01 November 2010

A diatribe on parents. And squirrels.

And so begins what may be the hardest post that I've ever composed.

Why, you ask? Because this is the long-awaited post on the problems presented by parents. Ok, so you're writing about parents, why is that so hard, you ask (in a second question, which is kind of irritating, honestly). Because I'm going to say inflammatory things. And I'm going to be guilty of generalizing. I'm going to talk about parents in 7 categories, and 6 of those are not flattering, parent of the year categories. I'm going to mock and deride parents. I'm going to be meanish.

And I feel bad because most parents don't deserve the scorn of educators. But the ones that do, really do. So, I'm going to write a massive missive on parents.

If you're a parent, then please don't take offense. I'm just trying to explain another of the 12 reasons that I think education is hurting, and then try to offer a solution. It's not personal. Unless you're the parent I describe in section 6, in which case, it is absolutely personal, you hack.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets get to talking turkey. I prefer white meat. Ok, now let's explore the damage done to education every day by bad parents.

I think it's important that I underscore that the parents I'm talking about in this post aren't abusive, or mean spirited. In fact, you probably know some of these people, and think that they're good parents. They advocate for their kids. They're involved. You see them at school. Hell, you might think that they're better parents than you are, since they always seem to be emailing, calling, and meeting with their kids' teachers. By the standards of involvement, these parents are "good". However, they're doing long term damage. They are, as someone clever called them,

1) Helicopter Parents:

I'm hardly the first person to write about the dangers of helicopter parents. In fact, you can check out this post on another blogspot page about the dangers of parents who are all over their kids. I could restate the arguments from SunShineParenting, but that would be redundant. Instead, I'm going to break down the two most damaging types of Helicopter Parents:

1A) The Attack Chopper:

When I say "attack chopper" you probably see images of the Governator flashing across your retinas ( gratuitous youtube link! ). However, I'm thinking about that parent who is constantly hovering, just out of sight, waiting for a perceived attack or slight against their child. Then, they're immediately calling the school, emailing, demanding meetings, where they can call into question you, your character, and the goals of the school. They'll threaten litigation, to enroll in a charter school, and to go to the school board. Maybe the teacher made a mistake, maybe the kid is being less than completely honest (insert sarcastic gasp here). Doesn't matter, this parent is coming to school, yelling at everyone they can find, preferably with child in tow, to prove their love, and then vanishing, with a wake of destruction behind them.

All the attack chopper parent is doing for their child is teaching them that if you complain, someone bigger and badder will come and intimidate your problem away. That's a lesson that will serve them well when the parents send kiddo off to school, or better yet, run into a confident, competent teacher. Then, it's two gunships blazing away. Those meetings rule

1B The fire-fighting chopper

This parent appears on the scene after a grade card comes home without acceptable grades. Suddenly, a parent who wouldn't bother to return an email 2 weeks ago wants to know why you the teacher haven't replied to that request for 95 missing assignments RIGHT FREAKING NOW. Their kid is the most important, and you must stop everything you're doing to "help" them fix their child's grade. Just like a fire-fighting chopper, they weren't around when the problem was caused, and just like the chopper, they'll only stick around until the fire is out. Then, they'll be gone. What does their child learn? To procrastinate, to do shabby work late, to depend on the coverage that mom/dad/guardian provides.

How can we fix this problem? Well, honestly it's a societal problem, which requires societal change. Parents need to allow their kids to fail. But that's hard. Failure is painful, and parents don't like to see their children hurt. I get that. It's admirable. But (and I will make this point over and over today), it's not good for kids. They need to fail in the safety of the home, so that they can fix their mistakes and deficiencies before they gain independence, where the cost of failure is much higher.

2) The Over-Expector

If you have kids, you think that they're special. Technically, you're correct. They are unique in the universe. But are they more special than all the other kids? Probably not. So, despite all of that baby Einstein, and the fact that his poop once made a perfect smiley face, your kid is probably average. And that's ok. Lots of average people have done spectacular things in their lives.

The over-expector is a parent who not only thinks that their child is extra special, but also that their kid will achieve great things, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To whit: I was once in an IEP meeting with a Special Ed student. The kid did so little work it was almost impossible to determine his abilities. I'll even say he was lazy, because I believe that he was. His parents were convinced he was going to BYU. BYU is not an easy school to get into, even for bright students. This kid once turned in a guided reading worksheet (the kind where the words are taken straight from book, with blanks in key places) by saying that:"The Nazis came to power using guns and fire." The correct answer? Propaganda and fear. Well, I'm sure BYU won't mind that he can't tell the difference between fire and fear, right?

3) The Ray Lewis

Because you're good Americans, I'm going to assume that you're familiar with Ray Lewis. No? Ok, well, he's a NFL player famous for doing a ridiculous dance at the beginning of the game, and talking a lot of trash (it really is foolish). So how does this buffoon relate to an entire category of bad parents? There are parents out there, and I know you'll be shocked by this, who are the Ray Lewis of discipline.

Oh yeah, you call, or have a meeting, and these parents are going to go home, kick ass, chew ass, chew bubble gum, ground people, sell X Boxes, and smash cell phones with hammers. They are Ray Lewis in his intro. But once they get home, they turn into Ray in the game. Average, at best. No behavior changes. The kid still has a cell phone, and still no homework gets done.

I'll just assume you can understand why promising punishment, and never delivering is bad for kids.

