The art of handling problem parents

7th November 1997 at 00:00
We had a call one recent Sunday morning from an agitated father wanting to pass on details of what had gone on at a party our teenagers had been at the night before. Did we realise there was a huge problem of under-age drinking in the village, he asked. He wasn't having it. He was going to do something about it. We were with him all the way. Then we parted company. He was, he said, going to write to the school.

Poor school. Not only responsible for our children's academic progress, artistic development, sporting prowess, religious instruction, health education and career guidance, but now, apparently, their Saturday night stupidities, too. And even if the school, justifiably, refuses to have anything to do with it, someone there will still have to spend valuable time making and explaining that refusal.

But more and more parents seem to think that the word "school" follows the word "problem" as night follows day.

It's like this, says a local primary school governor: "Little Miranda falls out one day with her best friend, little Sonia, and maybe there's a bit of argy-bargy, the way you get with kids, so little Miranda goes crying home to mum that little Sonia pulled her hair and pinched her. And then mum gets on her high horse and says she's not having that, no one's going to bully any child of hers, and there she is, off up the school, saying that her little Miranda's being bullied and what are we going to do about it?" This man is a governor of the school where three generations of his family have been educated, in the town where he has run his own business for more than 20 years. He knows the community backwards and says he is getting mighty fed up with the way some of its members are now bringing up their children.

All little Miranda needs, he says, is for her mum - or dad, if he's the one at home - to say, "Did she, dear? What happened? Tell me about it", give her a cuddle, and it's all over and done with.

"But what happens? Maybe mum's been at work all day, and she's got to get the dinner on, and she hasn't got time to listen to it, or maybe she feels guilty about not being around as much as she'd like, and she wants to be a good parent, and she wants people to see she's being a good parent, so she feels she has to go up to school and make a fuss, or maybe she's seen a programme on the television about bullying, so she automatically thinks bullyingI I don't know. But I do know this: half the things we spend our time dealing with these days are things that should never have come to us in the first place."

Relate this to any group of teachers, especially primary ones, and half-way through they will start to nod and recount their own stories. Eighty per cent of bullying cases reported by parents, it seems, amount to nothing. And parents increasingly come into school about incredible things - that their children didn't win prizes, weren't picked for teams, that their clothes got torn in the playground, or they were "humiliated" by being subjected to routine school discipline, or "picked on" for not doing their homework. Parents use schools as counselling services, health centres and social notice boards.

And these demands are in no way confined to tough schools or problem areas, rather the opposite. Prep-school teachers complain that they come under relentless pressure from parents who have paid their money and intend to take every last fragment of their choice, while the garage mechanic who drove our car home recently waxed vehement about the problems his mature-entrant teacher wife had to put up with in her suburban Surrey primary school.

"I used to be the first to say, 'Oh yes, teachers. Nice life, long holidays but I've seen her come home covered with bruises from these little six and seven-year-olds kicking hell out of her and then you see the parents and you know why. They don't respect anyone."

Yet some - Germaine Greer is the latest - say it is too much respect for others, for health, education and welfare professionals, that is at the root of the problem.

Parents are powerless, they argue, because they've been told that they are; that only people with the right college diploma know how to deal with children. Their adult authority is undermined, while any contribution they might make to the estimated Pounds 700 billions' worth of annual unpaid housework done in this country, if they choose to stay at home with their children, goes unseen and unvalued.

Being a parent is hard, unceasing and unpaid. It requires self-discipline, patience, persistence and the readiness to make yourself unpopular if circumstances demand, and, if you can find someone willing to share the burden - or preferably even shoulder it for you - why not make use of them?

Recent research into working patterns shows that we parents, far from aching to spend more time with our children, actually go to work to escape from them.

According to Dr Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, when companies introduce shorter working hours or unpaid holidays to make their working conditions more family-friendly, only about 4 per cent of employees take up the offer. Home equals housework, hassles and headaches, while work promises calm, companionship and cash.

But if one of the great arts of parenting is to set limits, maybe the art of dealing with parents is to set limits, too. Maybe schools need to make much clearer to us what we can't expect from them, what we mustn't go running in and out of the classroom about, and which areas of our children's lives teachers will have nothing to do with.

Perhaps these stern cautions should be written into home-school policies, right there alongside all the nice cosy stuff about partnerships and open doors.

Because in this, as in so many other things, if teachers are to command the respect they deserve, they are going to have to start taking it for themselves.

They must climb higher on to their professional high horses and explain firmly and without apology that they are educators, not magicians or social workers. And that there is absolutely no way they can do their job properly if other people aren't prepared to do theirs.

Either that, or take a leaf from Nick Bolletieri's Florida tennis academy and rig up a sign reading: No Parents!

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