Sunday, April 11, 2010

Parents Can Make or Break You

After a spring break blogging sabbatical, I’d like to come back and post a few ideas that may piss people off, but things I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a while. Basically I’m developing the opinion that while every stakeholder in child’s education is incredibly important, the onus of educating children in this country is shifting further and further onto teacher’s shoulders. While I’m terribly biased, I’d still like to vent my frustration and address the various stakeholders in separate posts: Parents, Teachers, Administrators and Students. First up are parents.

There were two pieces of inspiration for this post that I witnessed over break:
1.) an American child in Italy (approximately 10 years old) ignoring every waiter asking him questions because he’s playing video games at the table in a nice restaurant
2.) an American child (approximately 10 years old) playing video games in the SISTINE CHAPEL, being completely ignored by his parents and ignoring everything around him the entire time.

Those two things got me thinking again about what (in my opinion) a large part of good parenting is: providing children with healthy, educational life experiences AND helping children to better those experiences. While it’s impossible to categorize parents in a way that makes everyone happy, one of the ways I generally make sense of many things is by setting up spectrum and placing things along it or beside it. In this way, I generally think of parents very simply as good, bad, or something in between. Parents who get involved and help teach their children are at the good end. Those that do not are on the bad end.

Great Parents
Let’s start with the good news. Great parents are the saving grace of education. They are unmatchable supports, the driving force behind the healthy growth and development of our students. They want to know what’s going on at school so they can help their child grow even more. They’re actively involved in every aspect of their child’s life and even if they work two or three jobs they do their damndest to make sure their child is healthy and prepared for life. As I talk to more young adults my age, we tend to agree that our parents’ successes are reflected in our own; that their incredible ability to teach us right from wrong, instill work ethic in us and promote healthy learning from trial and error, making mistakes and scraping a knee now and again were the reasons we had successes in school, college, and in life in general. When I run into a great parent at school, I try to tell them how wonderful they are without sounding like a complete idiot. I thank them as much as possible and usually say something lame like “keep up the good work,” which feels inappropriate in some ways because I’m not a parent myself.

My highest-achieving student last year was the son of immigrant parents who spoke no English and gave up everything they had in their country to move their family to the U.S., hoping that their very bright son would be more successful here. His father worked pretty much around the clock, seven days a week, but made absolutely sure that he was at parent conferences and that his son was doing his job in school and out of school. When I told him his son was receiving the award for academic excellence in my class, he cried and thereby gained whatever respect I had that wasn’t already his. After crazy, oftentimes disheartening experiences with parents last year, he and his wife are two big reasons I tried to get parents more involved this year.

Not Great Parents
On the other side of this equation, parents can be the most frustrating, irritating, pugnacious, destructive stakeholders in this field. There are times that I have no desire to talk to parents. There are times I want to wring their necks because I seem to love their child more than they do. After a rough day in the classroom when I dole out a dozen detentions and perhaps a suspension because students can't control themselves (due to nice weather, bad weather, weather, an assembly, a field trip, a fight or the very fact that they're fourteen), I don't want to spend an hour and a half reliving it by explaining to parents that their students screwed up. For the chronic detainees, I've probably spoken to the parent a dozen times already, given them my feedback, suggested changes to be made and sometimes suggested things that can be done at home (why I'm qualified to do that, I have no idea, but as many parents ask I feel like I need to give some response). Especially at this point in the year, if a student has not begun to turn things around the last thing I really want to do is talk to his parent another time and see the same result: no change.

Hostile Parents
These are the ones that attack you (generally verbally). The buck generally passes completely out of their household and the teachers/school/everyone else are blamed whenever their child screws up. There are a thousand reasons why they are angry- a thousand results that show up in the student, but the fact is that they are working against the other stakeholders and not with them. They’ve let themselves and the student off the hook, which is very destructive.

Indifferent Parents
The extreme in this case is a parent who literally tells the school to stop calling because between 8 and 3 the student is the school’s problem. The funny thing about this is that even when these students leave, the parents do very little to make them “their problem”. Though it is a very small minority of parents, it’s still alarming how often this happens. The students of these parents generally plug into video games once home (or stay outside and do much worse) and the amount of student-parent interaction is dismal.

