“I have a 9 year old daughter whose first day of 3rd grade was today and it appears we have “the mean teacher”. I’m thinking of going to see the principal, the teacher, and maybe trying to get her moved into another class. But what can I do if that doesn’t work? Only 179 more days to go. Ugh.”
Sound familiar? It can be agonising trying to work out how to help our child through tough times with their teachers. In situations like this we need to be our children’s advocate. And we also need to keep our focus on building and repairing relationships – with the school and the teacher, and with our children. Around issues to do with school, there are things we can, and things we cannot control. And the place we have real power and influence is in our relationship with our children.
Being your child’s advocate
Schools do their best, but in general, they aren’t places that are organised to meet our children’s individual needs. They are understaffed: often, the adult-child ratios leave a lot to be desired. Teachers are stretched, it’s emotionally demanding work, and it’s not well valued by society, if pay scales are anything to go by.
As a culture, we also expect an enormous amount of schools – that they adjust with the times, prepare our children for the future, teach basic curriculum, but also impart values and reinforce behaviours. The popular media is quick to find fault with teachers when things go wrong, without looking to deeper explanations about resources and support.
In the midst of this, your child’s particular needs may well be subsumed. You are the expert on how school affects them, and what they need to feel safe and confident. And sometimes, you need to stand up for them, or help teachers understand some of the extra challenges they might be facing.
Brings up lots of feelings…
I’ve never regretted going to see my child’s teachers about issues of concern. I ALWAYS needed to take Listening Time beforehand.
Firstly, to work “off” my feelings of panic, irritation and anger so that these didn’t overtake my conversation with teachers and I would be able to connect with them and see things from their perspective.
Second, to work off feelings of being overwhelmed, inadequate and over-protective of my child. I’ve never been to see the teacher without feelings the night before of dread and anxiety and generally feeling I’m making an unnecessary fuss. That’s despite the fact that those feelings have never proven to have any basis in reality: It’s always been a good thing to go see the teacher.
I’ve not got to the bottom of where these awful feelings come from. My best guess is years of being disrespected, humiliated and treated more or less harshly at school. Most of us spent many years at school. Some if it was OK, but much of it was hard. Many of us couldn’t get out of school fast enough. And until we had children, we didn’t go back. Having children at school forces us into an environment where we will be reminded of those long years. That happened to me when my daughter started school and I’ve found regular Listening Partnerships have been essential to keeping a good perspective on my own and my child’s “school challenges”.
What can you really influence?
We can do our best to find the right school, we can build relationships with the teachers, we can advocate for our children when necessary. Sometimes we can change the situation – perhaps have our children moved into a different class. But it’s unpredictable whether these things will be possible, or make a difference.
The thing we do have control over is the strength of our relationship with our children. As a parent, you can be confident that the caring you show, the connection you build, and the listening you do will give your child the support and build the resilience they need in order to survive whatever school, or anything else, serves up.
Because parenting is so undervalued and under-resourced, it is easy to forget that we are the most important thing to our children. We are the one they leave in the morning to go out into the world, and we are the one they come home to.
Connecting with Teens
What does this focus on connection and listening look like with pre-teens and teens? With younger kids, we may be able to do Special Time before school, or when they get home. This will help to fill their “emotional backpack” with connection before they launch into the day, or at the end of it, when they have struggled through on much less connection than they need.
For various reasons, this doesn’t always seem to work so well with older kids. Instead (or as well) we need to notice points of connection and be prepared to put down our own agenda and go with their initiative.
My friend says:
“I pack her lunch. I didn’t realise how important this was between us until recently. I mean, she’s 14 now -she should be making her own lunch, shouldn’t she? I get up early, though, and pack it for her. One day it came home practically uneaten. I was cranky and “grumped” at her. I told her she could just buy it at the canteen from now on. And she got really, surprisingly upset. “You’re my mum. Your job is to make my lunch. I want you to make my lunch.” And I realised that that this was a little point of connection between her and I through the day. When she opened her lunch she was reminded I loved her.”
