My biggest parenting mistake, bar none

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Dear Wendy,

The other day I was reading a blog (forgive me, I actually forget which one!) by a mother who was confessing to her worst parenting errors.

It got me thinking: what’s the very worst thing I ever did as a parent? Aside from the minor stuff, that is. I mean, I’ve been angry when it wasn’t warranted, I’ve laughed inappropriately, I’ve tolerated swearing (mostly because I swear like a sailor, and I figure it’s hypocritical to insist that the kids do otherwise).

But none of those things seem to have caused the wee mites any lasting damage.

alt="IMAGE-big-brother-baby-sister-wading-pool"

Don’t all big brothers sit in the wading pool with their clothes on?

So…what’s the biggie, then? The thing I wish I’d done differently, better, or at all?

It’s this: I believed my kids’ teachers over my kids.

And not just once—I did it twice, one for each child. And this, despite my deeply ingrained belief that my children and I knew best what was good for them, and that we should question authority and not just willingly go along with any goofy idea the boss cooked up.

With Adrian, it happened in high school. Despite his stratospheric IQ test scores (or perhaps because of them), Adrian was profoundly disinterested in most of his classes. The only exceptions were math and computer networking, so when he had the chance work half-time as a Linux programmer through the co-op program, he grabbed it. The company loved him, he loved them, all was grooviness. You know, except for the part where he had to attend school in the afternoons.

alt="IMAGE-man-napping-sleeping-on-couch"

Yeah, high school? Tell them I’m napping. Or dead. That’s cool too.

Unfortunately, his co-op teacher was pretty Old School…literally. She’d been a particularly inept guidance counsellor at my high school in the 1970s, but had somehow been bumped along through the system. Now she was in charge of monitoring Adrian’s co-op placement.

Wait, did I say “monitoring”? I meant “nitpicking, harping, scolding, and humiliating.”

alt="IMAGE-angry-teacher-humiliating-bullying-student"

I said I wanted that form in TRIPLICATE, you fool!

I knew about it, and it made my blood boil.

What did I do? Exactly nothing. I tried to encourage Adrian to keep his head down and just get through it. I patted him on the back, uttered soothing words, and sent him back to school each day to face that miserable, abusive woman.

By the end of the year he seemed so disheartened by school that I actually encouraged him to drop out instead of completing his final year. His co-op company hired him in a flash, and he never looked back.

Rachel’s experience was just as stark.

alt="IMAGE-girl-primary-school-age"

Rachel on the cusp of Grade 3: hard to imagine a teacher disliking her, right?

She was a dreamy kid, who seemed to have trouble staying on track in class, rarely completed work on time, and couldn’t keep her desk neat to save her soul. In Grade 3, her teacher decided to “break her” of these habits.

Her method: divide the class into groups of 4. At the end of each week, tally up all the members’ infractions—untidiness, tardiness, talking back to the teacher. Each child with a “perfect” week gets a candy. The group with the lowest number of infractions wins a large bag of chips.

And hey, surprise! Since Rachel could never get through a week with a perfect record, her group was always docked points. Guess who no one wanted to have in their group?

Again, I didn’t approve…but I didn’t intervene either. Then the teacher singled Rachel out for her messy desk: she dumped the desk’s contents on the floor and ordered her to clean it up—in front of the entire class. We called for a parent-teacher meeting, expressed our extreme displeasure, and insisted that this never occur again.

It didn’t. Until the next time. And the time after that.

By the end of the year, we’d all had enough. I told Rachel we were taking her out of that school; she’d be attending the local alternative school from now on. She cried with gratitude. And I felt like shit.

Because I could have acted earlier. I should have acted earlier. As with Adrian, I saw what was happening, but on some level I simply accepted that the teachers knew what they were doing…and that my kids, not the system, were in the wrong. Maybe it was some residual fear left over from my own school days—don’t challenge the teacher, keep your head down, just survive it and get out. But those aren’t lessons I wanted my own children to learn.

By the way, when that teacher found out we intended to put Rachel in the alternative stream, she was horrified. “They dance on the desks over there,” she said. “You’ll be ruining your child.”

She couldn’t have been more mistaken. Rachel entered Lady Evelyn as a shy, tentative kid who hated school; she left Summit Alternative as a confident, happy young woman, excited about the challenge of high school. All her teachers were magnificent, and she’s still in touch with some.

Yes, all’s well that ends well, but still. I wish I’d listened more carefully, assessed more critically, acted more decisively…and a lot earlier.

I can’t help thinking I’m not alone in this—I’d love to hear from others who’ve gone through it, or who are struggling right now.

