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Parents and Failure

Parents and Failure

As September approaches, almost every schoolteacher in America fills with excitement and trepidation. It is, after all, a new year. Like baseball in spring, anything seems possible for a teacher in the fall when it comes to a renewal of spirit: new students, new gimmicks, new courses—and hope does spring eternal. Most good teachers take a mental inventory of what needs to be done to become more successful in their classrooms; unfortunately, however, that usually means having to dwell temporarily on the downside of education.

One major obstacle in a teacher’s quest for instilling academic superiority in her students is parents; after all, every educator knows that the school is a partnership among students, teachers, and parents. This is an unspoken—and sometimes formal—contract. But when parents fail to do their part, the institution breaks down. Students learn less,
teachers percolate with frustration, and precious monetary resources jut into ineffectual directions.

Clearly, most parents meet almost insurmountable challenges and provide laudable support for their kids in their schooling; but too many parents have broken the contracts with their kids and the teachers, thereby aiding and abetting a free fall of the education system in the United States:

1. When Parents Have Been Sitting on Their Tushes
Any subsequent ramifications of an individual’s slothfulness depend on the place of responsibility that person hoists in the first place. Sadly, many American parents—men and women in supreme positions of awesome responsibility—are simply lazy. Not to diminish the sacrifice, hard work, compromise, and exhausting dedication of millions of Americans in their pursuit of parenting, but some mothers and fathers don’t exert themselves too strenuously while tending to the needs of their own children.

2. When Parents Have Children as Children Themselves
Not that younger parents are always the worst parents; this would be an unfair generalization. However, when teenagers bring babies into the world, conditions are not ripe for success. Babies breeding babies reminds us of the amazing speed at which the female body develops and becomes capable of growing life inside; it also reminds us of the blooming immaturity that ensues in adolescence, even if the child has engaged in sexual intercourse and is equipped with fertile eggs. In short, babies having babies sounds ridiculous—and it is.

3. When Parents Put Themselves Before the Needs of Their Children
An oft-uttered and insanely ludicrous comment of self-reflection, one that has turned out to be nothing short of a narcissistic rationalization for depression and misery, is the following: “Hey, if I’m happy, my kids will be happy! How can my kids be happy, if I’m not happy?”


Parenting requires compromise, sacrifice, and selflessness; furthermore, it mandates the recognition that these qualities are essential. Self-denial, self-absorption, and selfishness have no place in a home where the children’s education has become a top priority. Mom and Dad don’t always get what they want, and sometimes the pain of this realization becomes unbearable.

Some kids live in homes inhabited by adults whose names they do not know. Mothers stream in and out new boyfriends and studs faster than their kids learn new letters of the alphabet. When Dad gets a weekend custody visit, he farms off the kids to babysitters or daycare, so he may spend alone time with his new honey (of the week). Sometimes men and women sternly demand that their own kids take a liking to their new love interest and even their new love interest’s siblings! Children whose lives have been torn asunder by death or divorce must now share any remaining love and affection from the remaining parent with a strange adult—whom the children may not even like.

4. When Parents Forsake Good Role-Modeling
Kids watch their parents. If mom and dad have absolutely no self-control, respect for authority, reverence for honesty, or desire for goodness, neither will their children. If mom and dad devalue, ignore, chastise, and deemphasize their children’s schooling, so will their children. Guaranteed.

5. When Parents Give Up on Their Children
More than once a parent has trusted their child’s teacher with these emotionally charged words: “I have tried so hard with Johnny! I just don’t know what to do with him anymore!” Translated: I’ve done my best; now, I give up!

In the education arena parents become downtrodden and frustrated all the time—perhaps here more than anywhere else in their children’s lives. How many parents finally surrendered, after looking at that last report card? How many parents finally called it quits, after that last nagging phone call from the teacher or the school’s vice-principal? How many parents threw in the towel, after that last warning from the city police department about their kid’s ditching school? It has become so much less taxing and stressful, so much easier for parents to officially “give up” on school than to continuously bash their heads against a brick wall on the little red schoolhouse.

