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With Regina Barreca

Coping With Parent (Over) Involvement

The new school year will bring two of your biggest challenges: your students—and their parents!

Don't you think they should include whole courses, applicable towards a graduate degree of your choice, in how to handle the parents who are now taking up the valuable time, energy, resources, and patience of teachers? Not to mention the direct involvement of these parents in the increase of adult beverages necessary to unwind at the end of the week, thereby raising cost-of-living expenses of the faculty in ways uncompensated by even the most liberal of school districts.

As my friend Claire put it, "The phrase home schooling is now sort of redundant." Schools become a mere diversion away from the academic agenda of middle-class parents, at least in my experience.

I'm hearing from teachers that it's as if the kids come to school with home strapped to their backs -- or, perhaps more accurately, strapped to their ankles like house-arrest bands. These parents from the 1970s have been referred to as "helicopter parents." Claire refers to them as storm-trooper parents, but that could just be her girlish way of looking at things.

Let's face it: some of these parents spend more time in school with their kids than they spent in school themselves when they were students.

They got away with stuff that they would never let their kids get away with, and maybe that's one of the reasons they monitor them so carefully.

These are the parents who see teachers and administrators not as professionals who have gone through rigorous training to prepare for the daunting task of engaging with children on myriad levels, in complex ways, in order to help them achieve mastery over individual subjects and an integrated curriculum.

But, instead, they regard the faculty as babysitters. Not even glorified babysitters.

Because parents know that they have to treat babysitters with respect. If they don't, the babysitters won't come to their house anymore. The parents will be left alone with their implacable, distressed child rather than being sprung for the evening to have dinner with other adults in a place as far from the Build-a-Bear Workshop as they can possibly find.

In the 21st century, the babysitter has real power; she can leave, or refuse to accept the job in the first place. Moreover, she expects payment at the end of the evening, in cash, as well as the right to raid your fridge, watch your TV, work on your computer, and rifle through your drawers. Also, usually part of the deal with babysitters is that your child is unconscious for part of the time. Except for teachers of the very young, the desire merely to oversee an unconscious child is not considered an effective pedagogical approach.

Teachers have gone from being expected to mentor their students to monitoring their students. In other words, parents would prefer if the teacher could simply validate everything the parent has done for, to, and with the child without having to insist on that pesky interference known as teaching.

(Editorial note: I considered using the phrase rubber-stamp rather than validate, but I realized suddenly that rubber-stamping wouldn't be special enough. Now you would have to have one of those fancy stamp kits with glitter and cut-outs and various whimsical shapes in order to please the parent. The more elaborate the stamp kit, the more proof of sincere enthusiasm on the part of the instructor, or so it would seem.)

Say it with me: This is all nonsense!

What we're doing is creating a generation of devitalized, irresolute, thin-skinned children who will grow up to be unreliable, temperamental, narcissistic, nerdy adults. Not that I'm bitter. But, according to Hara Estroff Marano, author of the recent and brilliant book A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting and editor at large for Psychology Today, that's the danger we're in: "I feel terrible for faculty," she says. "They are now service providers."

We're back to the babysitter paradigm.

It seems that teachers are no longer considered the intellectual and social paragons they once were, but are instead regarded as a version of the academic crossing guard who is insignificant and yet holds a sign indicating whether the child will be allowed to cross over or must remain standing in place.

"Those pesky academics ARE STANDING IN THE WAY OF someone's unblemished academic record on the way to law school," laughs Marano in an interview when I ask her about the contempt with which some high-powered parents treat teachers and administrators. She goes on to explain that "The only people with leverage are in the athletic realm and even then, they are facing the same problems, too. But the head of athletics at a major Midwestern university who, as you know, is closer to a Supreme Being than anyone else, explained that he announces to his athletes that if a parent calls the athletic department (usually demanding more play time for his or her kid or questioning some action), that kid is benched from the next game. That works. That shuts parents up. But not very many schools allow faculty to act that decisively.

And, as somebody who has spent her life working in humanities departments, I feel it's important to point out that this tactic probably wouldn't work in an English class. I just can't see myself saying to a parent, "Dr. Klein, if you phone me one more time telling me to call on little Melanie, I will simply refuse to grade her next creative writing assignment."

Nope, it's not gonna happen.

What about the idea that kids virtually drag their families with them in their knapsacks -- or, more specifically, on their cell phones -- since their parents won't give them autonomy? Marano agrees it's complicated because parents no longer see school as a separate institution, but as an extension of their territory. "I read [that] it's all going to get even worse, she cautions. More [parents] with MBA degrees are dropping out of the workforce. .. These are the people who have professionalized parenthood and applied professional values to developmental issues. They know how to manipulate the system."



Article by Regina Barreca
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