Saturday, 11 October 2014

When does school supervision stop and parenting begin?

Over the years I have had many strange requests from parents when it comes to alcohol, parties and gatherings. I've been asked to do private consultations with the entire family (I'm not a counsellor or a psychologist so that's not going to happen), provide an intervention of some description (ditto!) and increasingly, speak to the school ... I have used the following email I received from a parent in a previous blog, but it's too good not to use again and clearly illustrates the growing trend of 'parents not wanting to be parents' and the blurring of lines between school supervision (or intervention) and parenting.

You visited my daughter's school a few weeks ago and I attended your Parent Evening. Thank you for the information you presented - it certainly caused lots of discussion at home. She is in Year 10 and we are having a few problems at the moment, particularly with regard to parties. I was wondering if you could do me a favour as we have a bit of an issue with a party that is coming up in a couple of weeks. I really don't want my daughter to go and I really don't know how to handle it. If you have the time could you possibly call the principal and get him to contact the parents who are hosting the party and try to have it cancelled? I'm pretty sure there will be alcohol provided at the event and I do not feel comfortable with my daughter going ....

Can you believe this? The mother had two options, she could either simply turn to her 15 year old daughter and say "no", or, as she actually chose to do, contact a complete stranger to ask them to call a school principal and get them to cancel a party put on by other parents! Are you kidding? What happens on a Saturday night has nothing to do with the school - that is where the line is pretty clear - that's where good parenting comes in. Schools are being increasingly asked to do more and more parenting and that's not their job! Unfortunately, it really has got to the stage where the only thing the school doesn't do is give birth to children, and sadly I don't think that is too far away!

Of course schools have a role, but they do not operate in a vacuum - there must be a partnership with parents and, unfortunately, I just don't think that that partnership is as strong as it once was. Certainly when I was a teacher (many years ago), I would get almost a 100% parent turn-out at a Parent-Teacher Evening, I'm now talking to teachers who have never seen the majority of their students' parents at these events. I go to a number of schools, wonderful schools, where they do not have a P&C (Parents and Friends, whatever you want to call it ...) and haven't had one for many years, simply because they cannot get sufficient numbers of parents to attend and engage with the school. Those that do get involved are amazing - they attend every event that is put on by the school, assist in fundraising and do whatever they can to be a part of their child's education - totally getting that the higher level of engagement and involvement, the stronger the partnership between the family and the school, the greater likelihood of better educational outcomes for the child ...

From my perspective fewer parents are actively engaged with schools in the past and that makes it extremely difficult to put forward a unified front on issues such as alcohol and parties (people I know who work in the cybersafety area say the same thing - schools can put all the right things in place but if you don't get the support from home, what's the point?). I get that parenting can be difficult, but if you work with the school and work together on any issues that may arise, it may make things a little easier. Essentially, I believe there are a couple of issues here:
  • fewer parents are actively parenting than in the past - I've talked about this many times - it's not that they don't love their kids, it's just that it can be really hard! I break these parents who are not actively parenting down into three groups:
    • the ones that really try for a period of time and they just get worn down by their teens and it all becomes too difficult and they thrown their hands up in the air and give up
    • those that are simply frightened of not being liked or fear the conflict that inevitably goes with parenting a teenager (i.e., they would rather be seen as a friend than a parent)
    • the final group who are simply being bullied by either their children or other parents into doing things that they just don't feel comfortable about
  • some parents believe that they have 'paid the fees' - now the school has to fix the problem! They hand the child and all the parenting over to the school and expect (in some cases, even demand) a well-rounded, happy adolescent to pop-out at the end of Year 12
  • others are simply 'time-poor' and they don't see the need to engage - they work hard to do the best for their family, they have great kids and they appear to be doing well at school - why do they need to go up to the school and speak to teachers?
  • schools provide too much - I think we also have to say that schools are a little to blame here as well! Sometimes it's just a case of overkill - I go to some schools where I am with a teacher from 8.00am (when I arrive to deliver my first presentation) all the way through to 9.30pm, at the end of my Parent Information Evening. Sometimes this will be the third night in a row for this teacher - now it can be the same for me but I get paid well for my time! Teachers get no overtime and are asked to do this night after night after night! That would be fine if there were good results for their efforts but the problem is there are diminishing returns as far as parent numbers are concerned ... the parents are exhausted! I have been to one school where they only have one parent night a year - both times I presented there I had audiences of over 500! What this shows is that parents will engage if the request on their time is limited to some extent ...
Schools are being asked to do more and more all the time. There is already a crowded curriculum and the pressure on schools to perform (in so many ways, not just academically) is immense. Earlier this year when the then Premier of NSW, Barry O'Farrell announced a range of measures his government was introducing in an attempt to curb alcohol-related violence, he said that schools needed to do more in this area. Really? Teachers are already asked to deal with cybersafety, sex education, mental health issues, bullying, eating disorders and the list goes on an on. Certainly there is no better place to provide information to young people on a range of issues - they are a captive audience in a school setting, but so many of the problems associated with these issues could be so better dealt with if parents got out there and actually parented, or at the very least, worked in partnership with the school to try and make a difference!

Just to illustrate how sometimes parents actively undermine the school here is an example of something that happened to me at a school a couple of months ago. I had a break in between presentations at an elite independent girls' school and was sitting outside the auditorium behind a wall where no-one could see me. I heard someone come in behind me and make a phone call - it was a Year 10 student who had just heard that she would be attending my session in the next period (around 11am). She was speaking to her mother and the conversation was truly bizarre - it went something like this ...

"Mum, we have this alcohol talk next period and I was wondering whether you could call the school and tell them that I don't need to attend. I don't really have anything else on this afternoon, just maths and you know that I hate maths and it doesn't really matter if I go or not. You know that I don't drink and really the talk will just be a waste of time. If you could call and then I can get a pass and I will get a bus home ... That's great - thanks! I'll most probably have to go into town on the way home and so you won't see me until about 4 ... Thanks!"

I immediately went and found the Year 10 co-ordinator and told her about the call and she contacted the parent and made sure that the girl did not leave the school. When I spoke to the teacher this was a girl who certainly needed to hear my talk and she was known for having her mother wrapped around her little finger!

What I found absolutely amazing was the lack of effort it took for the girl to talk her mother around to not only getting out of my talk, but not attending a maths lesson, but most importantly for her to wander into town completely unsupervised and come home when she saw fit! Unbelievable! This is a classic case of a parent totally undermining the school's efforts to do the best they can for their child. I fully understand if there are religious or moral reasons for excluding students from specific activities, but for a teen to turn around a make a decision on whether they will attend or not, simply because they don't want to, and then get their parents to support them without question is unacceptable and clearly illustrates the total lack of partnership!

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