Between Parent(1) and Institutions
The general point is that schools and other social institutions, while they often furnish benefits parents cannot provide on their own, do so in some cases to the detriment of other aspects of the socialization and education of the child, and to the detriment of the parent-child relationship. Yet, more and more today, teachers and administrators take for granted that their roles for children are more important than anything parents will do other than to prepare the children to be good in school. To that end schools, or legislatures, want to increase the amount of time students spend in schools, automatically assuming that more time in school equates with more education. Some parents will homeschool and forsake the benefits of school, of which there are many, in order to avoid the harms. But the ideal would be for schools and other institutions (such as church youth groups, sports leagues, summer camp programs, etc.) to work with parents to help rear and educate children the reasonable ways the parents want them educated, instead of consciously or unconsciously doing things that undermine any higher expectations and special standards parents set for their children, and that ignore special characteristics or preparation of the children.
The rule of thumb ought to be that unless there is some really good, demonstrable overriding reason to the contrary, schools and other institutions ought to defer to parents' values rather than the reverse. The reasons are that (1) parents normally have the fullest general or overall legal and moral responsibility for their children, and their children's behavior, so they need to be able to have as much authority and control as reasonable in order for that responsibility to be legitimately imputed to them, and (2) parents are in a position (if they exercise it) to know their children the best -- their needs, interests, character, behavior, etc.-- and (3) in some cases they will be the ones who love them, and care about their well-being and overall development, the most. (4) Parents are in a position to see, and perhaps understand, a more complete "picture" of their children's development over time, and need to be in a position to guide it and nurture it. And (5) the parent-child relation is a special one in numerous psychological and emotional ways, some of which confer certain kinds of mutual care-giving responsibilities, when children are young, and again in the other direction when parents are old. Anything that unnecessarily and unreasonably undermines that relationship between parent and child without replacing it with something better, is not right. So, while a whole village may need to help raise a child, it should not be in ways that undermine reasonable and good parent-child relationships. It is one thing to help parents raise a child; it is another thing to try to help a child in some specific way through good intentions, while actually doing damage to its overall best interests or its long-term relationships with its family.
Two of the earliest education laws in America, in both the North and the South -- the Massachusetts Bay School Law of May 1642 and the 1646 Virginia Act for Training of Poor Children reflected that understanding. They required parents, first, to provide for the moral, civic, and vocational education of their children or to relinquish that right to the community if, and only if, they did not exercise it. I believe that is still the best prima facie principle with regard to education in general. It gives parents first chance to exercise responsible parenting, but does not penalize the child if the parent is not up to the task(3).
That perspective makes schools part of a child's education and socialization, not the whole of it nor the dominating factor. As such, the role of teachers would be to use their professional judgment to meet those legitimate goals of parents for their children, not to do things which essentially usurp the overall guiding role of those parents who exercise their responsibility conscientiously and reasonably.
The same would be true of private music instruction, sports leagues, etc., where the administrators and agents should try to teach children what they can within the legitimate limitations parents might request or need. So that, for example, as my younger daughter one year had a conflict between the times scheduled for some of her soccer games, and her string orchestra rehearsals, the orchestra leader and the soccer coach had to accept the best accommodations we could work out on a case by case basis. Sometimes the soccer games had more importance than some of the rehearsals, and at other times the importance was reversed. But with both parties accepting this, my daughter did not have to give up either activity, and she was able to contribute to both.
In her very first soccer season, she was on a very young team with other initiates who had no previous experience. By their third season they were undefeated, but that first year they lost every game, and did not even score during the first two games. The third game of that first season was played at a time that conflicted with an orchestra rehearsal, and I told my daughter that she had to attend at least half the rehearsal and that I would get her to the soccer game between halves. She was disappointed because she wanted to play the whole game. I, as a parent, felt bad that I made her feel upset and disappointed, but in one of those rare times where such a parental choice visibly and immediately pays off, it worked out well for her and the team because when she arrived to begin the second half, she had the freshest legs, and was able to take the ball the length of the field and score the team's first goal of the year. The excitement was the same as though the team had just won a major championship. She then thought it was neat that she had come from playing the violin in orchestra to scoring a goal in soccer, all within the span of a half hour.
