Not too long ago, our Dean of Students received two emails in one day from two parents (married) of the same child. One gushed about how happy her son was at school and how excited he was about what he was learning and his friendships.
The other expressed concerns about how unhappy his son was with his learning and his peers. Hmmm. How can parent perceptions of the same child be so divergent? Both are good, involved, communicative parents, and their family is a cohesive and warm one.
The fact is, however, that their son, like millions of sons and daughters today and much like we were at his age, has a very good grasp of what makes each of his parents tick and how to elicit the responses he seeks from each.
The other fact is that he is doing well at school both academically and socially. In the course of any day, as is the wont of most children, especially in middle school, he is likely to run into a rough spot with a peer and a less-than-satisfactory exchange with a teacher.
His entire day, save for a couple of moments, is usually very positive and productive, much as is true for us adults. As adults, however, those little bumps slide into the context of the full day and are quickly smoothed by context. Or we have simply come to recognize that most days have their little ups and downs.
What I have discovered over decades of working with children and their parents is that we tend to get what we ask for (ending a sentence in a preposition not withstanding). The questions we pose to our children and the expectations we have in response color our perceptions of their lives.
There are parents who focus only on problems, apparently assuming they are the only ones capable of solving their children’s issues. Unfortunately, the message those parents too often give is that (1) the normal interactions of youngsters are specifically directed at their child, (2) their child is not capable of fending for himself, and (3) she is a victim.
Most parents, fortunately, have a greater sense of balance when assessing their children. They stop to think about the questions they ask and the ways in which they respond to different stories.
Parents learn quickly that every child comes with a distinct personality — regardless of how many offspring they have. Our sons and daughters may look a great deal alike, but each is equipped with unique talents, abilities, interests, and needs.
When parents are worried — or angry — about something their child has done (or not), I frequently suggest that the adults in question think back to their own childhoods of about the same age and consider what motivated them at the time as well as what got in their way. I ask parents to recall a personal action they now regret.
Frequently, we discover in ourselves a history that includes a little of this and a little of that, not all good. We are, after all, human, and we need to find our own ways in the world, including interacting with a huge range of personalities. We need to think back to our own childhoods and recall to which parent we would go for what question, problem or request. My parents were exceptionally good at not letting my brothers and me divide and conquer.
If one made a decision, the other would not refute it. The trick was always to try to figure out who was the most likely to grant the wish. The risk lies in making the wrong choice. It was all a part of growing up and learning how to deal with a variety of people.
Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at www.laketahoeschool.org.