Are Parents Falling Down on the Job?

In yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, college freshman and Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca-Cola Scholar, and Dell Scholar Mpaza S. Kapembwa writes that, when it comes to education, he believes American parents are falling down on the job. Overly concerned with self-esteem and happiness, he writes, American parents value “feeling good above true knowledge, wisdom and understanding.” Citing South Korean educational achievement as an example, he calls for American parents to be more Tiger Mother than best friend, and to be more concerned and involved with the success – the real success – of their children. Who do parents blame? Certainly not themselves. “Parents see their dreams not being realized in their children and they lash out at the dream snatcher — the teacher.”

Is there a grain of truth to this? Or more than a grain?

Having been both a public and private school parent, I have witnessed a few parents act terribly toward teachers and administration – the kinds of acts that centered only the well-being of their child, without taking into account the entire group (or the teacher’s feelings). But these are the rare and obvious mistakes, the ones where the parent insecurity and self-interest blare so loudly it can’t be ignored. The other kind of self-interest, though, is more insidious and more difficult to pin down. When Mr. Kapempwa writes, “I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools because it is not pain-free for all students,” it rings true. But the question is, it rings true for who?

Do you feel that we parents are too easy on our kids? Do you feel that you are too easy, or are there parents you know who consistently value empty good feelings over hard work? How responsible are your kids for their own learning? My father was a teacher, and I remember my parents coming down on the side of the teacher most times, but there were a few instances when they listened to our grievances, and sided with us. I remember my parents going to teachers to make alternate arrangements, and I remember my mother, in particular, fighting – and winning – to get me out of a classroom with a teacher she thought was cruel. Do these qualify as not being on the side of learning, of blaming the teacher? Or is this advocating for the student’s needs? And how do we know which is which?

Perhaps Mr. Kapembwa is young enough to say so blatantly what the grownups try to tiptoe around: the teachers come to school ready to teach, but many children are not ready to learn. Yet even this assumption – that all teachers are prepared and that students are not – can be complex. What about children experiencing instability at home, whether it be fighting or divorcing parents, poverty, abuse, or a combination? According to the Census Bureau, 36% of American children are living in poverty. What about students who are homeless, or very nearly so? And what about their parents’ ability to care? Studies show that parental involvement at school is connected to student success, but parent involvement is also related to parent income and education.

Maybe it’s been said one too many times, but it bears repeating: in countries where the culture supports the parents, the parents support the schools, and overall, the children do well. Kapembwa is right to note that education is a triangle between parents, teachers and students, and when one corner isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, the triangle collapses. But it’s much harder to dig deep to understand the root causes of why the triangle is falling down in the first place.

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