Unfortunately, what tends to happen in schools, sports leagues, music lessons, etc. is that too often "specialization" in teaching is confused with preparation of the student to become a specialist. That is, professional training of the student is taken by the teacher or institution providing instruction, in the sense, not of the child's being taught by a professional but in the sense of the child's being taught to become a professional. Those in an institution or organization tend to say, or unconsciously imply and intend, something like "We are trained professionals who know what is best for your child in this field. And in order for us to do our job properly, you and your child have to be prepared to make a full commitment to our program. Otherwise we cannot teach your child at all or will not work with your child in the same way we work with those who are fully committed to making this their number one priority." It is the sort of "professionalism" that aims to make children specialize at a young age in order to make them proficient in a field.
There are two potential problems with this approach, however. The first is that there may be no reason for a child to specialize so early in any single activity. Instead, it might be better for a child to be introduced to many different activities, so s/he can see what s/he likes or whether s/he has some talent or affinity for any of them. The child may even like many different activities and there may be no reason not to engage in all of them, nor any reason ever to specialize in any of those particular activities, even as an adult. They may all simply end up being enjoyable hobbies or leisure interests.
The second problem occurs when the parent is not willing just to acquiesce to any approach suggested, or, moreover actively disagrees with the particular approach the professional has in mind. Sometimes the parent's approach will be better, at least for this particular child's needs; sometimes it will be worse. There should at least be sufficient dialogue for the parent and the teacher/coach to understand each others' points and reasons. Neither should assume that they automatically know what is best for the child without hearing the other person's point and really listening. If, after such a discussion, there is still disagreement, my view at this time is that if a parent wants a different approach and if the teacher/coach can instruct in that way, and is willing to if it comes to it, it is not unprofessional to follow the parent's wishes as long as there is no real harm that would be done to the child by doing so. There is also no reason not to bring the subject up again with the parent for reconsideration at some appropriate later time. What is wrong is for the teacher to do things in such a situation, however, that undermine the parents' role in child-rearing.
It is not my intention in this paper to go into all the different ways parents and institutions might disagree. Nor is it my intention to try to work out some method to decide who is right when there is a disagreement. I think if one looks at individual cases, it will be fairly clear that sometimes parents have known what was best for children, and other times, institutions or teachers/coaches have. There is no guaranty of infallibility on either side. There is also no guaranty that the higher standard is the better standard, because there are times where the higher standard is unreasonable and where it puts ruinous pressure on, rather than productive incentive for, a child.
I am concerned with one particular contemporary kind of case, however, that occurs frequently: the case where the parent has higher reasonable expectations for what the child ought to learn, or how the child ought to behave, than the instruction school or teachers or the institution in question is willing to provide or, what is more frustrating to parents, willing to consider providing.
So, with regard to school for example, some parents are left to rue that their children cannot multiply numbers in their head or make change, that they cannot spell or have respect for proper spelling, even though they now write more, and more creatively, and enjoy writing more than their parents ever did. Some parents bemoan that schools also do not help children develop deeper understanding of the principles behind what they are studying. And parents of children who are advanced in particular subjects may want their child to be accelerated in those subjects. Parents who bring these sorts of things to the attention of teachers and principles are usually told that things are done differently now, perhaps with an explanation, even though it may not satisfy the parents or even though they may have objections to it -- legitimate objections. Or parents are told no one else has complained, even though the parents may know dozens of others who have complained about that same thing to that same person. Or they may be told the school does not have a program to be able to individualize instruction for children, as if that should be the end of the matter because no new programs need to be created just to meet the wishes of parents or the needs of small groups of children.
Then, there is the odd institutional mentality, often based on tradition or accident whereby programs established for one kind of circumstance become self-perpetuating whether appropriate for current circumstances or not. One school board member, who taught business courses at a college, even told me one time that if only a few children were not being correctly served by the current program, they might be able to make some accommodations, but if the program, as it was operating, were not meeting the needs of a great many students, there would be nothing they could do. I asked him whether he thought any business that operated that way would long survive. He did not see the connection.
