A few weeks ago, Jan and I had a meeting with our son’s preschool teacher to review Oliver’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.
I didn’t even know there was such a thing. When I was a kid, being “Kindergarten-ready” meant you were five. Today, apparently, it’s all about whether or not you can properly grip a pencil. I thought that was something you were supposed to learn in Kindergarten! Here, we think we’re raising this prodigy because he uses phrases like “on the other hand” and “speaking of that,” but it turns out he’s the only kid in class who can’t write his own name. After registering Oliver in school (which now entails a urine sample, by the way – for the child, not the parents), we attended a Kindergarten orientation that featured their “reading intervention” program – for the ones who enter the system unable to read. Because, you know, if they’re not reading on day one, how can they possibly get through constitutional law by the second semester, right? I felt woefully negligent. My son hadn’t attended his first day of public school and he was already on the remedial track.
All right, I’m exaggerating a bit, but my point in sharing this story is that I’m finally getting the opportunity to see the work we do from a parent’s point of view.
I have spent twenty-one years of my life providing programs to students and families. Now, suddenly, I’m standing on the other side of the counter, and it’s given me a new perspective on customer service. We are engaged in what my good friend Bob Cabeza refers to as “the sacred work” of caring for other people’s children. And I can tell you, the first day we dropped Oliver off at that preschool, entrusting him to people who, despite being highly qualified professionals, were not members of his immediate family, we understood exactly how sacred this work is. Parents, except in the most rare and unfortunate cases, love their children more than anything else in this world, and when you take responsibility for them, you become a part of their family.
There’s a line from the movie Spanglish where the dad says, “Worrying about your kids is sanity. And being that sane…can drive you nuts.” This quote offers some insight into why parents may not always react rationally where their children are concerned. As an after-school administrator, I’ve dealt with my fair share of unreasonable parents, but now that I am a father, I’m a bit more forgiving of those who may have advocated in a manner I considered inappropriate. I’m not excusing abusive behavior, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s possible to have a corrective conversation about a child that does not reflect poorly upon the parents.
I don’t want to hear anything negative about my son. I take it personally when he is criticized. I will defend him to the death and make whatever excuses are necessary to fend off any and all perceived shortcomings. When Oliver’s teacher, quite correctly, pointed out that he was behind his peers in writing mechanics, my first inclination was to say, “Hey, you’re the teacher! What are we paying you for?” Of course, I didn’t say that, but I’m sure the look on my face was not one of unfaltering teacher/parent solidarity.
It is not uncommon for young people in our field (or even those my age) who have not experienced parenthood themselves to be assigned the responsibility of dealing with parents.
Now, I’m not inferring that having children imparts perfect enlightenment on this issue (nor that being childless makes it impossible), but I have experienced a revelation or two in the last year and would like to offer the following advice, if I were the parent in question.
1. Understand that when you’re talking about my kid, you’re talking about me. (This wouldn’t have necessarily occurred to me before I became a dad.) Expect that I’ll be on his side, not yours, and incapable of remaining entirely objective.
2. Say something nice, if you can, about my kid before telling me what he did wrong. If you can convince me that you know him by specifically describing one or more of his good qualities, then you’ll have more credibility with me when suggesting he isn’t perfect.
3. Don’t get defensive if I challenge the validity of your account. My tendency will be to assume you are mistaken, given that my child is infallible, so even though I will be taking this conversation personally, you can’t. Be armed with documented facts, stay focused on the specific “alleged” behavior that needs correcting, and you may be able to convince me that this isn’t some fanatical witch hunt.
4. Express your faith in my kid’s ability to do the right thing. I will always endeavor to exonerate my child from accusations of wrongdoing. I will offer you a myriad of excuses and even readily take the blame myself, before acknowledging that he is responsible for his own behavior. Don’t let either one of us off the hook. Help me to understand that my child and I are two separate human beings.
5. Let me participate in the solution. Don’t tell me what he did and then tell me what I should do about it. He’s my kid. If you can get me to agree that my child does, in fact, have an issue that needs to be addressed (no easy feat), ask me if I have any thoughts on how it should be handled. Even if you know the answer, let me talk first. Then, when you implement the plan you had in mind all along, it will feel to me like we came to an agreement.
I know that my son is only at the beginning of his academic career and, as a small child, I am understandably protective. But I don’t believe that will change when he’s eight, or ten, or twelve, or twenty. In fact, I’ll probably be crafting righteously indignant emails to any future supervisor who ever dares reprimand him. He is my boy, and I love him. When he is enrolled in your program, I will expect you to love him, too. And I know you will. Because, really, what’s not to love?
For breakfast this morning I had a blueberry muffin. OK, two. But they are the healthy kind my wife makes, with low sugar, whole grains and loads of fiber.
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