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Living with Children: Teacher needs advice to get parental cooperation

September 18, 2018

An early childhood educator of 38 years left a message asking if I had advice for encouraging cooperation from parents. She reports what every veteran teacher (defined as having 20 years or more classroom experience) I have spoken with over the past 40 years reports: to wit, that it is the rare parent who does not become defensive, even accusatory, when a teacher reports misbehavior.

The retorts include “My child would never do that sort of thing” (when he clearly did!), “I think you must’ve misinterpreted what happened” (as in, the teacher is hallucinating), “My child tells me that so-and-so started it” (like children are credible reporters), and “I think you’re having a personality conflict with my child” (as in, the teacher expects the child to do what she tells him to do). That is the short list. It is not uncommon for a parent to storm the principal’s office after school demanding that a teacher be fired for failing to treat her child with due deference to his obvious giftedness or “special needs” (often referring to the fact that the child in question is disobedient, disruptive, and disrespectful, meaning he has a special need for firm discipline at home and in the classroom).

First, understand that the problem of the defensive, argumentative, accusatory parent is the consequence of the slow but inexorable collapse of the emotional boundary between parent and child (far more often than not, between mother and child). Over the past fifty years, mother-child codependency has become the norm (please hold off on the pitchforks and torches, moms, because I must add that fathers are not far behind). What upsets the child upsets the child’s mother. The child’s success is the mother’s success (thus the proudly displayed bumper sticker announcing that the driver’s child is a cut above), and the child’s failure is the mom’s failure as well.

For today’s mom to admit that her child behaved brutishly, brazenly, or barbarically is for the mother to admit failure. Before psychological theory destroyed American parenting, it was understood that “every child has a mind of his own” -- that every child, no matter how “good” his parents by any standard, was capable of brutish, brazen, barbaric behavior on any given day. Not any longer. If a child behaves badly, the mother is revealed to be a bad mom. And so, she reacts so as to ward off the implication.

That is what teachers are up against. And the deck is now stacked against them because all too often (but not always), administrators enable parents who are suffering from this peculiar form of momentary insanity. I understand. Administrators want peace. They correctly realize that if they support their teachers, Armageddon might ensue. So, they don’t, and it doesn’t, and the principal in question is not transferred to a school in Death Valley.

As for getting these temporarily insane parents to realize that their children -- as are all children -- are capable of being bad to the bone and cooperate with teachers toward their moral rehabilitation, I suggest that you send this column to them in plain brown envelopes, sans return address. Or, purchase a time machine from Amazon, entice these parents to step inside, and dial it back to the 1950s or early 1960s, when if a child misbehaved in school, four conditions applied: (a) the teacher was right; (b) the child did not have a side to the story; (c) the parents felt that the punishment applied at school was woefully inadequate; (d) the parents’ punishment of the child doubled, at a minimum, the horror of what the child had received at school.

Given that those days are gone, about the only thing a teacher can do in the face of a temporarily insane parent is be a human form of Prozac. There is no point in trying to fight a child’s very own Mongol horde Pray, however, that things get so bad at home that the parent in question finally comes to YOU and asks for advice.

Be prepared to be the best friend that parent has ever had.

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