As children change, so does parents’ relationship with their school

Oct 13 2023

As children change, so does parents’ relationship with their school

“. . . I would have let him go one finger at a time, until, without his realizing, he’d be floating without me. And then I thought, perhaps that is what it means to be a [parent] – to teach your child to live without you.”
― Nicole Krauss

Superlifers (from left) Elliot, Meghal and Andrés return to the Little School in 2022.

As so often happens, I recently learned a new term from adolescents. For context, a child who attends a school from kindergarten through senior year is known as a “lifer.” However, Keystone’s also having a pre-school differentiates us from many other independent schools. For a variety of reasons, not all children who attend the wonderful Little School of Keystone matriculate to the main campus; in addition, many students become Cobras sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. For that reason, students created a new name to describe children who attend the Little School and then graduate from Keystone-they will hereafter be known as “superlifers.”

As children travel through their educational journey from preschool through high school, their relationship with the school changes. Similarly and as developmentally appropriate, the relationship between parents and children morphs over time. So, it would seem obvious that the connection between parents and the school alters as children grow up.

I consulted with Keystone’s counselor, Dr. Erica Shapiro, about how relationships change as children grow up, and she shared a wealth of information.

She explained that the change in a parent’s connection to a school can reflect the transition in their relationship with their child. As you would expect, the way parents interact with the school moves along a similar continuum to the way we relate to our child.

However, the most important thing in this changing relationship is that we continue to be present in our children’s lives. Our level of involvement will change as children age and they take on more responsibility and independence, but it shouldn’t disappear altogether. Study after study shows that contrary to what people may think, parents still play a formative role in their children’s lives through middle and high school. It’s just different.

As Dr. Kennedy in her book “Good Inside” says, “The development of the middle prefrontal cortex-the part of the brain involved with emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, empathy, and connectedness—is highly influenced by the attachment relationship with a caregiver.”

So, what does our relationship with our children’s school look like over time? When they are in preschool or lower school, we are all in. We want to be involved in part to compensate for our being away from them during the day. Parents volunteer and ask teachers and administrators often, “what can I do?” We spend our weekends at countless birthday parties, and we show up for everything we can at school. Our children want us in their lives at home and at school, and they are happy to see their parents when they come for a Little School breakfast or Lower School family picnic. (Of course, part of their joy may extend to the Whataburger or Chick Fil A bags their parents are carrying.)

Then middle school arrives with all the subtlety of a Mack truck. Suddenly, our children are embarrassed by our hugs and dad jokes, and they ask us to observe what I have referred to for years as the 20 foot rule. I recall years ago when I saw a colleague whose child attended our school leaving at the end of the day alone. I asked what happened to her daughter, and she replied “20 feet.” Seconds later as mom opened the car door, the middle schooler emerged from the building, assured that nobody would ever assume that she and her mother were actually driving home together. The title of Anthony Wolff’s book “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall” encapsulates the frustration parents can feel as their once-loving child now views the relationship with their parents as purely transactional.

Similarly, sometimes the last thing these adolescents wish is to see their parents at school unless it’s for a game or a performance, and even then, adults may need to tread carefully when approaching their children afterwards. However, our children still need us to be present in their lives, so we have to be more creative. One method the Keystone PTO has found effective is serving snacks during exams. Seeing their children at school on these days can resemble being a zoologist observing animals in their natural habitat. Parents also come to conferences, meet with teachers, and cheer loudly at contests and performances. Being present remains, but it feels and looks different than years earlier.

When our children enter high school and move towards leaving us in a few years, a maelstrom of emotions kicks in and influences our relationships with the school. As adolescents individuate and move away from us, we feel our sense of control, even if it was illusory, disappearing. A sense of urgency grabs us as we realize that this may be the last chance to make sure our children have inherited the values and learned the lessons we taught them.

In addition, we realize that our children spend significantly more time at school than at home. They arrive at school at 7:30 AM and don’t leave until 8:30 or 9:00 PM. Parents have said, “My child spends more time with you than with me, and you may know more about her than I do.” This may be factual, but it’s also frightening for parents.

We also discover elements of our children that their teachers already knew but we were unaware of. I recall a few years ago at the Keystone Arts Festival witnessing a very involved parent stare in disbelief and utter joy at his daughter’s artwork that he had never seen before. He said to me, “I had no idea she was doing work like this since she never brings it home.” His pride was palpable, and it was a joy to behold.

When they’re in high school, our children still need us, and contrary to what some people may believe, we still have a great deal of influence. At school, parental involvement tends to migrate toward supporting our children’s interests. We cheer them on at games and buy treats for the team: we provide dinner for the cast and crew of the play during final rehearsal week. More often than not, though, we back away as our children pull away from us.

Perhaps that’s why I was so impressed at this year’s Upper School Back to School Night when so many parents of seniors came. More often than not, twelfth grade parents have moved on and don’t attend this evening, but this group was still going strong. They wished to learn what their children are studying and meet the teachers with whom they spend their days.

As long as the most important job in the world-parenting- comes with no instructional manual, we will struggle to balance being appropriately involved in our children’s lives and connected to their school. It’s also important to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes along the way and continue to do the best we can. Maintaining a relationship with the school is one of many important components in being there for our children through their lives. The writer Andrew Solomon in his beautiful book, “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” says it well, “ Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perceptual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime.”

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