She burst through the door for our parent-teacher conference talking loudly to a client on her Bluetooth. Her entrance aside, we were happy to see her given that she’d scheduled but not shown for the previous two conferences. Her son was struggling—not so much academically, but socially and emotionally. He was a small, quiet little thing that oozed anxiety; a loner on the playground and a worrier about seemingly every little detail of his day. We sat awkwardly as she loudly wrapped up her conversation with a client at the table.
When done, she sat back without saying a word, sunglasses unremoved, her lips tightly pursed together. As each teacher shared, she sat silently & reactionless--no longer the bold, expressive talker she was only a few minutes ago. We first shared her son’s accomplishments and then delicately eased into our concerns. Still no response. After we’d said everything we needed to say, she finally responded coolly “well, then…why don’t you help him? I mean, isn’t that your job, to take care of kids? If he’s struggling and your job is to help children, then I’d say you’re not doing your job.”
I dropped my students off hurriedly for related arts—I had 40 minutes to use the restroom, get something to eat, & hopefully get a hold of the radiologist who’d called and left a message while I was working with the students. I couldn’t take the call with the kids there, but as we headed out the door, I saw a bit in the transcription of the voicemail, and it said something about me needing to come back in for further testing. I felt my anxiety ramp up. Grading and planning would have to wait until tonight—this was my only time to get a hold of them during office hours.
After the restroom, I quickly grabbed my snack and called the doctor’s office. While waiting on hold I opened my computer. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh: yet another e-mail--the third one today from the same parent. This time it read “Please make sure 'Johnny' gets a band-aid today, he tends to scratch his mosquito bites too much.” I took a breath, hoping to inhale some patience. Johnny is a 6th grader.
I probably didn’t need to meet with “The Smiths” to talk about their daughter, but they schedule every time. As they walk in, they greet us with the usual pleasantries, and I begin to talk about their daughter’s strengths and beautiful progress in reading. They listen attentively and take notes on suggestions for books she may like to read at home. “This is all great to hear, but how is she doing overall? And with the other students? Is she kind? Is she being social with the kids who need a friend?” We assure them that she is, because that’s the truth. “Good—so, overall, is there anything you see on your end that, if she were your own daughter, you’d want to know? And is there anything you need?”
The gamut of classroom parents you will get any given year is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get. These stories are examples of what I’ve come to identify as the three different types of parenting we see when it comes to one very important characteristic: CONNECTION. The type of relationship and the degree of connection that a parent has with their child will fall somewhere on a spectrum from “overly connected” (a.k.a. enmeshed) to what I call “dysconnected” (purposely misspelled to imply dysfunction). Somewhere in the middle lies the type of parenting that was illustrated in the last narrative—a balance between being connected enough to care about what matters and being detached enough to allow the child’s independence to emerge. The three categories aren’t meant to imply that every family fits neatly into one exact group or that everyone should fit nicely into the middle group, although I do think those are great characteristics to strive for.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each type:
These are the children that appear highly attended to in a material sense but are, in reality, craving REAL connection. I purposely misspell it because I'm not simply talking about a parent on the phone too much--it's a dysfunctional level of distraction with work, social media, etc. due to the 24/7 nature of technology. But it can also come in the form of the parent distracting the child with technology so that the may get more done or avoid the harder parts of parenting. By using the term "the new neglect" I don’t mean to take true child neglect lightly, but I do see that the end result isn’t much different: the child’s needs aren’t being addressed therefore he isn’t being cared for properly--period. It seems to be a more insidious form of neglect in the sense that the child appears externally to be just fine, maybe even well-off, but is internally starving for connection, being ignored, and/or emotionally hurting.
It’s been my experience that these parents tend to see their child’s grades as a reflection of themselves—as a status symbol of sorts. The report card with straight A’s is desired for bragging rights; whether or not their child has a true understanding of the material is less relevant.
These parents are so fearful of their children experiencing struggle or failure that it's avoided at all costs; what they fail to realize, of course, is that they are denying their child valuable opportunities to learn through those mistakes. Of course, a parent's poor boundaries with his/her child will often mean poor boundaries with you, the teacher, as well. It often means multiple e-mails per day or surprise visits outside of school hours for an impromptu conference. These are the parents we must set boundaries with from the get-go to protect our time and energy.
The unspoken message in these homes is: “you’re our biggest priority, but our entire world doesn’t revolve around you, either.” These parents hold their children to a healthy level of accountability—they expect their child to take responsibility for his/her actions, “rescuing” only when necessary because the child has tried to fight the battle first or it’s not his/her battle to fight. I’ve found that these parents also tend to see the value in productive struggle and understand, usually from their own lives, that failures can be our greatest learning experiences. Their children may have nice things, but those things aren’t used as currency and the child’s needs (love, belonging, connection) clearly come first.
When I look at my own parenting, I realize too that, though we mostly fall into one type based on our tendencies, our parenting can be fluid due to life circumstances. For the most part, I think (hope) that I fall in the middle, but I notice myself “helicoptering” more during times of stress, I think in an effort to control when life is feeling out of control. And I also had a period after the loss of a pregnancy where I think I was probably a little too disconnected, which is understandable when grieving. Perfect balance is an unattainable goal--it's not about perfection, but rather staying aware and adjusting when things get out of balance.
Of course the struggle is that not everyone is self-aware, and this is one of the toughest parts about teaching. Many parents aren’t aware of where they fall on the spectrum and some wouldn’t care, let alone be willing to change it. One of the greatest challenges with teaching is that we, to some extent, are responsible for fixing things we didn't break; for righting situations that have been wrong for some time, all in a matter of months. But, at the end of the day, all we can worry about is the part that's within our control; doing our best to move these kids forward academically, socially, and emotionally in those 7.5 hours a day. As much as we get invested and may want better for some of our kids, it’s not our place to change parents (in cases of abuse it may be incumbent on us to get more involved at times, but it's still not our job to change people).
Here’s the point in sharing this and what I want to remind my teacher friends (and myself) of as we face a new year: JUST DO WHAT YOU CAN. When you have a “dysconnected” parent, make your best attempts to reach out, leading with love, coming from a place that lets them know their defenses don’t need to be up. With that being said, do not allow yourself to be disrespected. Speak up or have your administrator involved if their "defenses" involve demeaning you.
And, when you have a parent in the “overly-connected” category making you weary, remember to set boundaries, both for your own sake and for the child’s. For these kids, school needs to be the place they can go and be free to exercise their independence. And, in order to retain our love for what we do (and our sanity!), we have to protect our own time and energy so that WE can be the kind of connected parents we want to be for our own kids at home. If we allow that stress to follow us home, which I often catch myself doing and have to correct, we then become those “dyconnected” parents ourselves.
It's great to love our students like our own but, at the end of the day, this is our JOB, not our LIFE. And the children we serve at home deserve our BEST, not our leftovers.
I'm Krissy & I'm so thankful you're here. Being a woman, a wife, a mother--it's all rewarding but also tough. I hope this is a place you can go that feels like caffeine for the soul. Check out the categories below and, if you like what you read, subscribe to make sure you always have good Sunday morning reading to go with your coffee :)