Love,

Karen

23 Comments

  1. It’s hard isn’t it. I have had situations where a Teacher is telling me my son has entered the fibbing stage, I sat in a meeting with her and the head teacher with her saying this. The very next day a boy jumped on his head and I was not notified. Jake told me this story after being home about half an hour. omg I was torn for a moment but I believed him and I made the call to the school. It was true. I can only assume the Teacher assumed I would believe he was lying after our meeting. I think the basic fact is Teachers are just humans who lie and like to cover their backs and sometimes sadly, they bully. it’s a big move to shift school and I think in both cases you did the right thing. there is nothing wrong with perseverating and knowing when to stop and to move on is a good lesson too.
    You should go up to the school with your daughter now and sweep the contents of that teachers desk to the floor adding, sorry but we needed closure lol

    • You’re right, teachers are humans with all the faults and virtues that go along with that. I’m really glad you believed your son over his teacher–he must have felt really validated by that.

      And yes, I like your plan for closure with Rachel’s teacher! ;)
      ^K.

  2. I started one of my kids at school much too early. Despite the fact that nursery began, I should have taken my cues from him and let him stay home for another year. For years he hated school and I think it was because he went when he was too young. The problem with so many things like this, 20/20 hindsight, who could have known.

  3. I think we sometimes attach “golden halos” to teachers, assuming they know it all and are always correct. But, as we know, this is not true. They are simply human, just like the rest of us. We hope that their intentions are genuine . . . that they want the best for ALL the children. But, often times teachers play favorites, knowingly or unknowingly, favoring the children that fit neatly into their “ideal student box” – they ones that get the best grades and are the best listeners. Few children match this ideal and it is up to us, as parents, to make sure our children get what they need.

  4. I wonder how many stories that old couch could tell us about the generations of family members who snoozed or lounged on it.

  5. Oh boy does this bring back memories…. I had a couple of teachers like that but to their deteriment I was a teachers worse nightmare. I forbade my children from being disrespectful but I also taught them that I had their back and that together we would find a way to work around this B oops cant say that, well difficult human being as we decided to label them. I remember on particular “teacher” that insisted that my 6 year old boy was hyperactive, something they love to say when the child is bored stiff in their class or needs their attention something they have no time to give. Well I got my boy took him to the best evaluation center I can find in my city and he was evaluated a full week and so where we as parents by very educated, experienced professional which gave me a 50 page report of their findings and it was determined that my son was a NORMAL boy with a NORMAL IQ but he happen to be a Visual Learner instead of an Audio Learner therefore he required a bit more time and effort and professionalism from a teacher to be tought correctly. So because teachers are underpaid , overworked and that gives them bad attitudes, I not only paid for this private school but I also paid for a one on one tutor to provide my son with the type of learning he needed.. Well low and behold I demanded a conference with that teacher and I handed her the evaluation and I told her straight out,if you are as qualified as these PHD’s to label my son hyperactive then we will believe you if not then I suggest to be very careful in labeling children and giving up on them so quickly , that can be life changing for a child. Well the word spread and teachers did not want my child in their class rooms but some had no choice cause I would not go away. End of the story ,my son went to college graduated with a masters and is doing great. So yes teachers are and will always be either a great experience for your child or the worse. But if there is a doubt first listen to your child , evaluate the problem and seek professional help to compare this teachers claims. And stay in their face… they will back down.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing your story!

      I agree that teachers can have a huge impact on our kids, for better or worse–some are amazing, gifted human beings who help their students reach their full potential, while others are petty, ill-informed, or even “difficult human beings” as you say.

      I’d never try to talk down teachers, as I know they have a terribly difficult job, but I do think that when another person is hurting my kid, it’s my responsibility as a parent to ensure that it stops. I’m glad to hear you were “one of those parents”–and I do wish I’d done more.
      ^K.

  6. I have worked in education and in classrooms, though never as a teacher. The experience has given me upmost respect for what teachers do and realize how incredibly difficult their jobs are. That said, like other readers have commented, they are human and do make mistakes, but there is never any reason for a teacher to embarrass or ridicule a child. Teachers’ jobs, among the 10,000 things they are supposed to do, is to encourage children and help them to grow, not put them down. I’m sorry to hear about these two experiences you had with your children’s teachers, but in the end it sounds like you knew what was best for them despite what the teachers said or did.

    • Thanks, Bev–I’m a social worker, and like teachers, our profession tends to garner little respect (and little pay) for the work we do to help mend people’s lives. It’s hard work, and takes a lot out of one.

