Thursday, June 5, 2008

Different kinds of parents

During the seven years I worked as a Parent Coordinator at a large middle school in Oakland that served many low income kids (about 550 kids, or around 62%), I learned how some parents behave in relation to their children’s schools, and to their children’s educations in general. For instance:

· One parent urinated on the floor in a school’s restroom because she was angry with the school.

· Quite a few parents take their kids out of the country for several weeks in the middle of the school year. They do this even though their children end up missing 15 to 20 days of instruction.

· A parent blocked a residential driveway with her car while she was waiting to pick up her child. When the school’s neighbor arrived and asked her to move, the parent called her “bitch.”

· One parent came to the school, hunted down one of her daughter’s classmates on the blacktop, and then she and her daughter began to beat up that child. They did not stop when the security officer intervened. When the assistant principal intervened, the parent also hit her, broke her eyeglasses, and then sped off in a car.

· Some parents who come in to conduct school business are drunk and reeking of alcohol.

· Some parents angrily reply, “I ain’t joining no PTA!” when asked by other parents at registration if they would like to do so.

· One parent had her children stay at a relative’s house many miles away. Her 13-year-old daughter was left responsible for transporting herself to her middle school, and her two much younger siblings to their elementary school, alone and by bus. All three kids showed up at the middle school at 11 a.m. The daughter had given up with trying to get the younger ones to their school.

· Some parents think it is acceptable if their children call White teachers “bitch” but warn their children to never do the same with Black teachers.

· There are parents who tell their children that they should beat up other kids. There are parents who give the principal permission to hit their children.

· One grandparent publicly beat his adolescent grandson with a belt in the front driveway of the school. That kid was in prison two years later.

· There are parents who have no idea when the school year begins. They bring their children in one or two weeks after the school year has already started.

· One parent came to the school and was upset because their child has received an “F” in math. She screamed at the math teacher, “You’re the teacher. You’re the one that’s supposed to be teaching them!” There was a complete disconnect re: the student's responsibility.

· Some parents absolutely refuse to permit their children to see a psychologist even though their children’s teachers are advising it because they are observing possible severe emotional problems. The parents are not refusing because of financial reasons; the school provides this service for free.

· Despite information being mailed home, some parents still have no idea what grades their children are receiving.

· One parent spit sunflower seed shells all over the carpeted floor of the principal’s office when they came in to meet with her.

· There are parents who are in and out of jail and who intentionally train their children how to steal things from other people.

· Some parents who are members of violent gangs will have their children join the gang, too.

· One parent was talking very loudly at a school music performance and became very angry and confrontational when she was asked to be quiet by another parent in the audience.

· One parent provided a cell phone to her daughter and permitted her to wear a grill (teeth ornament). When that child failed multiple eighth grades classes, the parent threatened to take those things away. No consequences were ever given, though. The girl dropped out of high school after the following year.

· Some parents have homes where the TV is constantly on, but not a single book other than the Bible can be found in the house.

· Some parents just throw the school newsletter in the garbage can and “never bother to read it,” according to their children.

· A number of parents will never come in for special school meetings with teachers even though they are asked to attend because their child is in danger of being retained.

· Some parents come to the school two weeks before the end of the school year and are absolutely irate. They are angry because they have just learned that their children will not be allowed to graduate from middle school because of failing multiple classes all year long.

· Some parents are either oblivious, or in denial, about the fact that their children are gang members, even though the warning signs have been there for months and assistant administrators have had talks with them about it.

· One parent “helped” with a yearbook project, collected thousands of dollars from students, and then disappeared with the money.

· Some parents never, ever attend back-to-school night or any other school event.

· One parent asked her husband to turn off the home TV in the evening so that their kids could concentrate on homework. He absolutely refused because he wanted to watch TV.

· Two parents were completely dismissive of the fact that their daughter was getting a master’s degree. They told her that she was only wasting her time by going to college and thought she should just go get a job.

· One parent had to call the police because an ex- spouse with a drug addiction was breaking down a door to get into her house. On the morning of their first day of school, the four kids watched as their father got arrested in front of their house.

In the capacity of my work, I became acquainted with this type of behavior on a regular basis. Dealing with it, and the consequences of it, is one of the immense challenges that these schools must face. The average behavior of parents was not this extreme, but this type of behavior was not atypical. In a middle-class school, this type of parent behavior would be rare.

I would occasionally observe some low income parents exhibiting behavior at the other extreme. For instance, one mother was so bothered by a small error on her child’s otherwise perfect attendance record that she found her child’s schoolwork from that day, brought it in as proof of her child’s attendance, and insisted to have the error officially corrected.

Having observed incident after incident, and knowing that the behaviors are indicators of home values and parenting abilities, I find it impossible to believe that schools – on their own, with the resources currently allotted to them – will be able to sufficiently counter most of the attitudes that children learn in their homes and/or be able to adequately compensate for the things that parents are unable to provide.

As always, if you are interested in learning more, I suggest you read Annette Lareau (who describes the difference in parenting styles of middle class and poor/working class families and how these styles affect the behavioral outcomes of their children), Richard Rothstein (who looks at numerous other studies about family functioning as it relates to children's ability to learn) and Elijah Anderson (who describes behaviors typical in “street” (vs. “decent”) low income Black families and tells how fourth graders with a “street” orientation have already started to tune out of school).

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