This morning I overheard my two sons talking about school. The younger asked the elder why he had to go. Without hesitation, the older boy responded “because I have to.” There was something about that answer that just didn’t sit well with me. I could not believe that the one thing that my son shared about his schooling motivation echoed demand and force (instead of a desire to learn). As I thought about this more, I realized that I played a part in his answer. Specifically, as his mom, I’ve greatly shaped his perception of everything, and this included school.
So, I began to wonder about how different responses by parents can lead to different results for children. After doing some reading and talking to other parents, I was able to create a list of 11 types of responses to the question that children everywhere ask: “Do I have to go to school?” Can you find one or more types that describe you?
The Shamer: This is when you make your child feel bad about the lack of desire for school. One blogger describes this as the good/bad equation that does not account for variety in thinking and living. An example would be asking your child to choose between going to school and becoming successful, or dropping out and becoming a loser. The drawback to responding in this manner is that the focus is on making your child feel bad instead of empowering your child to make responsible decisions.
The “You’re too smart!”: This stems from the belief that questioning is a higher order skill and thus you view your child as intelligent for posing the question. An example would be your child inquiring about the success of school drop-outs (the creator of Facebook and Dell computers did not complete college). Communication with a “Budding Einstein” is difficult because there is some truth or some evidence to support their views. In addition, after a while, all of those questions take a toll and become the source of frustration. In order to face the Einstein, be patient, acknowledge the usefulness of their questions, but also discuss the advantages in reviewing both sides of story.
The Sarcastic Sam: This is when you use sarcasm or exaggeration to respond. Although humor helps to lighten a difficult subject-matter, extra caution must be taken so that the child does not feel laughed at or that his/her feelings are not getting appropriately addressed.
The Scrooge: This is when bitterness over past experiences over-shadows learning or problem solving (think about the story of Scrooge and his bitterness, explained by the ghost of the past and present). For example, the bitterness from an unpleasant experience with a teacher can make it difficult for a parent to view that teacher as a resource in motivating a reluctant child to attend school. When responding as The Scrooge, probable solutions are overlooked because your awareness is blocked by emotion. If you say things like, “Teachers don’t really care about students or want to help; they just want to make easy money,” it’s not going to be helpful for you or your child. Try to see each teacher as an individual who is also a resource for you and your child. In my experience, while of course all teachers aren’t perfect, most of them do really care and want to help.
The Practical Patty: This is when you focus on the practical matters when advocating for education. For example you may emphasize that people that earn a degree make more money and live longer than those who do not. Although this is a popular and effective approach, it does not account for unplanned variables that cause frustration and angst along the way.
The Yeller: This is when you believe that yelling about the need to attend school would help sway your child’s perception. We often forget that a louder response is not always the better response. Yelling also brings you down to your child’s level, which ultimately robs you of some of your parental authority.
The Legal Eagle: This is similar to the “Practical Patty” type. This type of parent spouts regulations and laws that require children to attend school. For example social service agencies that monitor parent involvement or neglect or school truancy rules would be highlighted. Although it sounds like the parent is saying the appropriate things, it is critical that you practice the values that are the foundation for parenting regulations. For example if you allow your child to miss school regularly, then listening to rants about truancy won’t be meaningful.
The School Blamer: This is when you say something like “Any idiot can teach” and blame the school for any issues with your child. Your words may sound similar to the character on the 90’s sitcom In Living Color when a character spreads rumors about others by saying “You ain’t heard it from me but…” The biggest disadvantage of the School Blamer is that after speaking harshly about the school, it then becomes very challenging to persuade your child to view the school in a positive light.
The Old Memory Lane Stroller: This is when you respond by focusing only on your life as a school-age child. For example, you may recount stories of attending school at all costs, such as the old “walking to school in 12 feet of snow” chestnut. Although disclosing your experiences may influence your child to share more, it is important that the conversation’s focus remains on your child’s perception of school. It would be counterproductive for your child to feel the need for his/her experience to compare or compete with yours.
The Ignorer: This is when you persist to deny that a problem exists. You ignore signs such as consistent school tardiness, patterns of late work, and continual behavior problems in the classroom. The Ignorer response is detrimental because the first step in resolving an issue is acknowledgement.
The DIY Fixer: This is when you are able to acknowledge that your child may have school challenges, but you face the issue alone. The DIY Fixer holds the belief that “this is my child and I can take care of this myself.” Unless you’re planning to go all in and home school, seeking assistance from the school or from community resources would be a more effective response.
I have to admit that I see myself in a couple of the response types. What is most fascinating is that the response types work for different topics outside of school attendance and motivation. For instance, I am definitely a Practical Patty when I talk to my children about applying their hobbies to a career. My daughter talks a mile a minute, is “never” wrong, and can be very persuasive. I find myself encouraging her to become a lawyer (in fact I am registering her for a leadership and law camp this summer).
But I have to admit, there’s one answer I rely on often…when my son asks why, I say something that’s probably familiar to parents everywhere: “Because I said so!”
Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman serves as an adjunct professor for Education and Psychology courses in Ohio. She is a wife and a mother of 3 children. She regularly contributes to a blog on the ASCD website for educators where she shares her experiences as both a mother and an educational leader.