What influences our expectations of parents, and are these
expectations realistic? To answer these questions, and ensure
constructive relationships with all families, we must carefully look at
ourselves and our assumptions.
"Bradley is such a cute kid. Too bad his parents don't
care more about him. They never come to school."
"Bridget is a handful! At school we do the best we can to
teach her how to behave, but with no support from there is a limit to
what we can do. Her parents just spoil her rotten."
Statements like these may be heard in staff lounges and faculty
meetings, coming from teachers, caregivers, administrators, aides, and
preservice professionals (Davies, 1997; Galinsky, 1988). It certainly
can be frustrating when it seems parents do not care enough about their
child's education to support and follow through on what teachers
try to teach. When school policies are not supported from home, teachers
may feel that their efforts are being undermined. It is discouraging to
teachers - who know the importance of parental involvement - when a
parent does not show up for parent-teacher conferences (Lueder, 1990).
Are there really "bad" parents, however? Are there
parents who don't care about their children? Perhaps we should be
asking how these parents are showing their care and concern for their
children, and are we recognizing and acknowledging their efforts? What
influences our expectations of parents, and are these expectations
realistic? To answer these questions, and ensure constructive
relationships with all families, we must carefully look at ourselves and
Educators' expectations of parents originate from various
sources, including their personal backgrounds, their experiences, the
professional literature, other early childhood educators, the media (as
it reflects the larger culture), and children. When reality conflicts
with expectations, one can be tempted to place blame. Blame, however, is
seldom constructive; in fact, it is often destructive (Davies, 1997;
First Images of Parents
Our first images of parents come from our own families. Many
teachers and preservice teachers grew up in middle-class families and
communities that valued education, and so they enjoyed sufficient, if
not abundant, financial and social resources and support (Coleman &
Churchill, 1997). Because their families valued school, they grew up
doing well in school themselves.
But not all families have good feelings about school. Parents who
had adverse education experiences may still harbor resentment or fears
about school and teachers (Barbour & Barbour, 1997; Berger, 1991;
Hendrick, 1996). Those who dropped out may tee! embarrassed by their
lack of a diploma (Comer, 1980). Others may remember elementary school
as a place of humiliation or punishment, where their needs were seldom
met or where they felt psychologically or emotionally uncomfortable. As
parents, their only contact with their children's teachers may be
when problems arise (Comer, 1980; Davies, 1997).
Teachers also may have acquired prejudices and biases about certain
characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, race, or religion. These
feelings can influence what teachers expect of parents (Greenberg, 1989;
Powell, 1989). Some middle-class teachers, for example, may believe that
all parents living in poverty are neglectful of their children. And,
when some parents are even hostile toward teachers, it can be difficult
for teachers not to take it personally. They may find it hard to
continue to welcome parents into the classroom, or to speak kindly to
them on the phone. Thus, the negative cycle continues.
Preservice Experiences With Parents
Students in university and college teacher preparation programs
typically receive firsthand experiences with children in practicum and
student teaching settings. By the time they earn a teaching certificate,
preservice teachers may have amassed hundreds of hours of work with
children in classrooms and child care centers. They also have had
informal opportunities to observe and interact with parents, and to
discuss their observations with practicing teachers. The ideas and
opinions they form of parents at this stage may stay with them
throughout their careers. They may be greatly influenced by the comments
of teachers in whose classrooms they are serving practicum placements.
On several occasions, the author has heard student teachers report that
the teacher said a particular child does not do well in school because
"his parents just don't care."
Unfortunately, not all teacher preparation programs have a course,
or even a segment of a course, devoted to parent or family involvement
with schools and teachers (Coleman, 1997; Greenwood & Hickman,
1991), and so there is no forum in which preservice teachers can examine
these negative attitudes and learn proactive strategies. While there is
general agreement in the field, among parents and teachers, that
successful home-school partnerships are an important component of a
child's education (Rosenthal & Sawyers, 1996), teacher
candidates rarely receive corresponding formal preparation (Evans,
Dumas, & Weible, 1991; Galinsky, 1988; Greenberg, 1989).
Images From the Professional Literature
The professional literature in the field of early childhood
education and child development supports the notion that the more
parents are involved with their child's education, the better an
education the child receives (Gelfer, 1991; Greenberg, 1989; Marcon,
1994; Powell, 1989; U.S. Department of Education, 1987). Even so, if
some parents do not participate in school events or show up to
parent-teacher conferences, teachers should not conclude that these
parents are not doing a good job of rearing their children, or that they
do not care about them (Brewer, 1995; Greenberg, 1989).
Images From Professional Colleagues
Educators often discuss parents and families. Student teachers
report feeling shocked at some of the conversations they overhear in the
staff lounge when teachers vent their frustrations about pupils and
parents. Inexperienced preservice teachers may be strongly influenced by
the opinions of these veterans under whose tutelage they are learning,
and so they may adopt some of the same attitudes toward those families,
perhaps even toward families in general. Although supervising teachers
may be unaware of how their behavior influences undergraduates, they
should remember that casual remarks, spoken out of momentary annoyance,
may make indelible impressions on the minds of young student teachers
(Dohrer, 1995). Even veteran teachers may be influenced by colleagues
who have had unpleasant experiences with a particular family, and form a
subconscious bias against parents before ever meeting them.
