Sunday, May 8, 2016

The "Family Engagement" Struggle

I remember my parents having to go to my school only twice when I was a kid. Both times were in high school. The first time was when I got suspended for typing up a colorful* description of my teacher during typing class. The second when my mom came to watch me get a journalism award. That's it. The rest of time they were completely absent from school grounds. Today they would be considered disengaged parents, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Because they were engaged where they needed to be: in the home; in my out of school environment. They signed me up for Girl Scouts and let me join a youth group at church. They made me do my homework. They supported my teachers by teaching me to respect authority. I was nearly a straight A student. 

Since my own school days I've supported 3 academically successful daughters, 14 years apart, from preschool to college. Over that time I've been a witness to a baffling ever-evolving somewhat frantic and ultimately futile barrage of "family engagement" efforts. Efforts to get parents into the schools to somehow make up for the fact that they aren't doing their jobs outside the school. A job that ideally would start much sooner and that is so much bigger than attending PTA meetings or understanding college career pathways. Efforts that I felt increasing pressure to respond to. But why? 

I've written before about the contract that the American education system made with parents over 200 years ago being  irrevocably broken by a vast majority of our youth caregivers. My family was poor.   My parents worked a lot. My dad was working and trying to go to college.  My 4 siblings and I were on free and reduced lunch. None of this prevented my parents from understanding and fulfilling their responsibility to make sure I attended school ready to learn.  The difference was that my parents had had parents who understood and accepted the contract. Too many of today's parents did not and even fewer of tomorrow's parents will have. It's a domino effect. Because who teaches parenting

In 1994 I worked in the University Hospital Social Work Department in Lubbock, Texas with teen moms aged 12-17. A 12 year old who wouldn't or couldn't tell anyone how she got pregnant. A 17 year old having her 4th baby. Too many 15 and 16 year olds to count. Some had daddies in the picture and some did not. Some had daddies you wished were not in the picture. Most of the girls were only in the hospital for delivery for a very short period of time. I wasn't allowed to talk to them about birth control. Only their physician could do that. I never saw one who did. 

Every one of those girls left the hospital completely unprepared for motherhood**. If I could track them all down now, over 20 years later, I'd bet they have all struggled. I bet there were many CPS cases. I bet their kids were developmentally behind and educationally challenged. I bet the percent of their kids that showed up for school ready to learn was small. 

It's very predictable. We know what the problem is**, and even what we need to do, but we don't have a clue how to do it. We need to teach everyone how to parent, but we don't know how to reach them. Hence placing the "family engagement" burden on schools. And parents today need hard core teaching: not only the how to change a diaper kind of parenting, but the grow your child's brain type of parenting, and the set clear boundaries and expectations kind of parenting. And it's not just economically disadvantaged parents or any particular ethnic group that need to learn these skills. That elephant in the room is a big part of the problem. 

Parenting is hard. It's unfair for us to expect the knowledge to appear by osmosis. Most families don't have a village. Times have changed.  I despair that we won't do anything. Or at least we won't do anything new, or actually innovative, or early enough or to scale. We will continue the blame game.** We'll beat the family-engagement-in-school-program dead horse. We will expect schools to be capable of filling and/or replacing the parental role. We'll do a few parenting classes here and there for lower income parents or those identified as at risk of abuse by entities like Child Protective  Services.

We will continue to do too little and be too late. 

**Stay tuned for a future post on how we love to blame parents for failings we knew they'd have, quickly followed by crucifying their children for being so fucked up. Excuse my profanity. I learned it early on.  Also, all those girls left the hospital with a car seat, by God, because the state of Texas had decreed it. Regardless of whether or not they actually even had a car, they got a free car seat. 

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