Ah, the New Year refrain — and this year you mean it. You’re taking off the weight, cutting out sweets, cleaning out every closet, even putting those 2,000 photos into albums. But wait: Parents have some extra goals for their 2011 To-Do List. Here are eight ways to protect your family (and they don’t require jogging daily at dawn.)
Take a Deep Breath & Draft a Will
Where there’s a will there’s peace of mind knowing your children will be set if something happens to you — but potential for big problems if you leave them in legal limbo. Don’t let procrastination sentence the kids to a tug-of-war between well-meaning relatives. Draft a will to appoint guardians who will be responsible for minors and an executor who will manage and disburse your assets for their care.
If you have a simple, straightforward estate (e.g., you do your own taxes), software programs are a cost-efficient way to write a will. Prices range from free online (plus a notary fee) to $300 and up through an attorney. If you have a complicated estate or want to establish a trust fund (to ensure Junior can’t buy a Porsche when he’s 16 and Missy can’t blow thousands at the mall), you definitely need a lawyer. Not sure? Start with reputable, free sites like rocketlawyer.com/will-and-testament or legalzoom.com. Do it TODAY. You wouldn’t want to live with crazy Aunt Jen; don’t risk it with the kids.
Take a Deeper Breath & Budget for College
Where there are kids, there’s eventual college and staggering expenses. Tuition will continue to rise no matter how much you cross your fingers. It’s gone up 35 to 40 percent since 2000. Start a college fund like the popular, tax-advantaged 529 Savings Plan or even a basic investment account fed by automatic paycheck withdrawals. Check out sec.gov/investor/[ubs/intro529.htm or money.cnn.com/pf/college /.
On a tight budget? One basic goal is to save monthly the sum your student would need to pay back monthly on tuition loans. The federally managed Stafford Loan (staffordloan.com) program, which provides low fixed-rate student loans, offers suggestions to families even in the planning stages. Your best bet (since you’re not going to win the lottery — trust us) is early, steady growth of a college fund separate from retirement and regular savings accounts. Holiday gatherings can be tense enough without adding “Textbooks for Timmy or False Teeth for Mom?” to the mix.
Teach Kids How to Budget
Parents’ post-holiday funds may be lean, but kids’ are flush with gift money — and nothing burns hotter than cash waiting to be spent. Teach children to avoid impulse buying by instituting a 24-hour wait period between seeing and purchasing something they want. It’s worth promising a repeat store trip to provide them time to consider how much they really want the coveted item. Once home and on to other things, kids often lose interest in something they couldn’t live without six hours earlier.
If they’re still determined the next day, have kids calculate tax and the item’s total price. Then, make them pay in full. You’re not doing budding consumers any favors by implying things cost less than they actually do. That kind of magical thinking prompts too many young credit card holders to charge themselves into debt, swiping the smile right off their parents’ faces.
Unplug Electronics & Recharge Your Brain
Pull the plug on distractions by turning off electronics at key times every day. Mealtimes, homework sessions, and at least one hour before bedtime are perfect places to start. We know you live by email and your kids would die without Wii, but you’ll all accomplish more if you flip the OFF switch. Stanford University research shows multitasking hinders focus more than it helps efficiency; doing three things at once is much less productive than doing them one at a time. Studies by psychologist Glenn Wilson discovered multitaskers’ IQs even temporarily drop when too much is competing for their attention.
So when you wonder how your kids can remember what they study with TV, music, or phone competing for their attention, your concern is correct. The answer is not nearly as much as they will if they work in a distraction-free zone. Limiting electronics also yields another benefit: Studies show kids whose TV and video game time is restricted to weekends earn significantly better grades. Maybe it’s those books they’re holding in place of controls.
Take Control of Your Driving
We’ve all seen lane drifting drivers and know texting’s a terrible risk. But Carnegie Mellon University studies show simply talking on cell phones impairs drivers’ abilities as if they’d been drinking. It’s multitasking at its worst, and busy parents are among the prime offenders. Handheld or hands-free makes little difference. Cell conversations dangerously direct drivers’ attention away from their surroundings , causing an increasing rate of distracted driver accidents, notes AAA.
If safety doesn’t motivate change, maybe dollars and sense will. Auto insurers are obtaining drivers’ cell phone records to determine if policyholders were on a call when an accident occurred. If they were, fault may be assigned, jeopardizing coverage. Young drivers with immature judgment (and high premiums) are particularly at risk for distracted driving accidents. Talk to your teens and monitor their cell phone records to see how safe they’re being. Most importantly, practice what you preach.
Take Control of Your Teen’s Health
Purell has its limits and handing out vitamins goes only so far. A crucial way to protect children’s health is ensure they receive every immunization they need to protect against serious illness. Daycare and school enrollment require proof children are on schedule with their shots. But some vaccinations are optional until health- care experts finalize recommendations for the series.
One elective immunization that could save your teen’s life is the meningitis or Hib vaccine. It’s recommended for all youth 11 to 18 years of age and required by many camps and colleges because the disease spreads more easily among those living closely together. Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, develops rapidly and can cause death. Its symptoms — which include headache, nausea, high fever, and stiff neck — may appear abruptly or over one to two days. Without vaccine protection, teens are playing Russian roulette because many patients mistake the disease for a general virus and endanger their survival by waiting to get help. Don’t gamble with your child’s life. Schedule their vaccine today. More info at cdc.gov/meningitis/about/faq.html)
Protect Their Smiles
There’s more to teeth than meets the eye. Dental health is both a reflection of and an influence on your general health. We tend to think of cavities when it comes to check-ups. Dental visits, however, are a valuable opportunity for kids to be monitored for tonsil and sinus trouble, and parents to be examined for symptoms of diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and cancer. (And more than one teen’s illicit smoking has been detected by the family dentist.)
The American Dental Association recommends twice yearly check-ups for everyone. Growing kids in particular need that care and guidance; however, nearly a quarter of American children don’t see their dentist regularly. Busy school and extracurricular schedules make visits inconvenient for youth, and adults tend to procrastinate until something hurts. But teeth only last a lifetime if they’re cared for. That full jar of floss picks on the bathroom counter will empty faster if yours isn’t the only voice your family hears urging their use. Missing one team practice won’t get kids kicked off the team. Schedule checkups soon.
Protect Their Eyes
The eyes really do have it: They’re not just windows to the soul; they’re our windows to the world. Even minor vision problems can have a major impact on life. From headaches that plague and distract to reading difficulty and failure in school, bad eyesight can transform a child’s personality even before it’s apparent why.
Kids should have their first optometric exam by age 3 and have their vision screened yearly from then on.
A full eye exam is recommended every three years for every member of the family and yearly for anyone who wears glasses or contacts. Since the eyes also are affected by illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, patients with chronic health problems should see their eye doctor yearly or as recommended.
Finally, ensure everyone protects their eyes from damaging ultraviolet rays with sunglasses. Spring for cool styles, so they’ll wear them without nagging. And don’t skimp on protective eyewear for athletes. Eyes don’t stand a chance against sports balls and elbows. If your family’s overdue, schedule eye exams soon. Secure them — and yourself — a clear view to a bright new year.