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Managing the Back-to-School Madness

Professor Applies Management Principles to Parenting

By Lauren Brown


Illustration by Kelsey Marotta

Illustration by Kelsey Marotta

When Nicole Coomber was suffering from postpartum depression after her second son, even deciding whether to bake a pan of brownies was overwhelming. She says now, “My cognitive load was too heavy because I was wearing too much emotional weight.”

Nicole CoomberBut as she emerged from that period, she realized she could use the lexicon and strategies from her professional life as a lecturer on management and organization in the Robert H. Smith School of Business to reclaim control over her personal one.

Now the consultant and blogger behind Managing Motherhood, Coomber shares and collects poignant, funny and insightful stories about how to use the basics of management—plan, organize, lead and control—to be a better parent.

“I’m not perfect,” she says. “I’m not going to be this superblogger mommy, but I’m going to make it work and I’m going to get through this. I can manage.”

Mom of children ages 18 months and 4 and pregnant with twins, she focuses mostly on the toddler set. But the principles she preaches also apply to parents facing the trials of a new school year, including overscheduling and homework havoc. Here are a few of her tips:

Number 1IDENTIFY WHAT YOU VALUE: Struggling to decide what to remove from your family’s overstuffed schedule of extracurriculars? Take a personality test. “Yes, some people think they’re BS, but they can identify what drives you crazy and what refreshes you. We have so many competing priorities. Figure out how to cut to the chase and limit the stuff you all do. What are we telling our kids if we’re struggling to take on everything for them?”

Number 2MAKE DECISIONS RATIONALLY: Coomber recommends making a spreadsheet for tough decisions such as which activities stay or go, or which school to send your child to. For the former, she suggests creating a matrix of those options (soccer, ballet, Scouts, etc.) and such considerations as proximity, cost and time commitment, and scoring them 1-3 to arrive at a decision.

Number 3EMBRACE AUTOMATION: “Anything you can make easier by taking the cognitive work out, do it.” Put your kids’ clothes out or pack lunches the night before. Have Taco Tuesdays. Arrange carpools for school or after-school commitments. “What’s going to create habits for you so you no longer have to decide?”

Number 4DELEGATE: Coomber advises against asking your partner to help you make dinner on busy evenings. Take turns meal-making instead. “People are more motivated when they have a clear goal and task to complete from start to finish. Sharing one is so ambiguous.”

Number 5CONSIDER MOTIVATIONS: Employees are generally motivated intrinsically (they enjoy doing a job well) or extrinsically (praise or raises). So are your kids. If you can tap into your child’s internal motivators, Coomber says, “Go with that because it’s more durable and lasting.” A former middle school teacher of French, she recommends appealing to your child’s better angels to get him or her to complete homework assignments. If the homework isn’t motivating, but the idea of completing it may be, ask, “Don’t you feel good when your homework’s all finished?”. Beware of grades, an extrinsic motivator, being king to kids: “They may do the work just for the reward.”

Number 6NEGOTIATE STRATEGICALLY: Feel like your child’s teacher isn’t treating him or her fairly? Take the art of negotiation from the boardroom to the classroom and consider the conflict from both sides: “You want what you think is in your child’s best interest. Think about what they want out of this. Don’t go in with both guns blazing. Find some small wins first and let them see you’re reasonable.”

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