Better Together: Parenting a Child in an Independent School

While all good schools work to meet the needs of every child, it can seem as if demanding "squeaky-wheel" parents get more attention than those who quietly try to follow school protocol. Yet how much of our protocol is explicit? Who helps parents learn what's appropriate?
12/11/2014 07:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Great schooling is transformative; in our school, we take seriously our partnership with parents and the privilege of educating their daughters. Teachers work hard and, in our culture, are neither recompensed nor appreciated adequately. With the holidays upon us, parents often ask me how best to say thank you to a child's teachers. Gift cards? Certainly. Baked goods? Nice to have. A note of thanks? Always appreciated. Scented candles? Depends on the teacher. But the best gift of all? Being a parent who "gets" it; who maintains a balanced perspective; who keeps the "small stuff" small and reacts calmly when a situation calls for a response; who doesn't email at 2:00 a.m. with a list of "requests" that are really demands; who knows the school is always on her daughter's side. These are the parents every teacher longs to have.

While all good schools work to meet the needs of every child, it can seem as if demanding "squeaky-wheel" parents get more attention than those who quietly try to follow school protocol. Yet how much of our protocol is explicit? Who helps parents learn what's appropriate?

This week, I had the chance to offer advice to parents new to Laurel. At the end of the evening, one guest said, "Ann, will you share that list?" So, in the spirit of the season, here is my current list--additions welcome--of how you can be an outstanding parent in your interactions on behalf of your child in our school--and perhaps in many schools.

I've gleaned much of this knowledge from more than 30 years of teaching girls; much comes directly from the work of Laurel's Center for Research on Girls; certain pearls were offered to me by wise mentors along the way; and a portion lives under the heading of "the common sense God gave a chicken." Full disclosure--every time I speak these words, they help me remember to be a better parent myself, grateful for those who spend (and have spent) hours each day with my children.

I tell our parents:

1. One reason you chose our school is because you want your daughter to be at ease with people both like and unlike her. Don't be afraid to talk about difference. Find ways to talk about the world and clarify your values as a family. Be brave. Particularly right now. Help her understand that there are lots of complicated situations in the world. Reach beyond your comfort zone and invite a family you don't yet know well to come for dinner. Your daughter may roll her eyes; do it anyway--that's how you model for her what it means to build community.

2. Keep us in the loop--share with us significant family information that affects your daughter--your travel, a surgery, a change in child care, an ailing grandparent. Even if she seems very grown up, we can do a better job supporting her in school if we know what is happening at home.

3. Respect the chain of command--start with her classroom teacher, then her advisor, then the Dean, then the Division Director.

4. In the words of the great Joyce Evans (who taught this to me when I was a parent at The Town School in Manhattan): "If you believe 50% of what they say about us, we'll believe 50% of what they say about you."

5. Be a good parent at drop off and pick up--obey the signs, the teachers, the police officer directing traffic. Your own daughter's safety and the safety of all our children is our top priority! Don't text when you drive. Do not use your phone when you are in the car circle.

6. I caution you about ever speaking in front of your daughter about other children, parents or teachers--please model respect and discretion. Children are always listening.

7. Learning is messy and girls all learn and develop on their own timetables. Academic excellence is not one size fits all. Be careful about comparing her to others. Growth mindset--the idea that effort and persistence do matter--will help her learn not to give up. She may not know her math facts yet, but she is working at them. Faster isn't always better and more isn't always what she needs.

8. Allow your child to make mistakes and learn from them. Be careful not to race in to fix things; if you do, you communicate to her that you do not think she can cope or fix things by herself. Ask her, "How do you want to handle this?" or "Is there something you'd like me to do?" We feel good about that which we do well. Praise for praise's sake does not develop self-esteem. Encourage her competence--let her solve the problem, help with chores, feel capable.

9. Let go of your own grudges. When she's ready to move on, you need to be able to move on, too. It's sometimes harder for parents to forget slights than it is for their children.

10. Administer a snack before you ask her about her day. Hungry, grumpy children are not reliable reporters. Be careful not to react to every reported trouble. Cultivate a non-committal, blank but interested mien. When difficulties persist, listen for the themes; then, pick up the phone, call the school and ask for help.

11. Help her discover what she loves. Hyper-specialization at a young age may be important in music or a particular sport, but beware of narrowing a child's curiosity and willingness to explore too early.

12. Encourage kindness and empathy.

13. Emphasize the power of sleep--the link between sleep and achievement is significant. Do not let her use her bed as a home office. Beds are for sleeping in, not for doing homework on. No cell phone in her hand as she sleeps. A consistent bedtime and wake up hour is helpful for children of all ages.

14. You need to have all passwords to her social media sites: FB, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, her phone, etc. Remind her that the Internet is forever and that she can blame Laurel School for her scrupulous comportment in school, out of school and on the Internet. But, you still need to be aware of what she's up to!

15. Eating dinner as a family--the event doesn't have to be long, the meal doesn't have to be home-cooked--diminishes the possibility of depression in girls.

16. Do NOT serve alcohol to minors.

17. Trust and verify where she says she will be. It is her job to push the boundaries; it is your job to hold a boundary.

18. Make sure she sees you doing nothing from time to time. Girls need down time. They need to see you making self-care, and the occasional sloth-like moment, a priority in order to give themselves permission to slow down and veg out.

19. You should tell us what you believe your daughter needs, but we hope you tell us with the understanding that we might have a different plan or another option, or another way of looking at the problem. In the words of brilliant educator, Mildred Berendsen, "When all the grownups put the child at the center, everyone does the right thing."

20. Don't use email for anything hard with a teacher. Email to arrange a time to speak. It is difficult to read for tone in email, so while sending a quick email seems like an easy way to resolve a situation, it can end up making it worse. Don't expect a teacher to email you after 9:00 p.m. or over the weekend; teachers are taking care of their own families or planning lessons or correcting your daughter's homework.

21. Offer your expertise! While our expertise is in writing curriculum, we know you have resources in many areas that could be beneficial in helping us to educate your daughter. We've had great experiences--field trips, speakers and resources--that have come from parents who generously help us reach beyond our walls.

22. How the world sees and rewards a child is not always fair or easy. Helping girls to be reflective and confident about their own skills and talents helps them to compete (with ferocity when necessary!) and to feel less like competition is personal.

23. The gift of your undivided attention is invaluable. We teach girls to claim their voices. It is powerful for girls when adults listen to them without multi-tasking; while it is often tempting to want to get something else done as she is talking with you, from time to time, slow down and just listen to learn.

24. Make it safe for your child to call home if there is a problem.

25. Stand for reality. When she says, "Everyone else's mother lets her have a credit card," know that you can just say, "No, that's not the case." When she says, "Everyone else has a math tutor," say, "Let's call your teacher and see what she recommends." Don't get caught up in her version of the absolutes that can characterize Girl World.

26. It's her job to do her homework. Not yours. Our children's report cards don't actually quantify our parenting; they are simply snapshots of achievement at the quarter--no more, no less.

27. Do the best you can. Then, knowing you are, be gentle with yourself.

28. Presume best intentions.

29. Cultivate optimism.

30. Savor the time at hand and don't let the future dictate or outweigh the present--a hard reminder as she gets older. Don't let everything be about college. Set your sights on giving your daughter the strategies and flexibility that will serve her well for the rest of her life; cultivate resilience in her--and in yourself. Be present. Breathe. Notice the little moments. It goes so fast--don't wish the time away.

In the coming weeks, enjoy time with your children. And remember, January offers all of us a new beginning. Happy New Year!