April 1, 2013

Maine Voices: Teens don't always want what they really need from parents

The hard job of a young person is establishing independence. For parents, it's staying involved.

By Brad Choyt

YARMOUTH - "Don't even think about chaperoning the Middle School dance, Dad." I understood. Being a seventh-grade boy can be tricky enough. Add to that the need to perform a series of strange movements to loud music, and most 13-year-olds would prefer to keep all adults as far away as possible.

Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University who co-edited "Families, Schools, and the Adolescent," notes that having parents involved even in a short field trip is "not wholly consistent with what an adolescent wants." Kids need to achieve a healthy degree of independence and parents should expect them to "push back on decisions they want to have control of."

But here's the difficulty: Schools not only benefit from parental involvement, many important programs and initiatives would not be possible without their support. Furthermore, parents who are in touch with students' experiences at school are more capable of offering the guidance their children need when they need it.

What, then, are the best steps for parents to stay involved in schools and remain informed about their child's academic and social lives, and yet maintain the healthy distance that middle and high school students want and often need?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The age of the student, the kind of school, the scope of activities in which parents participate, and even the child's perception of what is acceptable all determine whether there is a benefit or a cost to parental involvement. In fact, University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign psychology professor Eva Pomerantz remarked in her article in "Review of Educational Research" that increased involvement from parents may not benefit students. Her findings showed that the key is to carefully choose the kind of activity while keeping in mind the child's specific developmental needs.

For example, attending general meetings and parent-teacher conferences contributes to a meaningful understanding of the school's program and can provide insight into learning strategies that are particularly beneficial. This kind of participation lets parents and teachers work together to address issues consistently and problem solve cooperatively. And at home, within the appropriate boundaries, parents can also offer judicious help on homework, make time to talk about what happened in school, and encourage good effort and high standards.

To realize these benefits, parents should strive toward maintaining a positive belief about a child's potential, even while in the thick of suggesting strategies to solve a math problem for what can seem like the 100th time. Emphasizing effort over performance is also important. And parents should support the end goal of cultivating autonomy in their child's learning so students ultimately take responsibility for their own intellectual growth.

When children know their parents are involved, other important goals for learning are achieved. These often center around fostering a student's curiosity. Parents who are involved at school are sending a clear message to their children about the importance of school, thus cultivating an intrinsic motivation to achieve in that environment.

Of course, the school has a great deal of responsibility in this process as well. The environment should be supportive of parental involvement and both purposeful and efficient with parents' time. Parents should be given a wide range of options for their involvement, which include commitments at different times of the day and different days of the week.

Parents who make time to volunteer should be respected and sincerely thanked for their help. And communication with ways to get involved at the school should be as common as ones that can be perceived as a call for immediate help. There needs to be respect for parents whose schedules don't allow for regular volunteer commitments. Perhaps a grandparent takes on a role, too. Increasingly, schools are welcoming grandparents into the community of those who love and support the work of children in schools.

Managing and thoughtfully integrating all these layers of involvement takes a good deal of effort, of course, and schools should take the long view, building strong relationships with parents, grandparents and others who are involved. And throughout, school leaders, teachers and parents should keep in mind that the right kind of involvement, no matter the form it takes, contributes to something really positive: happier children.

As for my son? Well, I had to disappoint him and show up at the dance. As head of school, it's part of what I do. But I've promised to stay well back and give him the space he needs to negotiate this part of his life. After all, he's got a job to do, too.

Brad Choyt of Yarmouth is head of school for North Yarmouth Academy.

 

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