Here’s a true and bizarre story: At one of the schools I headed, I had a mother who was very concerned when, after picking her first grade daughter up from school, her daughter told her in the car that she was bored. The mother made an appointment with me—even though I encouraged her to visit with the teacher or the principal first, she would have none of it; she wanted to go to the top. No problem, I thought. I’m sure I’ll allay her concerns with the confidence and enthusiasm I genuinely felt about our elementary teachers and our curriculum.
So our meeting took place, and I knew from the opening seconds that it wasn’t going to go well. After complaining about her daughter coming home from school and saying she was bored, she certainly did not want to hear anything I wanted the mother to do, like meeting with the teacher or coming in to observe the classroom with me. She didn’t want to hear about getting an individualized plan going. Instead, the mother soon interrupted my suggestions in order to press further with her main objective. She said her real concern was that our mission statement mentioned “academic excellence” and that her “bored” child is going to mean a bait-and-switch lawsuit. She insisted that my school had deceived her with language that, in her mind, served as a guarantee that her child would never be bored. In short, my school was guilty of breaking the enrollment contract.
I thought this was all bluster, but sure enough, I was served with legal paperwork soon after my only meeting with this mother. She did not pull her
child from our school, not just yet. For weeks, I made it a point to visit her daughter’s classroom every single day, and I had several colleagues—the principal, the counselor, the learning specialist—visit this classroom as well, and our observations that we recorded were very consistent and similar. We observed a girl who was always cheerful, engaged, participating, laughing, raising her hand, going to the chalkboard, collaborating with others, intelligent in her comments and questions, and getting along famously with the teacher, who happened to be one of our most dynamic teachers.
The mother eventually did withdraw her child at mid-year, yet her lawsuit continued. And it went on and on, for a couple of years, in fact. Of course, no judge would let something like this come to trial, which this parent/litigant was asking for all along. Our lawyer finally convinced us to agree to a settlement, whose details of course I cannot mention here due to the confidentiality clause.
So what’s the upshot of all this? Is this a lesson about settling out of court as soon as possible, so that we can move on with our business of educating children? Is this just another war story about the “five percent,” which many school officials acknowledge to each other has been the constant percentage of aggravating parents in our schools since the 1990’s?
There are many lessons and take-aways from this episode, of course, but what this underscores for me is the amazingly circuitous way children sometimes communicate their needs to their parents. Few young children are literalists, and many find it hard to be direct. But what they do carry with them is feelings, deep desirous feelings, for all sorts of care and attention and understanding and love. Children don’t mean to lambaste their school or their teachers. They’re certainly not out to cajole their parents into suing the school. Unfortunately too often parents listen only to the surface of what their children are literally saying. That’s what turns parents quickly into school adversaries.
Parents, and their children, will both be better served when parents take the time to consider the underlying meaning and purpose of what their children are trying to communicate.