When I was a substitute teacher in rural Kansas I spent a lot of time in a specific elementary special education classroom. One of the students I worked with was nine years old, but was on a three year-old level developmentally and could not speak. This was a presumed case of neglect. One bitter-cold (near zero degrees), winter day this student was dropped off at school with just a sweatshirt on and was shivering uncontrollably, but couldn’t even tell us how cold she really was. While the family might not have been able to afford a coat, the history of neglect supported a different story. I’ve never had a stronger desire to punch a human in the teeth as I did when her parent did that.

This might seem like an over-simplification of the parent situation, because it is. As I spend more time in the field, however, the cliche "parents are the most important teachers" seems to become an incredible reality. Their importance in their children's early childhood development, reinforcement of academic skills outside of school and socialization of non-academic skills such as work ethic, respect for adults, etc. dwarfs many of the things other stakeholders can possibly do to ensure the success of children. I believe this country is starting to realize that education needs to be fixed, but parents are probably the last variable in the equation that will be targeted, as doing so would mean the government getting their hands into parenting. Even those furthest to the left would be leery of that.

Next up: Teachers.

Today's Wine: While a bit of a cop-out, I'd like to use one post to pay tribute to the carafes of wine we drank in Italy. When we arrived we drank a few bottles, but found the half-liter carafes of house wine were rather nice at virtually every place we ate.


  1. I agree with you that parents are key. Having common goals with parents and discussing them helps everyone, and involved parents are the best thing a kid can have in terms of potential academic success.

    As a teacher of ESL, I've seen many involved parents just as those you described. I make it a point to contact parents regularly, and if I don't know their language I find someone who does.

  2. I'm completely with you on this post. I see fewer and fewer involved parents. I have one student who has over 60 absences because mom won't fight with her to get her to school. She has given up on her. It is heartbreaking.

    I look forward to your next posts on this subject.

  3. Parents make such a big difference. If the parents are supportive and put education first, the kids respond accordingly. I have seen cases where the video games can be helpful. When the older kids are playing endless sports, the younger siblings stay occupied instead of badgering their parens.

  4. Don't feel bad about letting it vent. I agree that teachers are expected more and more to step into the void that parents--for different reasons--can leave in the nurturing and development of their children. Some of the parents of my students have given up, to varying degrees, on both their own children and the school system, so it's all on my shoulders to attempt to make a change. And that can be a crushing burden.
    But what can you do? As you said, government getting involved in parenting directives would be a bit too sticky for any politician to want to wade through.
    I think the really frustrating thing about it all is that even when you've got the sickest, most indifferent parent in the world, somehow you still can't really put all the blame on them. There's a sickness out there that runs deep, and all a teacher can do at the end of the day is try to nurture and save the sapling that's been handed over to them for the space of a few months. We can't fix the earth. We can only trim the leaves and water a few plants in a transient garden and pass them on, hoping we've taught them something about the art of loving the light.


    As a teacher and a parent, I oftentimes feel split. I have known the parents you describe. I have witnessed teachers making sweeping, generalizing comments about others' parenting skills, or lack thereof. But I have also been that parent who forgets lunch money on nugget day and my child is given a waxy cheese sandwich. I have not had time to take off from my teaching job, because of one contractual restraint or another, and be with my sons. I have had to shepherd one child here while another one there fends for himself with homework. I battle against overwhelming guilt and social conscious with my students, and feel like I’m asked to take them on to raise. Big epiphanies this past week in reference to this post, but let’s just say it ended with my sons telling me “Enough.” I am working on caring for my students, but not become a martyr. I am working on my own boundaries, my own “selectively permeable membrane” if you will. I don’t know what to do to fix both children who are broken by their parents, and I have many. We need a cultural shift with parenting. I have often said many, many years ago my husband and I noticed the way parents were portrayed in the media: bumbling numbskulls without a clue, which the witty, smart children could trick easily, and denigrate with sharp, sarcastic remarks.

    Dr. Spock, we need you!

    Or, perhaps, parents please read your baby books! At least TRY –don’t give up on your children, ever. Show them what respect means. Show them mistakes happen, and how to find grace again. Show them that learning is important, and not for “chumps.” Show them your own self-respect and worth by staying calm, loving, and resourceful. Keep them fed and warm, and if you can’t find help. There is no shame in that. The only shame is not to actively love your child.