current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Texas Parenting News

Plan ahead for holiday visits


Before you know it, the winter holidays will be upon us. For parents, that means responding to two (or more) sets of grandparents about when and how long you will visit. Holiday visits can pose an especially difficult dilemma for young parents.
Feelings can get ruffled if one side of the family seems to get more time with the grandchildren than the other side. Those feelings, if not addressed, can carry over into the whole year and even affect the family long-term.

Some tips for managing visits:
Look at the positive. Grandparents want to spend time with their grandchildren at this special time of year. They wanted to be included in family celebrations and often can help with food, gifts, and activities—not to mention care and affection.
Avoid comparing the different sets of grandparents as better or worse. Respect differences in backgrounds and upbringing, and remember that we all do the best we can in the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Plan visits well in advance. Talk with everyone about any limitations such as work schedules, travel costs, and children’s needs. Once you agree on a plan, inform children so they know what to expect.
Offer options best suited to your family. Some families manage to visit all the grandparents for all the winter holidays, for example, while others might divide the gatherings. Still other families take turns by year.
Consider grandparents’ preferences. Grandpa Jones may want to attend a football game or go deer hunting with his son at Thanksgiving, for example. And Grandma Smith may be happy to forego a holiday visit in exchange for a weeklong visit with the grandchildren in the summer.
Support your partner. Agree beforehand on timing, length of stay, and other boundaries. If your side of the family oversteps a boundary, you need to be the one to point it out to them, and vice versa. Both parents need to nurture their relationship with each other and maintain a good relationship with the extended family.
Be willing to talk through conflicts. If Nana complains, “We get only two days with you, and the other grandparents get four,” explain how you arrived at that arrangement. Or say something like, “I appreciate your concern, but we chose to do it this way this time.” It may help to think to yourself, “This is not about us; it’s about them.”
Remember to include divorced and widowed grandparents as well as great-grandparents who may be homebound. The holidays can be exceedingly lonely for them, and children can gain valuable insights when given a chance to visit.


Help children with social and emotional learning


When we talk about children’s learning, what often comes to mind is academic learning, such as reading, writing, and math. But learning actually consists of skill development in many areas, including the social and emotional domains.

Emotional learning refers to our sense of self; social learning refers to how we get along with others. Taken together, socio-emotional development can reference the sense of self-competence, the ability to recognize and regulate our feelings, a sense of empathy toward others, a feeling of belonging in our family and community, the ability to play and work cooperatively, a sense of right and wrong, and skill in resolving conflicts with others.

Common sense says that the younger children are when they learn social and emotional skills, the less trouble they will have in school and throughout their adult lives. Moreover, like reading and math, these skills can be taught and practiced.

Children begin learning social and emotional skills at home by imitating family members. For example, they may learn how to show consideration for others, communicate calmly and respectfully, and follow rules, for example.

In addition to imitating parents, children learn in interactions with other children and adults. As such, parents can provide opportunities for play and social interaction, such as enrolling children in preschool, going on outings with family members and friends, and inviting friends into the home. Children best learn social interaction through experience with adult guidance.

When children get angry or upset, for example, a parent can calm them down and talk about what happened. The goal is to teach children to use words, not kicking and screaming. “Yes, I can understand you’re angry,” Mom might say. “I didn’t buy the toy because we have plenty at home. If you really want it, you might buy it yourself with the money in your piggy bank.”

It’s especially important to teach children how to think through and solve conflicts. If two children are fighting, for example, the parent can intervene to get information but without taking sides. “What’s going on?” Dad might say. As children explain, he acknowledges each child’s feelings: “It seems like one of you was feeling jealous, and the other was feeling hurt. What can you do about it?” Ideally the parent listens and helps clarify the problem but lets the children work it out. A day or two later, the parent talks with the children about how well their solution worked. If a problem persists, the parent and children can consider other options.

In teaching social skills, parents need to have realistic expectations. A 3-year-old may not have the capacity to understand what someone else is feeling, for example. Parents also need to educate children about rules, explain techniques such as taking turns and sharing, and recognize that learning takes time, and for some children, it takes longer than for others.

By treating social skills as something children learn, parents will likely better monitor their own actions, use a child’s problem behavior as a learning opportunity, engage children in more conversation, and find less need for punishment.


Plan for higher education


Many parents dream about a college education for their children. In the United States the simple fact is that the more education a person has, the more money the person will earn in the long run. Americans with a college degree earn 74 percent more than those with a high school diploma. (See Eduardo Porter, Sept. 10, 2014, “A Simple Equation: More Education =More Money,” The New York Times,

With higher paying jobs, college graduates often get health insurance and retirement income. College graduates are healthier, having fewer problems because they tend to avoid obesity and smoking. They are also more likely to take part in civic affairs, especially voting and volunteering in the community. (For more information, see “How College Shapes Lives,” a report published by the College Board, October 2013,

A college degree is necessary for certain professions, such as medical doctor, engineer, lawyer, and teacher. Your child may not be interested in such professions, and a college degree may not be the right choice for every child. Nonetheless, economic experts predict a growing need for more educated workers in the future. Even those who attend college briefly and leave before earning a degree face better prospects than those with no college. Actually, almost any training beyond high school—credentials in health care and computer technology, for example—will be critical in getting and holding jobs.

Unfortunately, college costs have skyrocketed in recent years, and families are rightly wary of college loans that can leave students saddled with debt for years. But the dream of higher education may still be within reach if parents begin planning even before children learn their ABC’s.

The first step is to get informed—about savings plans, lower-cost education options, and community resources.

The 529 plan. This plan, named for Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, is specifically designed to help families save for a child’s college education. It can be started when the child is a newborn or any time thereafter.

