An Open Letter to Parents of School-Aged Children

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I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and while I’ve got a ton of things yet to learn, I’d like to share a few realizations that will help you and your kid have a much better experience with school.  I’m feeling a lot more Yankee right now, so apologies for how “blunt” this is. 🙂

  • A one-sided story is NEVER the whole story. Anytime your kid comes home with some outrageous tale from school that really chaps your ass, stop to ask yourself “Is this really what happened?” And “I wonder how my kid exaggerates our home life when he talks about it at school?”  Get the facts before you react.
  • Teachers don’t hate you or your kid. They want to have a good, productive year. Assume you can form a partnership rather than a hostile takeover.
  • School isn’t life. It’s important, but it isn’t everything.  You need to find the balance that doesn’t veer off into “strange obsession with getting into a great college” and “apathy or disinterest that lets your kid get away with murder.”  Helicopter parents aren’t pretty. They’re terrifying individuals and I hate dealing with them.
  • Kids really are tough. They’re resilient. They might whine about something (workload, relationships, etc) but usually they’re venting frustrations more than they’re asking for your involvement. Just like when you bitch about your workday to your spouse.  It’s not meant to be a literal evaluation.
  • The older the kid, the less you should fight their battles for them.  Jumping in to “rescue” your kid from something that doesn’t actually hurt them (a hard class, a bad grade, etc) doesn’t help anything and does a lot more harm because you’re not letting this kid learn lessons the real way.
  • Any parent who gets their kid out of a reasonable required class or activity just because the kid doesn’t like it is asking for trouble.
  • Hard things are often good in the long run.  Frustrating, discouraging experiences aren’t. You won’t know which one you’re dealing with until you get a multiplicity of opinions on the issue, so talk to your kid, the teacher, and other parents who have raised their kids.
  • Just because you don’t understand why the teacher or school is doing something doesn’t mean the people in charge are idiots.  Your ignorance does not give you sufficient grounds to condemn something before you’ve heard a cogent explanation. This is also true in reverse: teachers & administrators have a responsibility to ask a parent for the whole explanation before they leap to conclusions about the parent’s wisdom or choices.
  • Natural consequences have an incredible ability to teach valuable lessons. You don’t need to yell at your kid when they fail.  You do need to stop protecting them from genuine consequences for their actions.  If your kid makes unwise choices (workload, time management, lack of sleep, etc), those choices will bring about their own consequences, and those “hard things” will teach valuable lessons in a way nothing else can accomplish.
  • Don’t give your kids an “out” when something is “hard,” unless there’s a genuine problem — something that threatens their well-being, their emotional health, their ability to cope with life. Every person has to deal with disappointment, failure, jobs we don’t like, obnoxious people. We all have to learn to deal with it.  Help your kids THROUGH the problem and be supportive. Be a sounding board. Listen a lot. But rescuing your kid from a class they hate or letting them quit soccer halfway through the season probably does nothing more than teach your kid that quitters can get their own way and still be ok.

    For example, we’ve got a kid right now at school who hates a particular class with all her might.  Let’s say it’s second-year Spanish. (She’s capable of the work; she’s just being stubborn.)  In this case, if she were my kid, I’d tell her to get comfortable, because she is going to take Spanish 2 until she passes it with at least a C. And if that means she’s still in Spanish 2 when she’s 19 years old, then she’s stupid and needs to learn that lesson before moving onto college. But that’s where she’ll be…. because I’m not going to reinforce the pipe-dream that life’s problems will simply go away on their own.*

    *Clarification: I’m not talking about ignoring learning disabilities, serious interpersonal conflicts between a teacher & student, over-eager and unrealistic goals, or other legitimate problems. You’ll be able to tell the difference between sheer stubbornness and a legit problem if you investigate.