Images From the Media
Images from the popular culture often portray parents in an
unflattering light: television situation comedies often feature them as
foolish people doing silly things calculated to get a laugh, movies of
the week dramatize physically or emotionally abusive mothers or fathers,
and the evening news airs reports on neglectful parents who leave young
children home alone while they go on vacation. Conversely, images of
virtuous parents are seldom deemed newsworthy, nor do they make
interesting entertainment. The so-called "family" programs or
movies may depict parents in a more positive, although no more
realistic, light. Important issues are easily solved in an hour or two,
sometimes through the intervention of a mythical or magical character,
such as an angel. In real life, families struggle daily with the
business of living, and problems are seldom solved within an hour.
Images From Children
Although teachers should not ignore signs from young children that
suggest problems at home, teachers must exercise caution. Young
children's memories are not always accurate, they may have
misunderstood a situation, or they may simply lack the vocabulary or
language skills to accurately articulate an experience at home. Even
when children in dramatic play act out family scenes in which
"parents" hit or scream at children, their play may not truly
reflect their experiences (Katz, 1995).
Expectations of Parents Teachers will do well to continually
reflect on and examine their expectations of parents. Stereotyping
parents, judging them as "good" or "bad," or glibly
offering them unsolicited advice about rearing children is not helpful.
Teachers should carefully examine their assumptions and biases about
parents and families (Berger, 1991). It is important to recognize that
preconceptions might arise from one's background and be affected by
unpleasant experiences that have no connection to the immediate
situation (Sturm, 1997). To avoid judging parents by unrealistic or
misinformed standards, teachers should maintain some form of contact
through informal conversations, phone calls, questionnaires, interviews,
home visits, parent-teacher conferences, and other appropriate means.
Many strategies exist to encourage two-way communication between parents
and schools (Davies, 1997; Rosenthal & Sawyers, 1996).
Parents who are too busy to visit the school can borrow photo
albums, audiotapes, or videotapes that represent a typical day at
school, and enjoy them at home (Greenwood, 1995). This strategy helps
families feel a part of their child's school experience.
Newsletters (Jones, 1996), suggestion boxes (Bundy, 1991), informal
get-togethers (Berger, 1991), and shared parent-teacher journals also
can nurture relationships with families.
Family involvement with school projects can enhance the
child's learning and the parents' attitudes about school.
Materials sent home with simple instructions for craft projects or book
making can encourage and support positive parent-child, as well as
family-school, relationships (Kokoski & Downing-Leffler, 1995).
Portfolios of a child's work help parents understand the
school's learning goals, as well as how their child is progressing
toward achieving them (Carter, 1996; Ginishi, 1996).
School personnel should be aware that "parent
involvement" may be defined in many ways (Coleman, 1997; Coleman
& Churchill, 1997; Davies, 1997; Reynolds, 1992). Helping with
homework, buying tickets to the school carnival, and saving newspapers
and milk jugs for school art projects are all ways for parents to be
involved. Once they get to know their pupils' families better,
teachers can design parent involvement strategies that match
families' needs and abilities (Davies, 1997; Spiegel, Fitzgerald
& Cunningham, 1993). By providing child care at parent-teacher
conference time, for example, schools acknowledge that some parents have
difficulty affording or arranging in-home child care. Another way to
accommodate parents is by scheduling meetings in the evenings or on
weekends, which allows working parents to meet teachers without having
to use leave time. Teachers might meet parents somewhere that the
parents find to be more convenient and less threatening than school,
such as at a local fast food restaurant. Although parents' presence
in the school itself is helpful, it is not the amount of time parents
spend at school, but rather how respected they feel by school personnel
that is important in the school-family relationship (Greenberg, 1989).
Teacher training institutions can plan courses that give preservice
teachers more formal training in working with parents and families. New
teachers will then be better prepared to work with parents, and will
realize the importance of including them in a child's education.
Teachers commonly complain, "The problem is that his parents
just don't care about him." We should ask ourselves, "Am
I sure they don't care at all?" There are very few parents who
truly do not care about their children (Brewer, 1995). The issue is more
likely to be that parents do not always demonstrate their caring in ways
that meet teachers' expectations or approval (Greenberg, 1989).
Teachers and school personnel must continually examine their
preconceptions about parents, broaden their definition of parent
involvement, and recognize that they must find new ways to include
parents in their child's education. Effective educators need to
develop beyond traditional ideas of parent involvement.
Misunderstandings or erroneous assumptions will be corrected only by
reciprocal, respectful relationships with parents and families - by
listening compassionately and believing what they say. Rather than
blaming parents, teachers can empathize with them and see their point of
view. From here, it is a short step to working as partners with parents.
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Sue Grossman is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Teacher
Education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.