Add to this that the school curriculum is so narrow that the minority of parents who want their children to be generalists or "Renaissance children" will not be happy, and you have a bad situation for parents -- not just because the children will not be taught in school what the parents think they ought to know, but because their children will resent being taught it by the parents (or by another institution) since "none of my friends have to learn that stuff" or "we don't need to know that for the test" or "I just need to know how to do these homework problems; I don't need to know how or why it works."
Of course, there will always be forces at work to help children rebel against higher or stricter parental standards, but those forces are more difficult to contend with, and more offensive, when they result from institutions which parents have to fund and generally show respect even though part of what they do may be undermining one's child-rearing standards and practices. It is like feeding the mouth that bites you. This passage from a short story by Poe Ballantine(4), illustrates the issue, and the remedy, with regard to lower standards of other families:
"One day, my mother told me I couldn't go to the Sambeaux house anymore. She thought Mr. Sambeaux was a bad man. I didn't think he could be all bad: he laughed and told us jokes; he had a salty, bowlegged fraternity about him; he gave his children spending money and let them stay up as late as they wanted; he never made them go to the dentist or the doctor or school; he gave them booze now and then, and handed down his nudist magazines; whenever he went down to Mexico, where liquor was cheap, he brought back firecrackers -- black cats and ladyfingers, quarter sticks and cherry bombs, triangles and M-80s. Anybody who did all that couldn't be entirely bad."It is, of course, difficult enough to (try to) prevent your children from socializing with those whom you believe to be a bad influence; separating them from such bad influences is more problematic when the bad influence is an institution, particularly a pervasive one whose help one might need to rear one's children, whether school, religious institution, scouts, sports leagues, or whatever. The difficulty is receiving the help you want and need without the institution's taking over more control than is necessary or desirable. Institutional or bureaucratic mentality tends toward domination in order to make its own work easier, and that often means having programs that are as homogeneous and easy to apply or administrate as possible, even if that is not in the best interest of any particular child.
I have written various essays detailing some of the problems with schools, involving a very narrow curriculum and involving, even in the academic part of the curriculum, low artistic and intellectual expectations and standards; my point here is that these narrow subject matters and low standards cause conflicts with parents who have broader goals and higher standards for their children, conflicts which I believe would be avoided if educators did not take the sort of overly zealous paternalistic or patronizing attitude they sometimes take as "professionals" (as physicians and other professionals also often do) and if they saw their roles as being to individualize instruction to meet the needs of students with different backgrounds and stages of development unrelated to age, instead of trying to get students to conform to generalized patterns of instruction regardless of their current knowledge and level of skill.
There are, of course, ignorant, negligent, irresponsible, or even atrocious parents who have such low standards for their children's behavior or such disregard for education that they make it difficult for schools to educate their children. And there are parents who have unreasonably strict or narrow demands for their children's education that schools ought not to accommodate. But the solution to those problems is not for schools essentially to take over everyone's children (by absorbing the greatest part of their time and mental energy) in order to better imbue them with the standards of the education community, because in doing so, they will lower the standards required of children whose parents have reasonably higher expectations and demands than the average teacher, school board, or superintendent. Schools need to be able to deal with problematic children or children from problematic homes without penalizing those parents or children who are doing well.
The problem is not only with schools, but with any organization that parents "turn their kids over to" for some particular activity only to find out that the organization, which is the "only game in town" for this sort of activity either does not have a philosophy the parents approve, or does some things the parents wish they did not. The parents then must decide whether the benefits are worth the problems or not.
Parent-institution conflicts, however, are not always obvious or able to be anticipated. Parents need to voice their disagreements to those in institutions in a reasonable and tactful way, and those who are addressed need to listen and try to figure out a mutually acceptable solution. What bothers one parent, for example, may not bother a majority of parents.
One of the things that bothers me the most, but perhaps few other parents, is that organizations in my area these days seem particularly fond of organizing trips to all kinds of distant places for various purposes, many of which are laudable, but would be just as laudable to do in our own city or county, without the hazard of 5 a.m. departures or midnight arrivals in vans or buses, and without fostering the view that worthwhile things require distant travel or some form of adventure from which one must recuperate by sleeping for two days straight after having completed.