  • Kids are inefficient by nature.  It’s a matter of inexperience.  Don’t get angry when your kids fail to use time wisely, do assignments on time without pressure, think ahead, or see problems coming like you can.  They aren’t adults.  They are going to mess up …. probably a lot. Failure can be an incredible teacher. Let it work.
  • There are worse outcomes in life than failing to get into an Ivy League college.
  • Just because you  can’t understand something or didn’t learn it that way doesn’t mean your kid’s teacher is a bumbling idiot.  Educational pedagogy has moved forward since we were all in school.  Give the teacher a chance.
  • If you attend a private school, don’t threaten to pull your kids out in an attempt to control the school’s curriculum or rules.  If you like the school, stay and be supportive. If you don’t like the school, slip out quietly in a way that doesn’t damage the organization, and write an honest letter to the administration.
  • Teenagers are already talking about sex (a lot), swearing (a lot), and spending time around other kids who do (lots of) things you disagree with.  If you want to be the person who teaches your kids about sex, drugs, tobacco, porn, marijuana, alcohol, abuse, or anything else, you’d better hop on it before that kid hits upper elementary school. I’d start having your conversations shortly after 2nd grade.
  • You can either be a part of your kid’s life and maintain a helpful, open dialogue….. or you can pretend your kid will never experiment with substances, will never be tempted to sleep around, will never kiss their boyfriend in the backseat, will never think about suicide, will never try to help a friend who’s in really deep and over their head.   No parent has an imagination so big as to alter reality, so I recommend the open dialogue.
  • Teachers or principals cannot control a child’s behavior any more than their parent can. Don’t get angry at the school if you find out one of your kid’s classmates does something you don’t like.  The best-laid plans can go awry; any kid with bad intentions can slip through the cracks and do what they want.  And your kid does bad stuff when you’re not around too.  We’ve got to deal with things as they are, not look for the perfect environment.
  • Fear is never a good reason to do anything. I’ve seen a lot of administrators and parents make decisions because they’re afraid of the wrong consequences.  Good parenting or good school leadership will bring you in conflict with other people and their view of how things should be done.  Make decisions based on wisdom, biblical principle, and solid information, not on “what might possibly happen.”
  • YOU ARE THE PARENT.  You have all the authority required to adjust your kid’s schedule or slate of activities.   If your kid is up till midnight doing homework, do something about it if it bothers you.   Send them to bed and talk to the teacher.  Make them start homework earlier.  Cancel an extra curricular activity.  Whatever you need to do to create boundaries that work if the student cannot do this for herself.
  • Teens are old enough to have a real impact on your life and in the lives of others. While this can be an incredible blessing, it also means their inherent self-centeredness is going to cause you a lot of inconvenience at best and frustration or irritation or heartbreak at worst.  Your best course is to have honest, open conversations about what’s happening, and to allow natural consequences to have their full effect.
  • Overachieving is as bad as underachieving. There are no brownie points in my classroom or in Heaven for spending too much time on an assignment.  Kids need to learn to do their work efficiently and correctly – both are required.  And if the homework load at school seems excessive, maybe the problem lies in the student’s ability to organize their work time and discern which assignments demand meticulous, time-consuming labor and which are meant to go by quickly.  Start by talking with teachers to understand the nature of the work.
  • American kids are pretty spoiled, especially middle-class and above. They have tons of free time, little requirement to work before they turn 16 or 17, tons of “free” toys and gadgets and possessions, and lots of perks from their parents.  Absolutely none of them will die if they have to actually work in order to get good grades. Parents sometimes confuse “giving my kid a good life” with good parenting.
  • Release your kids from the tyranny of the American dream.  Who says your kid has to go to an expensive, top-rated college? They don’t.  What if they aren’t designed for that kind of career?   Instead, focus on helping them develop each of their talents AND sure up their weaknesses (which will be a lot less fun than practicing what they’re good at, so set your jaw against the whining).  A well-rounded individual needs some of both.  In the long run, a person needs to be teachable, curious, creative, inquisitive, and hard-working.  That’s your goal, not college admissions at the most expensive school around.

I know this probably sounded a little harsh, and I’ll admit I wasn’t giving any candy coatings. But these are hard-won lessons drawn from the lives of many students & families, and maybe they’re worth something to parents of teens.

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