If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Is No Vacation From Crazy Over-Involved Parents

Friday was the last day of my summer job as Assistant Director of the summer camp at the school where I have been working since January. I have three weeks mostly to myself before faculty meetings start at my new school. My long and involved to-do list prevents me from calling it a vacation, but the fact that my alarm clock won't be ringing at 6:00 AM for a few weeks is making me pretty happy at the moment. Most of my efforts over the next few weeks need to be focused on preparing for the new school year (I have a whole course curriculum to revamp before school starts), but before I move on to thoughts of September, I wanted to finish up with a few more summer camp themed posts. After all, it's not even August yet.

Saturday's New York Times ran this article about how the phenomenon of over-involved, over-protective parents has spilled over from schools into summer camps. The article focuses on how camps have been forced to hire full time parent liaisons to deal with the constant meddling of parents who are freaked out that their kids are eating too much/too little, not putting on enough sun screen, not making enough friends, or are simply not happy enough. For me, the most telling/depressing/amusing bit was about the parents who send their kids off to the woods with two cell phones, so that if the first one is found and confiscated, the kid will have a second phone hidden away and can still be reached. When the parents start conspiring with their kids to break the rules, camps (and schools, too) are in big trouble.

My job this summer was at a day camp, so the parental separation anxiety was not so much of an issue, but this didn't mean we avoided problems with over-involved parents. Take, for example, one little boy we will call Stephen. Stephen is one of those kids for whom ever little thing is a big deal. Stephen averaged at least one visit per day to the nurses office, almost always to show her (as if it had just been sustained) a cut or a bruise that was clearly many days old. This reached its most worrisome point when mom sent a vaguely threatening email asking why her son was coming home from camp every day with so many scratches and bruises.

On Friday, I was walking down the hall past the boys bathroom when the door opened a crack, and Stephen peeked out asking for help. I entered the bathroom to find Stephen entangled in a white dress shirt that, in his efforts to put it on, had become more like a straight jacket. That afternoon was the final performance for his week-long musical theater class, and he had spent the last ten minutes struggling to change into the black and white clothes he needed for the performance. I helped him untangle himself and get his arms through the appropriate sleeves, asked him if he could manage his pants by himself, and went back out into the hall. Five minutes later, Stephen was back at the door in his white shirt and underwear needing more help. His black pants were a couple of inches too long in the leg, not too mention too big at the waist, and he was completely baffled by this problem. I went back in, got him into his pants, rolled up the legs so that his feet were showing at the bottom, watched him struggle into his shoes, and sent him on his way, only fifteen minutes late to class.

An hour later, I went in to watch the performance of Stephen's class. They did adorable renditions of "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King and "It's a Hard Knock Life" from Annie. There were many born performers in the class, but Stephen was not one of them. He spent most of the performance with his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his over-sized pants, clearly trying as hard as he could to blend into the crowd.

Now, all of this would simply be a cute story about a shy and slightly immature kid who needed some work on confidence and self-reliance, but then mom showed up. First of all, let's point out that mom showed up at 2:00 for a 1:45 performance, which meant she arrived just in time to get stuck at the back of the 2:00 carpool line. Eventually she made her way in, picked up her son, and started walking with him back to her car. On their way to the car, Stephen apparently told his mom that all the kids had been laughing at him during the performance. It's important to know that there were no kids in the audience, only parents. All the kids in the room were much more focused on dancing and singing than on laughing at one of their classmates. That Stephen was embarrassed on stage was true, but had nothing to do with the reactions of anyone in the room.

Mom came storming back in, accosted me (the first adult she could find) and demanded to speak to the teacher in the class. When I told her that the teacher was already teaching her next class, she gave me one of those if-looks-could-kill kind of stares and informed me that she would be expecting a call from the teacher as soon as her class was over. Then she stormed out. Two hours later she was back. She had left Stephen to attend his final class of the day, and was there to pick him up from extended day. When I walked in, she had cornered the Director in our office, and was demanding (with only about half a dozen kids left on campus on the final day of camp) that we do something about how unhappy her son had been after the performance.

I'll leave it there, and just say that the Director handled the whole situation much more deftly than I ever would have done, reassuring the mom that her son was generally a happy kid, and that he had probably just been suffering from a little stage fright. The real point, though, is that this is not just one crazy mom who goes on the attack every time her child is a little upset. Every teacher (or camp counselor) could come up with half a dozen of these stories without even having to think very hard about it.

This is a real challenge for schools. One of the things we should be trying to accomplish is helping students grow up to be independent, self-reliant adults. Our ideal graduate should be someone who is ready to go off into the world and take care of himself when the need arises. The question becomes, then, how do we work with parents to let their kids grow up independently, even if that means that sometimes they are going to be unhappy?

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