Plans vary among the states, but generally they are of two types: one is a savings plan offered by the state, and the other is a prepaid tuition plan that can be used at a college or university. Texas has both types, both under the jurisdiction of the State Comptroller’s Office and managed by NorthStar Financial Services Group.

The first type, the Texas College Savings Plan, allows you to choose from an assortment of investment portfolios, much like an IRA account. You can use the account at most accredited institutions in the United States, including vocational schools, two- and four-year colleges, and graduate schools. Earnings and withdrawals are free from federal income tax. The money can be used to pay not only tuition and fees but also books and room and board. You can enroll your child at any time.

The second type, the Texas Tuition Promise Fund®, allows you to lock in future tuition costs at today's prices. You buy tuition units, which vary by school, but generally 100 units represents 30 semester hours (considered one academic year). All Texas two- and four-year colleges are required to accept payment from the account but only for tuition and fees. If necessary, you can transfer the account’s value later to a private, career, or out-of-state school. Newborns can be enrolled between Sept. 1 and July 31 each year, and older children between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28.

With either type, the purchaser (usually the parents) owns and controls the account. Although you may open the account in one child’s name, you can change to another beneficiary later on, if necessary.

You can set up a plan online, by mail, or in person at your bank or an investment firm. You can contribute to it in different ways, such as lump sum, installments, or deductions from your paycheck. Over the years, anyone can contribute to it, making it a great no-hassle gift idea for grandparents, family, and friends.

A 529 probably won’t foot the entire bill for college, but it can help. For more information, see and Before starting any plan, however, get advice from your banker, accountant, or financial planner.

Dual credit and early college. Although your preschooler may be 10 or more years from starting high school, it’s important to know that students may be able to earn college credit for the same course in high school. Some students take classes at their high school, while others take them on a college campus, usually a community college.

Dual credit courses may be free, depending on the state, while some courses require payment for textbooks or community college tuition. Either way, the courses allow students to build up college credit, thus saving tuition costs and finishing college sooner.

Check with your local school district or community college to determine whether they offer dual credit courses for high school students. Find out about grades that students must maintain as they move through school and which courses they may need in middle school to be eligible to enroll in dual credit courses.

Community college. One of the most affordable ways to get a college education is to start at a community college. Students often can live at home and pay lower tuition than at a four-year school. They can take the basic courses that most degrees require and then transfer to a four-year college that offers courses in a specific degree program that a student has chosen. The main caution is to make sure that the four-year school will accept credits from the community college.

Financial aid. Many students are eligible for some form of financial aid, regardless of income or life circumstances, but the trick is knowing when and how to get it. Students apply for aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form, which is required by nearly all colleges and universities to determine a student’s eligibility.

Although you won’t fill out the form until your child’s junior or senior year of high school, it’s worth learning about while children are young. And when the time comes, you can get help in filling out the form from a number of organizations, including nonprofits working to encourage students to go to college.

Basic eligibility requirements for financial aid include a high school diploma or GED, Social Security number, and intention to use the aid only for education. A college will use the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for federal, state, and college-sponsored financial aid such as grants, loans, and work-study programs. (See Federal Student Aid, An Office of the U.S. Department of Education,

Apprenticeships. This earn-while-you-learn approach pays students to develop specific skills needed by employers. Students, who can enroll as young as 16 to 18 years of age, get on-the-job training for one to six years, depending on the job. At the end, they receive a credential verifying their competency and can decide whether to continue working or move on to college.

The U.S. Department of Labor operates a registered apprenticeship program that protects the safety and welfare of apprentices and ensures that program employers provide high quality training. Employers may require minimal qualifications such as age, education, aptitude tests, and the physical ability to perform the job.

To see a sampling of apprenticeship program available in your state or county, see the labor department’s database at

Online degrees. The quest for making higher education more affordable and accessible has prompted many traditional colleges to offer courses online. Some courses are taught partly in the classroom and partly online (known as blended courses), while others are entirely online. The trend has also led to the rise of new colleges, like the nonprofit Western Governors University, which are almost entirely online.

Today these innovative efforts provide an option for students who are working, already have some credits toward a degree, or just want to avoid an on-campus culture with football and fraternities. Students still pay tuition (sometimes at lower rates) but save the cost of such things as room and board or commuting.

By the time your preschoolers reach college age, they may have more options in cost, course offerings, and quality. Already at least three ventures—edX, Coursera, and Udacity—offer online courses free, although a small fee is required for a completion certificate. For a comparison of the three, see “The Big Three, At a Glance,” The New York Times, Nov. 2, 2012,

Free online courses that are open to everyone (known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs) typically consist of video lectures, homework assignments, and tests. Coursera and Udacity also offer social interaction with online forums and study groups. Udacity allows students to learn at their own pace, while the other two have start- and end-dates. The number and types of courses are limited, but expansion is underway.

All three are affiliated with prestigious universities. EdX, for example, was founded in 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coursera was founded the same year by two Stanford University professors. All three partner with other universities to offer the free online courses. EdX partners with the University of Texas System and the University of California at Berkeley; Coursera, with Duke and the University of Illinois at Urbana; and Udacity, with Georgia Tech.

Online education is better for teaching basic facts and skills, says Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, but she doubts that the traditional college will fade away. Many students will continue to want the live interaction with professors, the opportunity to make lifelong friends, and the enriching atmosphere of the arts, guest lectures by international scholars, sports, and politics found in college life.

To learn more about the quality of online programs, see the U.S News Education website,

For further reading:
Susan Tompor, Aug. 2, 2015, “Saving for college? Do homework on 529 plans,” USA Today,
Reeve Hamilton, April 1, 2013, “Thousands Sign Up for UT-Austin’s First EdX Courses,” The Texas Tribune,
Joanne Jacobs, March 9, 2012, “Some Teens Start College Work Early Via Dual Enrollment,” U.S. News,