As a new mother, I was a fixture at the local playground where I observed a range of parenting styles. One couple brought flash cards and quizzed their toddler on state capitals and U.S. presidents while pushing her on the swing. (The family moved before I saw whether the girl grew into a “Jeopardy” Jedi.) At the other end of the spectrum were the mom and dad who arrived with a glass of wine and apparently riveting books. Because they never looked up when their energetic 5-year-old son shoved past younger kids on the slide or tossed a 3-year-old’s stuffed seal in the creek.
It’s been 25 years since I waded into the creek to rescue Flippy, and I still haven’t decided which parents were the better role models.
My ambivalence about hands-on or hands-off parenting spilled over to schools, where I vacillated over appropriate involvement and intervention. Revisiting my 23 years as a public school parent, I don’t think I struck the right balance, choosing too often to let my four kids navigate the complex school ecosystem and failing to voice legitimate concerns.
My own parents set high standards but left achieving them to me; they seldom questioned a teacher or a school. They provided the cartridge pens, Elmer’s Glue and wooden rulers but didn’t scrutinize homework or keep up with tests and projects.
The popular narrative is today’s parents helicopter to the rescue too often, fostering an underemployed and overconfident generation with a $100-a-week latte habit and $30,000 in loans for degrees in folklore. But standing behind valedictorians and salutatorians are often intense and involved parents, overly so by most standards. I am reading the new book, “The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us About Raising Students Who Excel.” Author Cornelius Grove cites a common engine: highly involved parents who act as their children’s coach and participate in their learning with them, even reading the same assignments.
Last week, I shared five parting tips for schools. From my perspective as both parent and education writer, here are five tips for parents borne of experience and observation:
1. Recognize teachers have your children’s best interests at heart and treat them as allies rather than adversaries. Ask how you can help your child and the class, being upfront about your time constraints and your talents — whether you're an accordion player or a zoology buff. Give schools the benefit of the doubt when your child comes home with a preposterous story of teacher misdeeds. Most crazy stories relayed over the years by my children and their friends had a stitch of truth embroidered with a bunch of hooey. Some of my children’s classmates once alleged the teacher was punishing the class by turning off the ceiling fan. The teacher was a woman nearing retirement and far more likely to suffer in a school that lacked air conditioning than 9-year-olds. It turned out the fan was simply malfunctioning.
2. Volunteering for bake sales and PTA committees gives you insights into the other parents and forges bonds with them. Volunteering in the classroom gives you insights into teachers and builds connections with them. If you can, do both, but get in the classroom now and then. You want a teacher who, when aware of a new robotics program, recalls you mentioned your daughter loved robotics and alerts you. A lot of information flows informally through schools, and it helps to join the stream.
3. Gauge your child’s ability to get what he needs. A simple test: If you leave your son in line for the bounce house at the school carnival and return 10 minutes later, is he still in line because everyone's jumped ahead of him? If so, figure out how to help him understand he has to advocate for himself. Until he masters that critical skill, advocate for him.
4. Teens still need champions in middle and high school where it’s easy to fade into the background or be overlooked. It helps to have an adult who looks at that sea of faces surging down the hall and notes your child’s downcast eyes and lost expression. Some children find champions and mentors on their own; they may relate to a school secretary or counselor or connect with a teacher or coach. If your children don't for whatever reason — too shy, alienated or afraid — you have to be their reconnaissance team. You have to figure out an adult in the building who could be an ally.
5. Help your children find a passion that sustains and excites them. It's ideal if that passion is the school soccer team or chorus, but, if it turns out your 14-year-old daughter loves roller hockey, get her to the rink even if it's a 30-minute haul. Kids who lose their way typically don't have that anchor, that thing that provides a sense of belonging and accomplishment. It's critical.