Monday, March 5, 2012

In Support of Parents

If you work in a school, you probably hear, on a regular basis, comments about parents:

Where were the parents when she got into trouble after school?
I wish these parents would back off--they are smothering him.
It's because there's no father in the house...
It's because there's no mother in the house...
There must be something wrong at home.
The apple must not fall far from the tree.
That parent is crazy.  CRAZY.

Quite frankly, you have probably said or thought these things yourself about parents in your school or in your community from time to time.  And maybe even thirty seconds ago.

As a society, we love the blame game.  In education, when we are frustrated with a student and their behavior, academic performance, or general attitude and character, the thought usually crosses our minds that the parents might be at fault.  Sometimes the kid, but often the parents.  I have been no less guilty of this than anyone else.  However, as school counselors, it behooves us to look at situations from all angles.  So often in our work, we are trying to understand where the parents are coming from, where the teachers are coming from, and where the student is coming from, and then trying to come up with workable solutions for all the parties involved.  In order to do that, let's try to put ourselves in the place of parents.  What are they dealing with on a daily basis?

An article ran in this Sunday's Washington Post that explored the messages and motivations present in modern American parenting.  The author discusses how many parenting books are out there, all with different advice and different perspectives that often conflict.  What's a parent to think when bombarded one month with the in-your-child's-business "Tiger Mom" movement and then the laid-back hands-off French "Bringing Up Bebe" the next?  The article also brings up the messages parents are getting about college and future success:
“The underlying American assumption is, if our kids get into a great college, they’ll get a great job, then they’ll be happy.  Our cortex of fear is around achievement. So, in order for our kids to get into a great college, get a great job and be happy, we get them piano lessons, after school Mandarin class, we think more, more, more, more, more is better." (source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
The last several years we have lived in a challenging economy, and parents are constantly being hit with the messages that if their child doesn't go to college, they will not have a good job and thus a good life.  They are then being told that it is becoming more and more difficult to get into college as average GPA's and standardized test scores for admissions continues to rise.  Further, they see that college tuition costs continue to soar, causing anxiety about being able to finance their child's post-secondary education.  Contrasting this is the Race to Nowhere movement that includes a movie and touring discussion panels talking about the negative side of pushing your kids to get straight-A's and enrolling them in a million activities.

So, should parents be backing off of their kids so that they don't have a nervous breakdown?  If they don't push them, though, then they won't get into a good college or any college at all and then they won't get a good job and they will have a horrible life.  Which one do they pick?  These double-bind messages bombard parents from the media, from instutitions, from politicians, and from other well-intentioned parents before their children are ever born and continue, pretty much unceasingly, through the rest of their lives.

I work in a school where many of the faculty and staff are parents.  In my conversations with them, I often hear about their fear of being judged by other parents, and their fear of making a wrong choice for their kids.  It surprises me, because so many of my colleagues are amazing, nurturing, kind people who I just naturally assume know they are amazing parents.  Yet, they tell me, they are being judged all the time for every little thing that they do--judged by other parents, by the schools, by society, and by themselves.

Everyone will pretty much admit that no one is perfect.  Yet, in the next breath, we presume to pass judgement on the parenting choices of moms and dads, usually without all the facts, usually without the context of a situation, and usually without any empathetic understanding that parenting is perhaps the hardest role in the world, made harder still by a million mixed messages about how best to raise your children  in modern American society.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that most parents are genuinely doing the best they can with the resources they have.  They love their kids, and they want the best for them.  This will manifest itself in a plethora of ways, but this is almost always their motivation behind everything that they do.

The article from this Sunday's Post is worth a read.  The message I took away from it is that parents need to cut themselves some slack.  I agree with this.  Even if a parent is angry with us, there is usually some motivation behind that anger--anxiety, fear, frustration.  As counselors, we have been trained to find ways to uncover that motivation and then empathize with the parent.  When we are able to do this, we form stronger relationships with the families of our students and are better able to serve all of our stakeholders--parents, teachers, and students alike.

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