When I was a child, a call home from a teacher would bring additional consequences from my parents, because they were on the same team - mine. They all cared enough to take seriously both my potential and their responsibility to help me learn and grow. This is an area where schools and parents should be allies - for the child's sake.
Yet while they are critical to student growth, conversations around school discipline are challenging. They can be fraught with enormous emotion, because they touch on sensitive areas. The challenge is real and significant, whether one's child is the one being disciplined, or a parent feels another person's child needs to be disciplined.
These days, it seems most parents like the idea of firm discipline, or they support it for other people's children. But when a teacher or administrator calls about a problem with their own children, they may respond with less enthusiasm. As a father and a teacher, I am frequently surprised by some parents' reluctance for their child to be corrected, even mildly. It's as if the idea that their child may need correction or discipline bothers them. I get that.
But I also find this sad; being corrected or appropriately disciplined can have significant benefits for a child. Teachers are another pair of eyes, helping prevent blind spots. Of course, teachers and schools make mistakes; I'm not suggesting parents should simply accept without question that something is wrong every time a teacher raises an issue. Educators and schools have a responsibility to be as fair, ethical and as thoughtful as possible.
If parents want schools to do the critical work of educating kids and helping them grow into productive adults, though, that means supporting their efforts - including correction or discipline. Some parents won't admit to any problem. Others will acknowledge misbehavior, but frame it in the most benign terms: as immaturity, a mistake or a lapse. Parents often evaluate a child's mistakes based on intentions, not actions. We focus on explanatory details and tend to situate mistakes in the larger context of the good things we see in them. Sometimes we can't imagine they are capable of negative things. We can also be quick to jump to conclusions about other people's kids, or assign blame without hearing all sides of a story.
None of this is healthy for children. Ignoring a child's misbehavior or mistakes creates a dangerous blind spot. Uncorrected mistakes grow bigger with time - and so do the consequences. That's why it's important for parents to acknowledge and correct issues when they come up.
Here are some things for parents to consider when interacting with schools about discipline. It's worth noting that I wrote this in early August, before the new school year began. It's not related to anything specific, and it is meant to be a general guide for everyday situations, not more serious issues. There will always be extreme situations, such as bullying, that require urgent intervention. Disparities in discipline because of race also need to be addressed in a different way, and immediately.
- Your child will make mistakes: Kids are, by definition, immature. They'll misbehave and make mistakes - sometimes big ones. It's to be expected and it's part of adolescence. Even a great, loving kid can still do insensitive, clueless or even mean things.
Don't assume your child will live your values: It takes a lifetime to align our values and our actions. Kids haven't had the same life experience or practice adults have. And adolescents often push the boundaries, rebel or say things to be provocative. They also may pick up ideas and words and use them without fully understanding the implications. Separate yourself from your child's misbehavior. Resist the urge to feel attacked.
Remember that children are individuals with their own ideas, values and wills. They make choices and decisions independent of their parents.
- Respond first to your child's misbehavior: A friend of mine taught a frequently disruptive and disrespectful child. When my friend contacted the parents, they immediately focused on any perceived imperfection in her response to the misbehavior. This is exhausting.
If you find yourself saying, "He shouldn't have done x, but . . .," stop at the "but." Go back and fix the first part.
A teacher (or another student) might handle something better or differently. But don't use that as a reason to ignore a problem. Start with your child's behavior, then address additional concerns with the teacher or appropriate administrator.
Teachers are accountable for their interactions with students. Given the number of decisions they have to make moment to moment, they deserve latitude and grace. They are bound to have some missteps (this is not to excuse abusive or unprofessional conduct, of course).
- Look at the long term: Bad behavior that is not corrected will grow, haunting children as they get older. I am always a little surprised by the number of parents who prefer a child's immediate comfort to teaching, challenging, correcting or disciplining them. Unless discipline is unfair or abusive, it will probably have a positive impact. Teachers may see some weaknesses that parents don't see. Anyone who is willing to invest time in helping a child grow into a happier, more productive, autonomous adult is that child's friend.
- Communicate calmly: If you must disagree or advocate for your child, be careful with inflammatory, sarcastic or caustic remarks, and avoid broad generalizations. It will seldom get you what you want, and it may even endanger it.
- Don't gossip or label: It's remarkable how quickly adults can give a child a label. This is one reason parents sometimes refuse to acknowledge their child's misbehavior; other adults in the community can be unforgiving.
Parents can help create a better environment by being careful with labels and rumors regarding other children. Consider whether you would want other adults talking about a mistake your child made. Creating narratives of hero and villain, or good and bad, can be satisfying. But they are not usually accurate. What you hear about someone else's child is probably incomplete at best, particularly because school personnel are often forbidden by law from discussing issues related to other children.
- Use verbs and adjectives, not nouns: Focus on behavior. If you must report another child's misbehavior, focus on the child's actions. "He shoved her in the hall," or "She spread rumors on social media." Don't use terms that categorize or label a child.
- Be open-minded about consequences: Often parents want someone disciplined in the same ways that were used when they were kids. But best practices for discipline today look different than they used to. Most schools work on trying to help create changes in behavior as opposed to imposing penalties. This can be slow work. Be patient.
Creating a positive learning environment is ongoing work. It requires communication and constant effort. Helping students learn from mistakes, take responsibility and grow is as critical to their future as math equations and verb conjugations - perhaps more so. It is also a complex and messy process because it involves human beings. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but parents have an interest in helping the process along.
This feature was written by Braden Bell, a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. The author of seven novels, he blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents.