Just four things

The busy parent's guide to easier living.

By Leslie Crawford

"I'm so busy!"

Ever heard that before? Maybe even from your own mouth? No wonder this is the perennial parents' lament. Is there a way to do it all — be a great parent, stay involved in your child's school, make healthy meals, get your own work done — and find time to enjoy your life and family?

It's a lofty mission, but we're game. Welcome to our new monthly installment, "Just Four Things." To make your life just a little bit easier, our editorial staff has sifted through the wealth of information out there to provide you with our favorite and highly selective tips: Try this (time-saving tips), Teach this (lessons to teach your child), Live this (parenting wisdom to live by), and Get this (the best products and services to make a parent's life easier).

Try this

Highly effective volunteering. The school year's just started, and the volunteering mania (and guilt-tripping) has already begun. Don't get us wrong. In these budget-squeezing times, schools rely on parents like you to help keep them afloat. But consider being strategic about how you donate your valuable time and energy. Ask the school or your child's teacher for a list of the year's school events and class trips, as well as wish lists of needed resources. Then in advance — before you come down with a severe case of volunteer burnout — decide what you are able to take on.

When choosing what you'll do, remember that although research shows that all parental involvement improves student learning — both for the whole school and the child of the volunteering parent — not all volunteering packs the same educational punch. Fundraising, for instance, has less of an impact than helping in the classroom or correcting essays. Rule of thumb? Ask if your contribution directly supports student learning. Then when the PTA head calls at 8 p.m. desperately pleading for a quadruple recipe of your triple fudge brownies, do the math and graciously decline: "Sorry, but I've already committed to working on October's science fair and simply can't take on another task this semester."

Teach this

Enlist some child labor. Want to know why you should have your child set the table, fold the laundry, make his bed, help you clean the garage, and feed the cat? Because according to groundbreaking research, doing chores (ideally starting at age 3 or 4) is a strong predictor of young adults' success.

Why? Children who regularly do chores are more responsible, thoughtful, respectful, resilient, and resourceful. Wouldn't it just be easier to do them yourself? Sure. But by letting your child know he is a contributing member of the family, you endow him with a lasting life skill. Another word of wisdom: Don't pay kids for their "work." Allowances shouldn't be linked to household chores but given whether or not children work to help out the team.

Live this

Hold the praise. "Honey, you're so smart"! "Sweetie, I've never seen a more incredible painting. What talent!" Yes, you love your child. But instead of praising her to the stars, try praising her efforts ("You really worked hard on your homework. You should be proud of yourself!" rather than "Another A? You're a genius!") Why? Despite our good intentions, studies have found that praising kids' accomplishments, instead of their efforts, can chip away at their self-esteem and motivation.

Turns out our concepts about intelligence have a huge effect on how we learn. When kids believe that intelligence and talent are static qualities they're born with and can do nothing about, this misleading idea impairs learning. But when kids understand that intelligence can grow through effort and practice — something researchers have coined a "growth mindset" — they immediately improve their performance (not simply after years of dogged work). That's right: The actual belief in the importance of effort seems to have an instant effect on how children learn.

Get this

Skip the grocery store. Amazon's Subscribe and Save grocery service delivers nonperishables to your door. Create an ongoing order of household staples — everything from mac and cheese and your favorite cereal to energy bars and pound bags of coffee — for one to six months, and you'll get 15% off. The best part of this time-saving tip? Delivery is free. You don't have to buy anything but the groceries! (For more bargains, check out Amazon's sales and special offers.)

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.