4. The Over-due Bill

This parent was Ray Lewis for years. They never really disciplined the kids. Maybe they're divorced, and trying to win favor or custody. Perhaps they thought the behaviors were cute, and by the time they realized their error, their child was out of control. These parents will regularly lament to teachers that they "just don't know what to do".

Why do I call them over-due bills? Because just like a bill that didn't get paid, their is a penalty for this long-term lack of discipline. Their child is incorrigible. Perhaps this parent is attempting to reign in their child. It doesn't matter, without the history of respect, the child won't respond to discipline. Often even draconian measures fail, because the child is conditioned to ignore the pain. These children often lie, to parents, teachers and administrators. 

There's no solution to the over-due bill, unless you can get that DeLorean to 88 MPH, and get Mr. Fusion to generate 1.21 gigawatts. I thought about explaining that joke, but decided against it.

5. The Public Defender

Closely related to the Attack Chopper, the Public Defender has no doubt that something bad happened, and that their child was there, but their child is clearly not guilty, your honor.

Kid had a pound of weed in his locker? Someone else put it there. Stolen ipod in his pocket? An friend (who he won't name, because he's not a snitch) asked him to hold it. Bullying comments on a facebook page? She couldn't possibly do it, I don't let her have facebook.

This parent, I would guess because of experience, is very familiar with school law and board policy. There's not an appeal they won't exhaust. I think these parents exist because they don't want to be the villain. They don't want to "hurt" their child. They want the best. Sometimes, they cross-breed with the over-expector, and are convinced that this smirch on their child's permanent record will keep them out of Harvard and Yale.

This problem parent is best solved by having an administrator with a spine of titanium. If a principal is willing to stick to their guns, to weather the storm of criticism and obscenity, then this child will be disciplined, and the parent will be, for the short term, shut up.

6. The Educational Philosopher

I'd been teaching for 5 years when I got my first complaint from a parent about content. It shocked me. I was a civics teacher, and had sent home a simple survey about political beliefs. It did contain questions about abortion and marijuana, but fell well within the school's guidelines for the teaching of controversial topics, as well as the curriculum for teaching civics.

A parent replied, indignant that I would include such topics in a freshman level class. (here's the redacted complaint). I really enjoyed the fact that she thought I would give a low grade based on the responses. Also, she somehow is upset that the topics are age-inappropriate, but also that the questions are the extreme liberal and conservative, a good way to engage freshmen, since they often don't "get" nuanced questions. I responded with a well-researched and, I thought, calm reply. (here's the redacted response). She shot back more non-sense, I offered to meet with her and my supervisor, she stopped emailing me.

She mentions in a follow-up email that she's just gotten done with 15 years in the Air Force. That's great. I salute and appreciate her service. But she's not an educational expert. The vast majority of parents aren't experts in pedagogy or content. If they were, they'd be in the classroom, and would understand why we do things. But some parents are "experts". They teach elementary school. (ok, fine, if you're an elementary teacher, you hate it when high school teachers do this too, I get it.) There is a vast difference in content and delivery between high school and elementary school. I won't harass the pedagogy of elementary teachers, and they shouldn't harass me.

You're a something. I don't come to work and ask you why you put the mayo on before the pickle. That's not my place.But I've made this argument before, so I'll stop. What, you want to hear it? ( ok, here it is)

Now, you might think that I hate all parents. Not true. In fact, most parents are good. But maybe, just maybe, you've seen today some behaviors that you occasionally exhibit. You want to know how to be a "good" parent.

Here's what good parents do:

They might not do all of these things all of the time, but when parents are at their best, these are the things they're doing:

1. They're involved, but not showy or pushy. They let children make mistakes, and they trust teachers to be experts.

2. They listen to their child, but trust the adults. Kids lie, especially when they're in trouble. Sometimes kids don't realize what they've done was wrong. Sometimes, they don't think adults have proof, so they go all Nixon and deny deny deny.

3. They allow their child to succeed or fail on their own merit. Good parents don't do homework for their kids, and they don't ask for unreasonable accommodations when students don't do the work. In short, they let a child learn after they fail, as opposed to protecting their child from failing.

4. They hold their child accountable for the child's actions. They listen to explanations, but not to excuses.

5. They celebrate successes appropriately. Your kid is the best swimmer in the state. Awesome, have a party, go crazy. Your kid got a 100% on a spelling test. Maybe a sticker or extra dessert is more appropriate. You child learns from the way you celebrate. When little successes are over-blown, the child becomes used to it, and expects it. When the celebrations stop, the child becomes less willing to work.

In short, good parents know that there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going, for them or their children.

And now, for reading to the end, a picture of a squirrel in a party hat. Enjoy.


  1. Very well put. I feel I need to stand up for the good parents with a comment. Sometimes you do have the great parent. The parent who's kid works hard, tries there best, and sometimes gets good and bad grades. This parent still offers a hand when their kid is angry at the teacher. This parent even supports decisions that don't make things easier for their kid because they know it is best for students. I have had many great parents like this in my 5 years teaching. The problem is they are far outnumbered with parents like described above.

  2. I'll agree with you Evan. In fact, I'll go out and say that good parents probably outnumber bad ones. I had a parent ask me if I supplied a boot so that he could kick some ass at home with it.

    The problem lies in the fact that good parents are what Nixon called a silent majority. They don't make a lot of noise, so until they feel the need to rally to a cause, you don't hear from them. But you hear A LOT from bad parents, so they feel like much more of the problem.