There was a time in my life that, if asked whether a parent or teacher should be faulted for a child’s failing grades, I would have smugly pointed a finger at the slacker mommy.
After all, hadn’t I spent my early years of parenting obsessively trying to create teachable moments for my older children? Didn’t I point out colors in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, play math games while driving (If mommy gives you two pieces of bubble gum … ) and spell out signs as we drove around town in our minivan (P-I-Z-Z-A!)? Hadn’t I thrown myself into the fifth grade as if I was actually in the fifth grade when one of the kids started to struggle with math (I’d anxiously await the results of any tests we had studied for)?
This was back in the day when that was my sole focus: to encourage my children to learn and troubleshoot when obstacles arose. Plus, I had a spouse. And because we are blessed and do not have to deal with any real and challenging physical, learning or social issues, the kids did well. And naturally, I felt superior.
Fast forward ten years, and my approach to schoolwork for my youngest child is far more hands off, as my life has shifted from the cozy stay-at-home days with a couple of small children, to non-stop days as a single parent with teenagers and their assorted issues, coupled with a full-time job.
My expectations for my youngest child, who is 8, are far greater than those I held for his siblings. I assume he’s got a handle on his homework and forget sometimes all the attention I lavished on his brother and sisters at that age. And often, I find myself annoyed with things that come home from school that require my assistance, like a book report or preparing for a spelling test (the nerve). I am not above asking one of his sisters to step in and help.
While usually he can scrape by with only getting one or two words wrong on the weekly spelling test if we forget to study, my youngest child brought home one test this year with lots of red marks and a score of 57, probably one of the worst grades any of my kids has ever received (What 8 year old can spell “occasion,” I ask you?).
Even last night—following a late-ending baseball game—while we were frantically trying to get my little guy ready to spend a few days at his dad’s so I could go with his sister on a class trip, we unearthed his Guided Reading folder in his backpack. This extra homework appears occasionally and requires extra time for him to read aloud from a book sent home in that dreaded black folder. And of course, it was nearing 9 p.m. and he started to cry.
I cursed his teacher for her timing and then myself for not going through his backpack when he got home from aftercare.
We worked it out that he read aloud from the kitchen table while I bustled about packing up his bag. Not perfect, but it got the job done and I could sign off on the reading homework with a clear conscience.
There’s a part of me that just wishes the teacher would cut my son some slack. Doesn’t she know how many balls I have in the air? But rationally I know that that is not her job. Her mandate is to make sure my child hits certain marks to move onto the next grade, which she does in spades, and that requires reinforcement of curriculum at home.
I know. I get it.
Legislators in a number of states are looking to impose monetary or legal penalties on errant parents whose children’ grades are suffering. An article last month in the Sunday Style section of The New York Times quoted an education historian on the outmoded philosophy of looking to place the blame on one component of the education equation.
“Punish the teachers. Punish the parents. It’s Dickensian,” said author Diane Ravitch in the article, “Whose Failing Grade Is It?,” by Lisa Belkin. “What we should be doing instead is giving a helping hand.”
Ultimately, as the article pointed out, this is probably a problem that stems from socioeconomic issues. It makes sense that the greater the income level, generally the higher the education level of parents and accordingly, more involvement in their children’s education.
And while I’m probably a poor example of who this legislation is really targeting, the trajectory my life has taken has given me a greater appreciation for those other moms, who are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, and who might have bigger problems to tackle than studying for a spelling test.