle Book Review
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books