It is easy to write about the people who are neglectful parents. You know who they are. In my former company I had two psychiatric and psychosocial clinics that served children, and I used to walk into those clinics and think to myself, “What spawned these hellions?” Then I met their mom and dad and I understood. It is true that kids from bad homes and kids from broken homes have a much harder road than kids from homes with two loving parents... But do two loving parents guarantee good parenting?
When I talk to teachers, the subject of parents is inevitable.
The parent will play the role of ally or foe. Even if the parent is uninvolved, that makes that parent a foe in abstentia. The parents who neglect their kids or mistreat them are fairly easy to spot, and the teacher knows that their child is one who will need special attention... and one that will have obstacles to overcome. But what about the kid whose mom volunteers to help with all of the parties and whose dad shows up for field trips? They never miss a school play and it is obvious they care for their child, because she has the best of clothes and is well fed and is obviously very important to mom and dad. But the kid is still a brat!
Having an unstable home is a red flag, and it is one that is often raised high and noticed. But having a stable home and loving parents does not mean that good parenting is occurring. You can have a mom and dad who love their child and want what is best for their child and are trying their hardest, but they just don’t know what to do. There is no such thing as guaranteed parenting instincts, just like there is no such thing as guaranteed common sense. So what does an educator do when they have a parent who obviously loves their child and is obviously trying, but just doesn’t know what they are doing?
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Chase is a 3rd grade teacher and loves working with the difficult kids.
In fact, he volunteered to be placed in an inner-city school for several years, because reaching kids whose home life is difficult was rewarding and it paid off in tangible and noticeable results. It was hard when the school he actually attended had an opening and reached out to him, because he had to make the decision to leave the opportunity to teach kids who live in poverty and instead teach at a school that served an affluent neighborhood. But he couldn’t pass up the chance to teach in his home school, so he took the job.
Soon Chase began to see that the kids that come from families with nice cars act an awful lot like the kids whose families don’t own a car. The language might be a little different, and rarely does a kid now come to Chase’s classroom hungry, but kids are kids. They still run and play and laugh and get into trouble. The kids in Chase’s new school did seem to have a more optimistic view of the future than the kids at his prior school, and the room and supplies were obviously much nicer... but overall, kids are kids.
This past spring Chase called for a parent-teacher conference with a mom of a little boy named Josh. Josh wouldn’t sit when class started and seldom calmed down the first time he was told to do so. In fact, if he calmed down by the third time then Chase considered it a success. Chase was a little surprised by how uncooperative Josh was, because from day one Josh’s mom was in the classroom before school, volunteered to help at all events, and packed Josh lunches that even Chase envied.
When it came time for the parent-teacher conference to start, Josh’s mom told her two younger kids, twin 4 year old boys, to sit at a separate table and wait for her to finish. Chase barely got through introductions when the twins were up from the table, rummaging through cabinets, and even sitting at his chair behind his desk opening the drawers. Their mom told them to come back to the table and sit down. They did… for about 2 minutes, and then they were up again wrestling and running around the room looking in desks. Josh’s mom would yell at them to stop from time to time, but the boys never even slowed down. Finally, Chase had enough. He called both boys to the table, put some construction paper and crayons in front of them, and told them not to get up until they had both drawn and colored a picture of their home and family. Chase was kind but very firm. The boys sat down and began to draw.
Chase sat down and started to speak, but was interrupted by Josh’s mom when she said,
“How did you do that? How did you make them listen to you?”
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Josh’s mom is not an unusual parent. She loves her kids and wants what is best for them, and she is willing to sacrifice her time for them. But that doesn’t mean she knows what she is doing. Chase picked up immediately on the fact that the boys did not respect her authority, therefore they did not listen to her when she told them what to do. They knew they could get away with pretty much anything and they did. Their mom chased behind them pleading with them to stop, but consequences seldom came their way and seldom was any rule or proactive discipline applied.
- Think about the kids who come from broken homes, where a parent is missing and the other parent is unable to provide adequate attention because of life circumstances: That child is not learning the process of self-discipline, because there is no one there to teach it.
