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Etiquette Lesson: Advice for parents and kids navigating a new school year

Fourth grader Tess Oswalt, right, goes back for the first day of  a new year at Calahan Elementary School in Northridge, Calif.
Fourth grader Tess Oswalt, right, goes back for the first day of a new year at Calahan Elementary School in Northridge, Calif.
Mindy Oswalt

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Most kids are back in class, and for many families, that means a new school. New friends and new teachers can be exciting, but the situation can also mean new conflicts.

What to do if you're being pressured to volunteer at your child's school? How should you handle bad behavior by your kids' classmates? And what about the touchy subject of college admissions?

To help us navigate the new school year is Slate's Emily Yoffe, best known for her Dear Prudence advice column. 

Interview Highlights:

If you're feeling pressure to volunteer at your child's school, but you feel you just don't have the time, how can you decline without feeling guilty?
"I don't understand what's happened. I remember in 5th grade, it was raining. Eddie Shilder's mother came in with a pair of galoshes for him. This is stuck in my memory...It was 'Oh my God, someone's mother showed up? This is the most mortifying thing that can happen to you.' I think this whole thing is way out of control. Of course you've got to show up occasionally. I just think more parents need to say, "I'm sorry I can't do it." If you have a two-year-old, you're paying for this. I remember at my daughter's school saying I can't earn a living if I'm supposed to be at school all the time."

If there are kids in your child's classroom who are behaving poorly, how do you address the situation?
"This is a very delicate situation. You've got to look at these really case by case. If you've got a kid in the class who is absolutely disrupting, the teacher doesn't have control of the classroom. This is the kind of thing you can gently bring up with the teacher. If your child is being bullied or can't handle some kind of situation, you really have to carefully talk to your kid and see what's going on. There are times when you absolutely have to intervene, but I think sometimes we're maybe too quick to do that and the best thing is to give your kid tools to handle things themselves, but not if they're being slammed against lockers or threatened. There's whole continuum of behavior that might be of concern to you, but you just can't intervene in every situation.

What are some situations that may arise around kids going off to college?
"This is so touchy. Not my daughter's school, but she has friends who go to a school who say it is absolutely verboten to acknowledge the children are looking at and applying to colleges. Never say anything to them about, 'So have you seen any schools you like?' 'Do you have a first choice?' I think that's a little overdoing it. You have to be really delicate about it. Some parents have this zero-sum game feeling about it and don't want anyone to know where their kid's applying, as if everyone hasn't heard of the same schools. But I think you have to know the other kids...Let the kid lead the conversation and don't push. These kids, their egos are on the line in a way they've never been in their entire lives. They're about to be rejected by a lot of places, so its very hard."

What should an atheist parent do if their child is feeling pressured at school to become religious?
"Obviously there's separation of church and state. You have to see what happens with the teacher, if she is just bringing her personal feeling about how she's going to convey Christ's love through her to the children and doesn't talk about Christ, that's fine. If we're talking about introducing Creationism into biology class, you've got to do something. If its Christmas carols, I just think go, the music's lovely, you've got to pick your battles, you can't make a stink about everything...oftentimes if the parents intervene, the kid's lives get much more difficult."