      That said, I’ve known some very unfortunate mental health care workers–and have had to report one who was actively abusing his clients. It’s hard to imagine that a professional whose task is to lift people up would do the opposite…but I hope my experience with the two teachers in this post can help others see that standing by isn’t the best option.
      ^K.

  7. Wow, that is shocking about your daughter’s teacher. I am a teacher, and among my colleagues we always talk about how you cannot punish the class or a group for one person’s behavior, and shaming a kid is never okay. Like others have said, teachers are human, and have differing perspectives on teaching, and we can make mistakes. And {I work with high schoolers} there can be miscommunications in terms of what happens in class and what gets relayed at home, and instead of thinking it’s either believe the teacher OR the child, I think the most important thing can be for all to meet as soon as there is discomfort or some issue, so that problems can be addressed openly. We need to respect teachers {as we need to respect all people}, but teachers can also grow by hearing from parents. Several years ago I had a parent call me because she was very upset by a comment another student made in class, and {from what she heard from her daughter}, she felt I hadn’t addressed the upsetting comment appropriately. By listening to this mother’s concerns, I learned that what I said had then been misinterpreted by her daughter…. ultimately, it was helpful to me to think about how i would address similar concerns in the future. I still think about this incident a lot and have learned from it.

  8. I really love this post. I guess because school can be such a horrible place and I am glad you found a way to make it better for your kids. The memories I have! I felt angry just reading this. The other reason is we all have some parenting mistake we wish we could go back in time and fix. This is just so easy to relate to.

  9. Bonnie Annibalini

    September 14, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I remember going to the Principal and complaining about a teacher (I believed my child), he defended the teacher. That was a hard year for one of my daughters but she got through it and now has many stories to tell as I do because she vomited five days a week, was fine on the weekend. Those were the days.

  10. You know – sometimes we intervene when we shouldn’t, sometimes we don’t when we should. Sometimes we intervene and we think we should – we’re basically told to back off by whomever (for example, school administrators), so we do… Only to find out that we shouldn’t have, we should’ve pushed harder because we were right and the school (or other authority was wrong).

    As parents, we need to rely on our gut and keep our eyes and ears open to others as well. It’s a tough straddle, and not even a two-way straddle at that. Perhaps if we finish with more wins than losses, and our kids able to deal with the world with heads held high and respect for others, that ain’t half bad.

    • You’re right–and I wouldn’t want to be “one of those parents,” the kind who can never believe their little angel is in the wrong. I know my kids are fine now, and that’s what really counts.
      ^K.

  11. This was a heart-rending post! Thank you for sharing it, Karen. I wonder if there is any parent who doesn’t have an incident s/he feels bad about – an incident in which s/he knows s/he could have done better. Mine wasn’t with a bully teacher but with a bully child. My son was 5, I think. We had just joined a new church and had begun to get together with parents (lovely) and kids (almost all also lovely) as a group. I was self-conscious because I seemed to be the only single parent. One day the parents were sitting inside at a potluck and the kids had gone outside to play. My son came in twice and whispered to me that another child kept being mean to him. I was embarrassed because none of the other kids kept coming in. I didn’t want the other parents to think that we were a maladjusted family. I thought my son was exaggerating and told him not to tattle – just go play. After a while another child came in with my son and told me that she had had to shove this much taller child to get her to leave my son alone. My son had been bullied, had come to me for help, and I had blown him off. Twice. I felt/feel about 1/2 inch high every time I think about that. Thank heavens it did not do any permanent damage to my son, and it did teach me an extremely valuable lesson. My son and I talk about that day every so often, about what I wish I had done differently.

    • I think it’s great that you talk about it though–having that example to draw on might be a great way to turn a painful event into a really powerful teaching moment.

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your story. I think many parents have this kind of baggage that we carry around.

      ^K.

  12. I think it’s great that you talk about it too. In sixth grade, I had a teacher who didn’t like me. I don’t know why. But one day, she made me miss recess to “talk.” Which is when she went through this huge thing about how me being adopted (how did she even know that?????) must be why I was passing a note to a boy in class. Seriously this woman was evil. I told my parents and while my dad got angry about her saying those things to me, they didn’t do anything either and told me that I shouldn’t have gotten in trouble for passing notes in the first place and to just mind her better.
    Years later, my dad told me that he wishes he had gotten her fired over it.
    Brave of you to share. You’re not alone.

    • What a terrible experience for you! Your teacher sounds like a woman with serious problems. I’m glad your dad told you he wished he’d acted, but still. No one should treat a child that way.
      ^K.

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