My eyes are still a little weepy. I was cleaning up a bit around the house to get ready to write this article about the importance of parents, and decided to listen to a little music while I worked. The first song that popped up on the Apple Music playlist was one I hadn’t heard: “The Best Days” by Taylor Swift. So I listened. I listened again and again because I was touched by the heartfelt lyrics that demonstrate the impact the simple things we do as parents can have on our kids.
Like a recent article I read called The Top 10 Things Children Really Want Their Parents to Do With Them, it boils down to the little things—and we find that those little things are really not so little. They are everything, and they all point towards the need our children have for us to try to understand them for who they are.
In Taylor Swift’s song, she experienced a “mean girl” day at middle school and when she came home upset, her mother took her out driving and talking and window shopping. That’s it. She didn’t even buy her anything. But she stopped whatever she was doing and listened, and then spent time with her to show her life goes on.
Recently I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote workshop at a homeschooling conference. I was working with parents from a broad spectrum of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds who have all dedicated themselves to finding personalized pathways to support their children’s learning. Many of these parents stepped in after schools weren’t able to provide a sufficient education. The commonality among them was that they were driven by deep-seated love to try to find ways to meet their children where they are.
This is much the same motive as parents everywhere, whether their kids are in public school, private school, homeschools, or other alternative settings. They are simply trying to do what their intuition tells them is best for their kids and their families. But unfortunately, parents get a bad rap and we in the education world often look at them suspiciously, or even fear them. We have the stereotypes of helicopter parents, tiger moms, extremists, and parents of gifted children that think their kids are “all that.” But when you really dig down under the surface, parents are driven by love for their children.
The education system tends to dismiss parent complaints, or even a parent perspective on his or her own child that differs from what we believe from our “professional experience.” Often, we compare characteristics of children that we’ve had in the past, and draw conclusions about their needs or diagnoses without truly understanding the depth of the individual that is in front of us.
For the most part, our education system, our curricula, and our assessments are designed to “the average student.” However, as Todd Rose argues in an interview about his book, The End of Average, and in his TED Talk, there is no such thing as an average student and by teaching to the average we are meeting no one’s needs.
In order to effectively educate and engage our students, we must understand them on an individual basis. Who has the key to the details that we don’t see in the classroom? Parents!
The thing is, sometimes parents can act crazy and angry and put on bad behavior. This causes educators to mistrust parents. But if they are regarded suspiciously from the get-go, then we are the ones inciting this behavior by virtue of poor leadership and bad communication.
Open communication is essential for effective leadership. As educational professionals—teachers, school psychologists, administrators—we are leaders by default. We are charged to be transformational leaders because we are obliged to support the growth of those we lead. These are our students, of course, but their parents are also an important part of our circle. If we set a climate of trust, openness, and mutual respect with parents, we will be successful at teaching and building strong relationships. If we don’t, or if we resist parent input, secretly disdain or judge them for advocating for their kids, we set a tone for conflict and, ultimately, rescind our ability to meet the child’s true needs.
This of course takes humility. Once I taught a student whose parent had been branded with a reputation of being a “school hopper.” This meant that she could never find a school to meet her child’s needs, so the child ended up switching to another school. This kept happening so she gained this reputation, and it seemed to fit. I will admit that I participated in judging the parent, and agreed with the gossipy groupthink that she shouldn’t move her child from school to school. I was wrong and I learned from it.
Back then I believed I was knowledgeable about gifted kids. Her child was definitely intellectually gifted, so I believed I understood how to educate him. However, I didn’t know what I know now about the different needs of different types of gifted students, namely those who are both intellectually gifted according to IQ tests and highly creative. Looking back, I think the mother was correct. No school understood her son and no school knew how to meet his voracious learning and highly creative needs, including me in my classroom. As educators we must acknowledge that parents likely know more about their kids than we do since we only see them in one context.
Taylor Swift wrote in the song to her mom, “I know you were on my side even when I was wrong.” Kids do better in life when they feel this unconditional love from their parents. If educators can support that through open communication and respect for a parent’s point of view, everyone will benefit. Together we will educate and raise happy, healthy, engaged children.