There is something to be said for the old adage that “there are no problem students, only problem parents.”
Many parents struggling with financial, medical, marital, emotional and legal problems do their best to protect their children from the “fallout.” Most of the time, unfortunately, children cannot remain immune to family stress. Whatever the underlying causes, some common effects are seen very directly in problematic parent-child relationships.
They may include—but are not limited to—the following:
By the time the issue reaches the school, the student has become used to totally permissive and indulgent parents. S/he will make demands just to check whether the parents are still ready to fulfill every wish. It will be very difficult to institute change. The school may have a basic discussion with the parents about their responsibilities, and suggest some further reading or some outside professional help.
In some cases, the root problem is straightforward: the parents feel that they are obligated to give their children “everything that the other children have.” The parents should be firmly told the facts of life—that not all the other families are rich; that while some students may seem to have a great deal, many live more modest lives, and that not “every” child has the latest or most fashionable clothing or possessions. A full and frank discussion with the student by a sympathetic adult may help the student understand that they, too, have responsibilities to understand their family’s financial circumstances.
The principal must be very straightforward with these parents and suggest to them that they are making their own situation worse. Outside counseling may be necessary. They must learn to trust their child, allow them to grow up, and give them freedom, responsibility—and the chance to learn from their mistakes. To continually deny appropriate and responsible freedom is as irresponsible as giving a child complete freedom.
The parent is trying to insist that the student take courses (or music lessons, or sports training) which the student either doesn’t want to take, or with which the child simply cannot cope.
Investigation elicits the information that the parent themselves “wanted to do medicine, and it’s always been my dream that my child will be a doctor” (or the appropriate equivalent). A variant on this is the parent who wishes to send an unwilling child to yeshivah or seminary “because I never had the chance to go.” The parents have to understand that their children, too, have a right to be happy and to make their own choices. The parents’ pride and fulfillment has to be in raising happy children who are themselves fulfilled. Forcing a child into an unwanted choice will result in bitterness and resentment that will reverberate in the family for decades. Forcing a child to go to yeshivah or seminary will, of course, have exactly the opposite effect of that desired.
Currently termed “helicopter parents” because they hover over their children the whole time, these are the parents who come with their high-school children to arrange their lockers, want to sit in with them in the school opening orientation, and cover their textbooks for them. Generally they (i.e., the parents) grow out of it—usually the first time the student goes on a school trip and “forgets” to call home. Gentle reassurance is required: “Mrs. A, your daughter will be just fine. All the students manage. So will Jennifer. Arranging her own timetable change is part of becoming a high school student.” In many cases, such parents will be arguing and fretting over issues that their children do not think are at all important.
Nothing is ever the child’s fault. The teachers, the school, “the wrong friends” are all to blame for the student’s problems. The parents never figure on the list. “The school must put things right.” Plain talking is needed, to the student as much as to the parents. A productive tactic is dealing with the student without the parents being present, and effectively excluding the parents from discussion of the problem. If this fails, the parents may “threaten” to withdraw the child from the school. Let them.
A step on the path to rejection, and therefore both serious and tragic. The consequences of parental disapproval or dislike are devastating for the child. Parental love for a child must be unconditional. If the child does not feel that whatever the circumstances, a sympathetic welcome awaits them as they turn the key in the front door, they have no incentive to return home, and, in fact, every incentive to stay out and stay away. If they cannot find approval and love from their parents, they will seek it elsewhere, often from individuals or groups who will offer acceptance and “support”—but in return for something else. Events may enter a self-fulfilling, tragic spiral. Serious professional counseling is needed.
Very occasionally, parents simply reject their own children. Your sympathy must be with the children. Immediate expert advice is necessary.
While it often seems that children are victims of their parents, occasionally the reverse is true. Parents may be totally dominated by their children, and, in rare cases, victimized by them. This may be because the child has sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. There may be other reasons. The child may sense a vulnerability in the parents which, consciously or unconsciously, they exploit—for example, a sense of guilt over some undisclosed or hidden component of family or personal history. These are circumstances way beyond the capacity of the school to deal with. The school can only insist that the student obey the rules of the school and advise the parents that they must seek qualified, professional advice to deal with their family dynamics. The school cannot “tell” the child how to behave at home. Nor can it deal with the surprisingly far-reaching influence of secrets in families.
Before parental conflict has reached the point of separation or divorce, it may surface in the principal’s office. The school’s concern (and the parents’ concern) can only be the welfare of the student. If the parents are in disagreement (“She should go on the trip” / “No way is she going on that trip—she’s been on holiday twice already this year”) then at a certain point the principal should simply invite the parents to settle their disagreement outside the school, and let the principal know the decision. If the logistics, the finances or the issue(s) are complex, the school may require a note signed by both parents, to avoid later arguments. Parental conflict is very often a background to students “acting out” in school.
The conflict may be religious. One parent is at a different religious “place” than the other, and is trying to impose (or remove) religious practices and standards on the child. Common sense, a relatively rare commodity in many such situations, is needed. What does the child want? Is the action proposed by either parent going to achieve positive results for the child—or is it going to either increase the child’s resentment or the child’s confusion? Can the child “navigate” between the parents? Again, the school can only determine what happens in school. A skilled guidance counselor or teacher may be able to help the child. A sympathetic and reasonable community rabbi may be able to help the parents, and help the school ensure the comfort of the child. Occasionally, without regard to the educational interests of the child, community rabbis will be strongly partisan where religious observance is an issue. That is never helpful.
It may be that sociological changes in the parent-school relationship are bringing the problem parent into the school more than previously. Increased expectations of service (linked to rising tuition), the increasing centrality of schools in the Jewish life of families (often replacing the local synagogue), parental abdication of values and emotional education in favor of the school, and, not least, the increasing varied matrix of the Jewish family—all increase the complexity and the difficulty of the school’s task.
From a school management point of view, that poses major problems. Are schools able, qualified or budgeted to deal with this encroachment of the private, family domain into the school professional structure? The problem may be particularly acute in our private Jewish schools, where every additional task translates into tuition fees. Are these expenditures that just have to be absorbed, or should the schools seek new partnerships with, for example, family service agencies? Should schools charge for some of these non-academic counseling services (“Mrs X: Just to advise you that your upcoming appointment with the School Rabbi / Principal / Guidance Counselor will cost you $75 for the first half-hour”)? Provocative, outrageous, perhaps—but remember, you read it here first!
But as a more serious afterthought, it can be a constant source of astonishment, occasionally bordering on inspiration and sobering appreciation, to see how teenagers, too, may be shouldering huge responsibilities within their families. ♦
I once dealt with a student whose parents seemed to allow him total freedom, and who could not deny him anything—involving expenditure, financial and emotional, way beyond the family’s means. The son exploited this shamelessly. The father seemed unable to resist any request of the son’s. After months of meetings, the father disclosed that he had been married previously, and the student had a half-sibling of whose existence the student was totally unaware. I advised the father (and his wife) to take urgent family therapy, and to take the therapist’s advice on whether, when, and how to disclose the secret that had made them prisoners. I do not know what happened.
Paul Shaviv is the director of education at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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