Another father told me that the drive to school is something he has kept in their routine, even though his son could catch the bus to school. He says that sometimes they are just quietly together for the drive, in companionable silence. Other times, his son will choose the music, and they’ll share that together. His son may tell his dad sorts of details about what musicians he likes, and why. In between, he’ll ask a question or ask his dad what he thinks about various things. The father says, too, that “this also seems to be a good, neutral time for us to raise things with one another, though I need to be careful to back off if my boy doesn’t want to talk. The most important thing is that it is our time together, going more-or-less his way.”
A mother told me:
“With my teen, I sit around in his room at bedtime, even though I’d dearly love to retreat into my book at the end of the day. We communicate a lot, but this time of day he seems particularly open. Maybe it’s because things have had a chance to settle, the busy early evening of dinner and homework is over, and we have already reconnected a little through the evening, and things between us are “warmed up”. He chats, tells me about his day, asks what I think about things. When relatives regularly come to stay, I will even engineer that it is “necessary” for me to sleep on the camp bed in his room, and that allows some extra together-time. I wrestle when he invites me -again usually at bedtime…grr.”
Listening to upsets
As well as packing their backpack with connection, we can unpack their backpack at the end of the day. Listen to them – their stories, their interests, their wonderings.
And listen, also, to their righteous indignation, their stomping and slamming-door tantrums. It’s called Staylistening, and it can be challenging. It can be easy to take offence at the loudness, the heatedness of it all. Often they will make it all into our fault. Whatever we offer, it is “wrong”.
It’s important not to take all this personally. They’ve been hanging on to a lot through the day. Our un-troubled listening will make a difference to them. It may need to be from the other side of the door, but we hang in there. And, as my friend says “if at all humanly possible, say nothing”.
We can do this knowing that they are recovering their resources, repairing hurt feelings, and building their reserves so that they can go back to school tomorrow to “fight another day”.
I forget this so easily – my daughter will get in the car after school, talking indignantly about something that has happened in the day – some unfairness, injustice, or social trouble. So often, I feel pulled to start exploring how we can fix the problem – with advice about who else she could sit with at lunchtime, or an offer to go see the teacher. But if I hold my tongue, often by the time she gets home, she’s downloaded enough about the difficulty that she can cheerfully move on to the next thing. The mother who asked the question I started with at the beginning of this article told me recently “She still doesn’t like the teacher but I am doing a lot of Staylistening when she feels the teacher has been mean or unfair and that is helping.”
There are probably predictable points in your routine where there are upsets. You can prepare for these, knowing that what may be needed is your good attention and kind listening, rather than your problem solving ability. Many families struggle with homework. I’m of the view that the best thing homework is good for is upsets, and for this parent, struggles over homework often open the door to bigger issues.
“Sometimes, my son, who is 13, will get down to homework easily. But sometimes, I need to nudge him a bit about it. If he’s been putting it off, more often than not, when I suggest he begin or encourage him to organise himself better, it’s the opportunity for him to have a big upset. He tells me I’m being mean and unreasonable. I tell him back that I’m sorry that there’s so much homework, and if I know he’s approaching it in an organised way, I’m happy to talk to the school about it. But I hold the limit – he needs to do it, or we won’t be able to tell. He’ll stomp around a bit, and then either get down to it, or start a more serious “vent” about the day. Out come all the things he has been holding in – how someone was mean, how some teacher was unjust and not fair. It’s as if the requirement to get down to homework is a chance for him to have a general mental cleanup! Afterwards, he can usually get on with the assignment with reasonably good cheer.”
Get Support for Yourself – You are That Important
To listen this way, with generosity and patience and resisting the temptation to move in and fix things up or to argue back (at least sometimes!), we need our own Listeners. I’ve used my Listening Partnerships to download how hard it is not to take it personally, or how tedious or boring I find all the details. My capacity to pay attention to my child is directly proportional to how much of my own Listening Time I am getting. And I do better when I’m in a Support Call or Hand in Hand group of other parents where we share our stories and get Listening Time. It’s easier to see that it is not “all my fault” or “all my child’s fault”, but part of the process of parenting.
Power to the Parents!
So go wonderful parents! Power to you! Make friends with your children’s teachers, take up issues with them, but most important of all, understand the very special, vital role you play in building your child’s capacity to withstand the pressures school places on them. Make the most of their upsets, knowing these provide the “emotional unpacking” they need, and you are just the right person for them to do it with.