One of the hardest things I had to learn when I became a school principal was how to be the object of parents’ anger. As a teacher it happened once to me in the 12 years I was teaching in a classroom — as a principal, much more frequently. I came to understand, out of necessity, that it wasn’t me they were angry about but a loss of power and a perceived or real inability to protect their child. Whether you want it or not, the role of principal has positional power. I was always acutely aware of this, having studied the intricacies of power in my graduate work, and see every interaction as this — a power play. The angry parent is vying for power in a situation where s/he feels powerless.
The mantra I came to use in my head when parents were angry was, “They are coming from a place of love.” If they were yelling, threatening, intimidating, and every other verb attached to anger, then it was rooted in love and a loss of power. This allowed me to see through the anger to the other side and understand why they were so angry. They wanted to protect their children and when we, as parents, send our children to school, we are vulnerable. It begins a series of letting go as parents. The older they get, the more letting go we have to do and that’s hard.
Why is it hard? It is hard because we have been hurt. We have been judged. We have been put down at school and humiliated. We have been made to feel a variety of things — stupid, uncreative, untalented, unathletic, bad at math, bad at reading, bad at cursive — you get the point.
My guru, Brené Brown, talks about “creativity scars”. She goes further to say that “unused creativity is not benign”. She talks about the drop off for creativity starts around 4th or 5th grade and drops to it’s lowest when children are in middle school. Interestingly, as I have observed, that is precisely when bullying picks up in schools and also when your little babies begin the long path through puberty. This is a time when we are most vulnerable, most concerned about what our friends think, when we are at our most awkward and also when, for a lot of kids, they have to leave school and start in middle school. This is not a coincidence. I am certain.
So let’s go back for a minute. What do these “creativity scars” have to do with the parent yelling at me in my office threatening me personally?
One of the books that opened my eyes to this was Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. It is a story about parental love, self love, and the effects that schooling can have on both of those. The line goes that Chrysanthemum loved her name, until she went to school. At the time that this book was shared with me, my son was having a hard time at school. In JK he had this wonderful teacher who was everything any parent would dream of for her child. She was creative, kind, patient and had a magic about her that made the children excited to be in school every day. Most importantly, she loved our children. SK wasn’t the same. He had a few teachers over the years who didn’t quite see him for who I know him to be. All any of us ever wants for our children in school is that the person we have entrusted our children with will care for them, be kind, and inspire them to be their best selves. Gratefully, he had more of those teachers than the former.
If we really think about what triggers us as parents, it is linked to our own struggles in school which of course is linked to our own self concept and our own feelings of shame. We want to protect our children from the pain we, ourselves have experienced. We want them to bloom and grow and come to know themselves in all of their wonder, curiosity and creativity.
And yet, as educators, we sometimes forget that the students in front of us are Other People’s Children — which is a book written by Lisa Delpit and deconstructs the process of dehumanizing Black and Native American students. I think the premise can be extended to all students who we pathologize and reject as “problems” we have to deal with whether it be students with marginalized histories, cultures, languages and religions, students with behavior, students with special needs, students who just don’t fit our criteria for what we want, expect or cherish in our classrooms and schools.
So now let’s think about about that parent screaming and threatening in my office. When that parent is screaming, s/he is trying to protect her or his child. That parent feels powerless in the judgement perceived or real by the school, the teacher, the other students and/or the community. That parent doesn’t trust the school — perhaps because s/he had negative experieces in schooling — overt or insidious — or because s/he has lived through a series of events with her or his child.
This brings me to my last point — the fear of being that parent. There are many words for that parent and their children: helicopter parent, blackhawk parent, bubble wrapped children, and the not so creative but always used, crazy parent. As if we haven’t done enough shaming in school, we now shame our parents to withhold their advocacy for their children for fear of becoming one of those parents. Not to say that there aren’t parents on that continuum but either way, the mantra still holds true — whether they are overprotective or simply advocating and modeling self-advocacy and efficacy for their children — whether we welcome it or are uncompfortable with it or threatened by it — it still comes from love.
So when that parent comes at you screaming, remember, s/he is coming from a place of love. When that educator shames your child, ask yourself what has triggered inside you that makes you have that feeling of bile growing in your chest. And in both situations, recognize that loving your child or recognizing someone else’s love for their child always leads us back to the path of love and not anger.
Originally published on Medium on October 3, 2015.