Parents, of course, need to understand that private or public teachers or coaches, etc., cannot accommodate their every whim, and that they should not have to do what they have good reason to believe is bad for children. They also should understand that it is difficult for people to change how they do things, particularly perhaps if they have been doing them that way a while.
But teachers, coaches, organization administrators, etc. also need to
understand that parents often have legitimate requests about their children's
needs and best interests, and that there are issues, concerns, and long-range
goals and relationships, often involved that are larger than the particulars
their role or their institution is trained and established to serve, and
that they constantly need to be open to the opportunity to provide better
models of service for the sake of the children and their families. And
institutions need to understand that without some really good reasons to
the contrary, the primary responsibility is to help parents rear children,
not to replace or displace parents in rearing children, even in some cases
if the institution may know better how to teach some particular, specialized
aspect of education or socialization. There needs to be effort made either
to educate and convince, or to accommodate the parents, without simply
ignoring or automatically overriding the parents' requests, desires, or
1. I use the term "parent" throughout this essay
to refer to the primary caretaker of the child. That might be one parent
more than another; or it might be a legal guardian, or even in some cases,
someone else, such as a grandparent or an aunt or a maid or nanny who has
taken over the "parenting" role by necessity or by default of the actual parent, though
the parent is still recognized as the legally responsible caretaker. The
points in this essay are meant basically to distinguish between the person
with primary responsibility for the upbringing of the child -- referred
to here as the parent, whether it is the parent or not -- and those who
have a particular role, or a particular aspect of the socialization of
the child for which they are responsible for some (normally relatively
small) period of time, such as a coach, teacher, scout leader, music teacher,
martial arts instructor, speech therapist, etc. (Return
2. There are times that schools may have activities
that utilize time better than how parents would have their children spend
time, but even in such cases it is possible (and perhaps likely) that schools
start to drive a wedge into the parent-child relationship, replacing the
parent, little by little, in determining, fostering, or influencing the
child's behavior, character, interests and path in life. It may also undermine
the developing bond between parents and children, ultimately being destructive
of important family relationships further in the future. This is not something
to be taken lightly. And it would be far better, even if schools provide
the activities, for the parents to be seen by the child as somehow the
proponent or impetus for the child's participation, rather than as someone
who merely acquiesces to it or who is forced to accept it against his/her
own judgment. (Return to text.)
3. I am told by people who teach in them that there are schools in America where children would not have decent meals if it were not for schools, where children would not even know what a toothbrush is, let alone have one and know how to use it, if it were not for teachers and schools. In situations such as these, schools help children in ways their parents do not, but policies and goals set for schools in these situations should not be the guiding policies for schools where children do not need to be cared for in these ways. It is not right to make rigid, bureaucratic policies for all based on the most abysmal situations because children should not have their time wasted in school being taught things they already know or can do proficiently. In general, the needs of any segment of the population should not determine the policies for everyone. Yet in many states, if not all, state board and legislative policies for schools are determined by some sort of average or minimal need, and though this may set goals that would elevate those below that standard, it interferes with the work of schools with higher standards that do not need to spend energy, time, and resources doing what is unnecessary.
This is also true in many schools at the classroom level, where children
are all taught the same things at the same pace whether that is appropriate
for particular individual children or not. In some cases, even where acceleration
or remediation is separated from mainstream classroom instruction, the
instruction is based on things other than what is best for individual children.
It is important that policies be made flexible enough to allow those responsible
for teaching to be able to do it to meet the needs of individual children,
not the artificial needs of some sort of statistical aggregate, nor the
needs of just one segment of any actual aggregate. For example, my younger
daughter has studied violin since she was five or six years old, and plays
in a string orchestra that rehearses on Saturday mornings. But the State
of Alabama Department of Education requires that students study a fine
arts in high school, though the possible choices are few. The one least
inappropriate for my daughter would be debate, but debates are held on
the weekends, from Friday afternoon through Saturday, or even Sunday afternoons.
So in order for her to meet the state department's requirement to study
a "fine art," she would have to give up playing the violin in an orchestra.
(Return to text.)
4. "The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue" -- from
The Sun, reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1998,
edited by Garrison Keillor (Return to text.)