- Now think about Josh and his brothers: They are not learning self-discipline because there is no one at home capable of teaching it.
We have lots of kids from affluent neighborhoods with two parents at home who are just as neglected developmentally as the kids who walk home from school to an empty home and fix themselves dinner using the microwave. Yes, the kids whose parents are at home have the incredible advantage of self-security, because they come from a home with loving and present parents, but that does not always mean they are getting the discipline they need to integrate into, and have success within, social and academic settings. In fact, they sometimes have the added barrier of expectations come from having a “good” home and, therefore, they should know better than the way they are acting.
So what does an educator do?
This is a fine line to walk because, sadly, we live in litigious society that seems to be looking for a reason to have its feelings hurt. But if you are a true educator, that means you are taking on the responsibility of educating that child. Sometimes that means you have to educate the parent. The fine line you must walk is being honest enough with the parents to help them understand that discipline is necessary, what discipline means, and how it should be applied without sounding like you are calling them a bad parent. The line is getting even finer, isn’t it?
Leaps, the sponsor of this blog, is a tremendous social and emotional development tool. It’s used by educators around the country to help kids learn how to develop and integrate into social, academic, and familial settings. Leaps was being used in a very large urban school complex. I call it a complex because it was a combined middle and high school in the center of one of the nation’s largest cities. There were thousands of kids on this campus, and most of them came from the projects and low income apartments that surrounded the school complex. Exacerbated by daily behaviors, the district decided to begin using Leaps as the health curriculum for all middle schoolers. The thoughts were that teaching these kids how to behave and how to have and understand social expectations were the most important health-related topics they could teach.
The teachers began teaching skills such as “How Your Appearance Communicates Your Attitude” and “Learning to Respect a Person of Authority” and “How to Recognize and Control Your Emotions”. Each time a lesson was taught, the teacher would send home the Leaps’ “Parent Recap Page”. The page recapped the lesson by stating the goal, the 4 key points of the lesson, and the benefits of using the skill... and also the consequence of not using it. The thought was that if this recap went home to mom and dad, then they could apply and enforce the same social expectation at home that was being applied ant taught at school.
But something surprising happened...
Parent after parent began contacting the school and showing up at the principal’s office with these recaps. They weren’t angry that these skills were being taught, but instead wanted to know more about them. They wanted to know how they were being taught and how they could teach them at home. The principal decided to get creative and offered to have some of his teachers reteach the same skills lessons after school for the parents. It was offered as a way of instructing the parents in the way the school was instructing the kids. But the principal had an ulterior motive as well: He was hoping some of these parents would show up for the classes, and maybe they would learn some of these skills as well.
There were nearly 20 parents for the first class, nearly 30 for the second, and by the time the semester ended, the twice a week classes were held in the cafeteria because of the overflow of moms and dads who wanted to learn more about the behavioral skills they needed to teach their kids.
It is a fine line to walk when you are confronting parents whose parenting skills leave a little to be desired...
But a true educator understands that educating a child means teaching the whole child.
That means that what happens at home matters as well. Teaching social and emotional maturity skills gives you the opportunity to ask simple questions about how and if those skills are being taught at home. This is not an accusatory question, but is instead a question that can be phrased in a way that lets you understand the level of actual parenting and instructing that is occurring at home. Then, you can approach the parent and ask for a partnership with them in educating their child. Talk to them about how your responsibility is to teach their child how to read and write and add and subtract, but your responsibility is also to teach them how to get along and make friends and learn to live. Those latter goals are the same ones that the parent should have for their kids, so it gives you a common ground to talk about how you are going to do it and how they can help.
Some of the best parents you will ever meet come from poor homes where resources are scarce but love and attention abound. Some of our worst parents come from rich homes where there is plenty of stuff but no affection or nurturing. Some of our saddest homes are those whose parent want to do what is right, but just don’t know what they are doing. Sometimes a teacher’s job extends to teaching the parents about the need for discipline and social and emotional development. Because when it happens at home, your class is the one that will benefit.