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Parents: You're Not Off the Hook!

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A friend of mine was concerned that, by calling teachers "supermen" in my first blog entry, I was placing a disproportionate load of responsibility onto their shoulders. As far as schools go, I am comfortable doing that because I know that in education systems, teachers are the greatest determinant of student achievement. (Not that the educational structure is necessarily conducive to attracting, developing, and keeping good teachers, but that is a topic for another day).

In the life of a child though, there is someone else who is of greater importance than the teacher. That person is, of course, the parent. Because systems of education have little say in parents and parenting, I don't generally focus my efforts on those matters. But every once in a while I do. And I believe that schools will increasingly do so as the importance of parents becomes understood.

Today, I ask parents to be cognizant of the ways in which they interact with their children. Parent-child interactions have lasting effects.

Consider two stories:

(1) I was recently on a plane that was taxiing to its gate at LaGuardia airport, and I listened in on a conversation occurring behind me. A girl, perhaps six or seven, was probing her father about everything she saw from her window. "Why are some planes parked and not being used? How many seats does that plane have? Is it a Boeing? Do you think that plane can get to China? Is it dangerous for those men to be down there?" The girl's father answered each question to the best of his ability, and when he didn't know an answer, he said so and recommended that they look it up when they got home. The girl's questioning continued until we all stood to deplane. I was fascinated by the father's patience and nurturing.

(2) On a bus in Manhattan a few days ago, I observed a very different interaction. A boy, perhaps four or five, wanted to look out the bus window. The boy turned to face the window and got on his knees for a better view. "Sit the f*ck down!" was his mother's response. "But I want to see the..." "Shut up!" his mother interrupted. She then threatened the boy with physical harm, and eventually grabbed his arm, and pulled him down into the seat. His eyes watered. He remained quietly seated for the rest of the trip.

What are the implications?

By answering his daughter's questions and encouraging further questioning, the father on the plane was teaching his daughter to value inquiry, a wonderful quality that teachers love to find in students. Students who want to know how the world works -- the explanations behind their observations -- enrich the classroom experience for everyone. Through discussion, the father was also helping his daughter develop her vocabulary and knowledge base. Besides being markers of intelligence, a broad vocabulary and knowledge base will help the girl read effectively. Effective readers do better in school than their peers who struggle with reading. The father is also allowing his daughter to develop her interests that may perhaps lead her to become a pilot or an engineer one day. Certainly, by encouraging his daughter to problem solve, to think for herself, he is preparing her to be a decision-maker in life, a leader, the boss at work.

The mother on the other hand was stifling her son's inquisitiveness when she demanded he not look out the window. She inhibited his developing ability to express himself when she told him to "shut up." If his safety had been her concern, she could have fostered his ability to reason by explaining her rationale to him. There are reasons behind actions and children should understand this. The silenced boy is not developing the vocabulary and knowledge base that will support his ability to read effectively. And very damagingly, I believe, the mother is teaching her son to blindly follow orders. If her son adopts this role, he will not become a leader or the boss at work, but will instead continue to quietly do what he is told by a superior. Also damaging is the fact that the mother is teaching her son that yelling, cursing, the threat of violence, and actual violence are the means of influencing others, and being influenced. Teachers have a difficult time with students who have been taught at home that yelling, cursing, the threat of violence, and actual violence are the most effective ways to get them to curb inappropriate behavior or to do something productive.

I witness parent-child scenes like the two I described with frequency. And I have interacted with young adults in the classroom who are products of both environments. The difference in classroom performance is often of great magnitude. For that little boy on the bus, the long-term consequences of his mother's approach may unfortunately also be of great magnitude.

Parents: Please consider these points when you interact with your child. Give your child the tools necessary for success in school. Nurture inquiry and a love of learning. Encourage your child to develop his interests. Teach him to use reason and logic when he disagrees with someone. Allow him to question the world, to think critically, and very importantly, to think for himself. Have a grand vision for his future, and do everything you can to help take him there.

When children are surrounded by people who deliberately support their healthy development, children do amazing things.

The bottom line: Parents, schools need your help.