Last year my colleagues at Education Post commissioned a poll of parents (white, black and Latino) to better understand their thoughts on public school issues. One of the findings that sticks with me is the extent to which parents blame themselves for student failure. The top concern expressed across the board by respondents was “parents are not as involved in their child’s education as they should be.” Black parents expressed this sentiment more than others.

A poll released two weeks ago by The Leadership Conference offers a slightly different insight. Black respondents said when black students succeed academically it should be credited to their family, not their school. At a recent gathering in Washington D.C. to discuss this research a staff member of the College Board mentioned her organizations conducted focus groups with middle class black parents who overwhelming blamed low-income parents more than school quality for student failure.

It’s sad, but I’m not surprised. We have internalized so many counterproductive messages about ourselves.

No smart person will argue against the importance of parents in the lives of children, but there are times when telling that truth becomes parent-shaming.

A recent Huffington Post article by Blair King, husband of an elementary school teacher, is a fitting example. In it he talks about the problems teachers face as a result of a new generation of bad parents.

He starts with a popular refrain about how we’re raising ego maniacal kids who don’t put in enough effort, then he issues the high points of how we can do better (as given to him after years of speaking with teachers).

First, we need to be parents and not friends to our kids. That means we need to do a better job of instilling “good behaviors and morals and enforce the rules.” Fair enough. Anyone familiar with the backlash against laissez-faire parenting prescriptions of the 1970’s will agree.

Second, we must stop teaching kids “learned helplessness” by allowing them to give up too easily on tough tasks. It’s causing issues in that “we are raising a generation of kids who either give up after one try or don’t even try in the first place.”

He says:

Failure is part of growing up and kids need to learn to fail, then pick themselves up, brush themselves off and try again. They need to figure out how to follow instructions and they need to figure out what steps to take when they are not given instructions but simply a task to accomplish…There is nothing that frustrates a teacher more than a child who won’t even try to complete a task, yet that is what they see every day because too many helicopter parents do all the hard things for their kids leaving their children incapable, ill-equipped or unwilling to try and figure out how to accomplish tasks on their own.

Frankly, that criticism is bizarre coming from a teacher’s defender given the involvement of educators nationally in a campaign to persuade parents that student assessments are akin to “child abuse.” The tests, we are told, are just too hard and they make our kids cry, so let’s have our kids “opt-out.” Reconcile that with King’s call for us to land the our indulgent parental helicopters if you can. I can’t

Third, King gives us permission to advocate our kids interests at school (thanks for that), but sternly urges “you must also support your child’s teachers.” Believe it or not, your child is a different little monster at school than at home, and the teacher has a better line of sight on your kid. Trust the teacher. Support her.

He says:

When a teacher tells you about something, don’t turn to your child and ask if what their teacher is saying is true. You may think you are involving your child in the discussion, but what you have actually done is to question that teacher’s reliability to their face. Think of it from the teacher’s perspective. You have essentially told them that you won’t believe what they just told you until your child confirms it.

My sense of what that means is your child is not a reliable source of information and you should doubt them often. That troubles me. He asks us to consider it from the teachers’ perspective without affording that same generosity to your own child. That’s unrealistic given the volume of stories of inappropriate things happening in schools that have many parents on edge these days.

Finally, King says to parents, do your damn job.

“A lot of parents have been incorrectly led to believe that teachers can teach their kids all the life lessons they need in school,” he says. Teachers have kids too few hours to help them reach academic goals and how to practice ” good and respectful behaviors.”

“Your job as a parent is to set an example and teach your children the important lessons of life. Your child’s teachers can supplement your lessons, but you are the ones who your kids will imitate, so give them something good to imitate,” he says.

For people who believe themselves to be among the good parents, King’s thoughts might induce pride of self, but also judgement of others (the bad parents). He doesn’t tag any particular group with parenting lapses, but I imagine the face of those supposed bad parents, the ones with the kids most out of control, will, for many, not be seen as kids from two parent, white, college educated homes.

When we talk about improving schools in poor communities the pushback often takes the focus off of the schools and their staff, and re-centers the conversation on the deficits of children, their parents, and their neighborhoods. Schools aren’t bad, kids and their parents are.

There might be great conversations to be had about issues facing the clientele of poor schools. Hopefully those conversations end with proposals that are actionable and funded. But the research is clear on the fact that schools and teachers matter.

The school-based factors that hamper schools is a matter of science, not conjecture. Studies repeat themselves over and over about the importance of great teachers, and how students in disadvantaged schools get too few of them. In fact, parents in poor communities are starting to prove in court the impact of systemic practices that overburden kids of color and the poor with lower performing teachers.

When do parents and their friends get to write missives about that, and who will look more critically at their beloved teachers and misfiring traditional schools as a result?

Ride parents all you want, but whatever problems they may have are not helped by giving their kids ineffective teachers who have low standards and then blaming parents for that systemic practice.

Schools that are successful with poor children are not losing themselves  in temptation of parent-shaming. By contrast, they are realizing the results that come with aligning curriculum to clearly articulated standards; using timely data to diagnose needs and then addressing those needs; and staffing their schools with dedicated teachers who believe children can learn at high levels regardless of their perceived deficits.

Maybe helicopter parents and deadbeat parents alike can learn from King’s wisdom. At the same time, maybe the parent-shamers can learn from every degree granting researching institution in the United States that has published research telling us we have a huge problem with teacher quality in the classrooms.  Of all the deficits we can harp on, that one clearly is indefensible.

If you want to get parent-positive advice about being your child’s true first teacher, I suggest “121 Tips On Raising A Child of Color” by Larry Mansfield Robbins, BA, M.Ed and Dr. Juneau Kipola Robbins.


Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here