The Abdication of Parenthood: A Cry For Help?

A number of years ago, at a meeting of our school board, I drifted off, distant, sedated, lost. This, unfortunately, had become a bored meeting. Obliquely, at some point in my near drooling state of serenity, I noticed a lot of faces looking in my direction. A board member, I realised, had just said something like, “I am interested in what you think, Mike.” Making a sharp landing back on earth, in a cold sweat, I requested that the sincere speaker clarify the question. I believe she simply repeated her original inquiry, but I will never know. “What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing schools in the years ahead?”

Fortunately, I held a face-saving conviction on this topic at the time. It’s a phrase I had considered for several years and I believed it was original. My response:“the abdication of parenthood.” I had considered this thesis in several contexts, following many experiences. To me, it is a concept informed by Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this scenario, while one chooses to abdicate power irresponsibly, one yet continues to demand responsibility on the part of others and this results in strife. In the case of Lear, even his most devoted daughter, Cordelia, is destroyed in the process. When parents abdicate responsibility for their children, bad things happen. In my 25 years as an educator, I have seen this pattern increase with worrying pace. Some real, illustrative examples, as communicated to me by parents:

“My daughter refuses to get out of bed. What do you intend to do about this?”

[On Christmas Eve]: “My grade 5 child is being asked to do inappropriate things on his webcam (in his bedroom) by one of your grade 7 female students. We are outraged. What are you doing about this?”

“Yes, Donna went to a party, got drunk, and ended up in the emergency room. I thought she was going to the school dance. Why did you hold a school dance on the same night as a party?”

“Fair enough, my child may be viewing pornography on his laptop at 4am, but what am I expected to do about this? After all, you gave him the laptop, not me.”

The initial response to such exchanges may be to question the apparent cluelessness of these parents, but that may prove to be an unfair judgment. But the corollary of this – the helicopter parent – may be even worse than the abdicating parent. I hear from colleagues who teach at universities who occasionally share communications from parents of twenty-somethings, complaints about grades, team selections, recognition awards. “We believe you dropped Kirk from the football team because you are anti-Diabetes.” It all seems to suggest a significant shift in parenting today.

Many of us have lost count of the number of times we have heard or said, “If I told my parents that, I would regret it!” We wear curiously rose-tinted glasses when we recall something resembling a fear of our parents that we regard as a positive. Or is it really respect for our parents we are conveying, or nostalgia for a time of greater certainty, authority, that is now long gone? What we do know, with some certainty, is that the world has utterly changed and my thoughts about abdicating parents are no longer as straightforward, as certain, as they once were.

Much worse than the Abdicating and Helicopter Parent is another beast entirely, the Entitled Parent. While the abdicators and helicopter pilots may be obtusely annoying on occasion, they are guided by a desire to do what is right for their child. I think they are telling us they need help. This I have respect for. On the other hand, the Entitled Parent prefers to tell us what to do. The language of this very small group is characterised by such benign utterances as:

  • “I demand that you change this immediately.”
  • “This is not acceptable. Do you know who you are dealing with?”
  • “Johnny is upset. I am coming to school and you will make this happen.”
  • “I have spoken to several other parents and they agree with me.”

When I hear language like this, the requested change is going to involve careful, slow, rational and candid dialogue and likely rejection. At the core of the need to deal with the Entitled Parent is the obligation to defend teachers. In this, we need to be resolute. But my main focus here are the parents who need our support, who convey it in indirect ways. They are not saying that they wish to abdicate their responsibility for their children. They are saying that they need help. That every time they turn around, despite their best efforts, there is a new challenge. As a parent and educator, I know only this:

  • Parents are not abdicating responsibility when it comes to the technology use of their children. They are saying they do not understand it enough themselves in order to know where to begin a meaningful conversation about it. They know that it is almost impossible to control. We need to engage with parents and help them navigate this sometimes complex world.
  • Parents are not abdicating responsibility when they ask schools to be accountable for their child’s future. In the absence of the old certainties, we, in the learning business, have come to understand that we are preparing young people for an uncertain future. This is a tough challenge for parents to absorb.
  • Parents are not abdicating responsibility when they express genuine fears about the values-devoid world their children inhabit. If the mainstream media is to be believed, the internet is the home of shadowy digital perverts, smartphones were invented for sexting, anxiety is the norm for young people today. Too many people take pleasure in dismissing the wisdom of this generation (as every generation has done before): it disturbs their universe.

At our school we are fortunate to deal mainly with interested, involved, and supportive parents. When we introduce change and discuss it with them, their questions tend to be thoughtful and informed. They are open to change and trusting of initiatives on behalf of their children. I tend to think that what parents need to be reminded of is encapsulated in a communication I shared with them recently.

“In the New Year we will be hosting a talk for parents entitled, “The Most Important Thing: Maintaining Open Dialogue With Your Child.” We really do think this is the most important thing. If you can have an open conversation with your child, you can have a relationship built on trust. You can trust your child, but the dialogue needs to be open and honest. I know most of you will identify with the view that we should not try to be a friend to our children. They need parents, not friends.”

Parents are looking for support, understanding, reassurance … just like their children.