6. When Parents Don’t Spend Enough Time
Columnist John Leo wrote in U.S. News and World Report, on September 3, 1997, about the critical nature of parenting when it came to a child’s learning. Leo argues that it is not so-called “quality time” that matters most with parents and their children; it is quantity time with his parents that could determine a child’s adult life. In many American homes today we find children as lodgers, filling space, going almost privately about their daily business, sometimes—but sometimes not—under the watchful eyes of a nanny, babysitter, or daycare worker.


In these homes kids are not special, growing human beings, small souls who must be loved, nurtured, attended to, and raised appropriately; after all, it requires time for all that singing, storytelling, cuddling, cooing, ball playing, disciplining, and molding. What, with parents both busily off to work or happily tending to their own social lives or stressfully managing the conflicts and tribulations of a mixed-and-matched extended family, just how do they find time to do things with their own kids? The truth, of course, is that these days numerous American children have only one parent due to death, divorce, or a mother never bothering to get married in the first place. The truth, of course, is when it comes to time—actual quantity time—our children wind up with the proverbial short end of the stick.

7. When Parents Don’t Enforce Rules
Kids want rules and boundaries, and they find themselves a lot more comfortable with parents and teachers who paint clear borders and enforce them. Children whose parents compel them to finish their homework and then set a reasonable, consistent bedtime do better in school than kids whose parents deflect these decisions to the kids themselves. Parents who set curfews and punish for violations of those curfews actually do their children a huge favor. Clarity of law, explanation of (occasional) conformity, and enforcement of discipline go a long way toward maintaining a home that will help to foster education excellence in the children.

8. When Parents Don’t Provide Stability and Security
Parental factors that precipitate childhood insecurity—and the ability of children to perform to their potential in school—abound. They are …

  • parents who have affairs; adultery, infidelity; dating after divorce or the death of one parent
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • domestic violence
  • financial woes (to which the children have become privy)
  • ill health of one or both parents
  • extended visitors (family or acquaintances)
  • domestic conflict (constant arguing, use of profanity, verbal threats of divorce)
  • frequent changing of residences
  • absentee parents
  • criminal behavior or imprisonment of one of both parents

Now that so many American homes are headed by men and women who indulge in one or more of the above behaviors, many American school children are feeling unnoticed, unloved, and—what may be worst of all—unprotected. When we mix these with school, the ensuing chemistry is awful.


9. When Parents Aren’t Feeding Their Kids
Parents have the responsibility of making sure their kids are properly nourished. Sometimes students complain they didn’t have time to eat or grab a glass of juice in the morning. But that doesn’t let their parents off the hook. When kids don’t eat right, they don’t do well in school. Every bit of evidence gathered in recent years—as though we really needed any—proclaims the importance of adequate food in a child’s diet and its relationship to student excellence in almost every facet of the education process.

10. When Parents Refuse to Stress the Value of Getting an Education
Cultural and racial discrepancies in standardized testing and SAT scores have so much less to do with institutionalized racism and so much more to do with blatantly inept parenting; the culture or race is totally irrelevant. My own father, a short, dumpy-looking, white guy from Europe, had been kicked out of school for helping to throw the principal down a flight of stairs; he never finished the eighth grade. But he always refused to allow this failure to block his reverence for the schools and his constant encouragement of my sister and me to do our best in school. Just before I entered high school (the ninth grade), he sat me down, his hairless head shining in the lamplight, and he sternly said, “Listen, Bruce; I want you to remember one thing—something I forgot to do when I was in school. Here it is: When your teacher tells you to do something—and he’s wrong—just remember that the teacher is right.”

My father did not have to convince me of the veracity of his wisdom; he showed it to me almost every day in the glow of his own parenting. Parents who bring education to the forefront in their children’s lives also bring with this emphasis a reverence for dignity, discipline, humility, and integrity. Clearly, these are values that should never be compromised. And when parents reinforce the worth of these ideals by role-modeling them at home and by demonstrating behaviors that support and respect their kids’ institutions of learning, their children—and our nation—become a whole lot better.

As we get ready for another school year, most parents will remain an asset, not a liability, to their children’s education, but often the students who do the best in school are not, coincidentally, also the winners of the parent lottery.

By Bruce J. Gevirtzman, author of
An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands with Aliens

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