The Instant Expert: How to survive sending kids back to school
Helena Frith Powell on how to survive the ordeal of sending the kids back to school.
FEELING STRESSED? The American novelist and editor Edgar W Howe once said: “If there were no schools to take the children away from home part of the time, the insane asylums would be filled with mothers.” As a long, hot summer draws to its close, the Instant Expert is sure thousands of harassed mothers around the world can relate to that.
EVEN WORKING MOTHERS? Even those who are lucky enough to work to escape from their children will by now be fed up with the 20 or so phone calls a day detailing who is standing on whose head at any particular time of the loooooong day. And summer’s ubiquitous “Are we there yet?” turns into “When are you coming home?”
OK, TELL ME MORE At the beginning of September, the autumn term. Your children are expected to show up in the right clothes, carrying the right bag and lunch box, as well as the proper mindset, to embark on another year of education and self-improvement. They’re not as excited by this prospect as you are.
ARE WE LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS? Yes and no. Of course we are happy to return to “normality”, but the pressure of organising everything, especially if you have more than one child (possibly in different schools), makes for an enormous challenge.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? You just don’t get it, do you? You think those school uniforms just buy themselves? And the shoes (which have to be black and pretty hideous, but your fashion-conscious son/daughter still has to agree to wear them)? And who is going to plan the contents of the lunch box so they don’t just eat Oreos for 12 weeks?
LARGE CHANCE OF REBELLION First of all, you have to make the little blighters get out of bed before 10am. Then get dressed (in clothes they don’t want to wear) and spend the whole day concentrating on algebra and Shakespeare as opposed to Facebook. Last year the Instant Expert’s eldest daughter came home and declared that the class had voted and unanimously decided they didn’t want to study Shakespeare. One for the “How to impress your new teacher on your first day” list.
OH, SO A BIT OF PREPARATION IS NEEDED? Just a tad. The French spend the entire summer preparing forla réntree, as they call it. It’s almost as big as Ramadan or Christmas. And after it’s happened they ask how it went for another few weeks.
BUT WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? Just about everything from the wrong compass to making a mistake on the date or start time. There is so much that can go awry that French schools provide parents with a long list of exactly what to buy, down to the exercise books and how far apart the lines in it have to be. No, we are not exaggerating.
YES, BUT THAT’S THE FRENCH Granted, but the rest of us have the task of organising not only uniforms, lunch boxes, wake-up calls, school buses, school fees and so forth, but also the dreaded PE and swimming kit. They will need kit that comes from the uniform shop, as well as goggles and flip-flops for swimming. The goggles will be lost every week, as will most of the other bits. So you get a little taste of that “Going back to school” syndrome on a weekly basis.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PREPARE? Left it a bit late, haven’t you? Read our box of top tips to the right. But next year, try to get with the beat baggy.
Top six tips
LUNCH BOXES Scour the internet for good ideas of what to put in their lunch boxes. There is nothing more disheartening than eating the same grub as all last year. Make it a fun task. You can do it with the kids, and that way they might even eat it.
THE RIGHT KIT Do not go to the school uniform shop the week before term starts. If at all possible, go several weeks before, or you risk everything being sold out as well having to battle a huge rush.
PLAN IN ADVANCE Think of going back to school as a little like Christmas. Do a little every week for weeks in advance. Buying goggles, for example, or the hideous school shoes. If you have to sew on name tags, do it in July – or better still, get your mother to do it in July.
EARLY NIGHTS Try to get them back into early nights a week before school starts, half an hour earlier each night.
BITS OF PAPER Your child will come back with lots of bits of paper for you to fill in – for school ID, for example – so keep them all in the same (memorable) place.
DON’T PANIC They will be fine. The world will still keep turning even if your child doesn’t have the right PE kit for the first week. Honestly. Trust us on this.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019