Clayton W. Lewis
Head of School

Washington International School

If there is anything that has changed dramatically over the course of my educational career, other than technology, it is parenting. Being a parent has never been an easy role, but the demands seem to be ever increasing.

I have had lots of conversations with parents that suggest their high level of uncertainty about their role, or conversely, suggest a certainty that in itself can be problematic. I’ve never been inclined to send them off with a reading list, believing instead that good parenting cannot be reduced to a “how to” guide. Instead, it is really “on the job training” where a parent needs to adapt his or her approach according to the needs of different children, and to make conscious adjustments along the way. What might be some fundamental responsibilities that would appear in a job description, other than the obvious ones of provider and caregiver?

First, a parent must manage a child’s successes and failures. Intellectually, a parent will know that children must take incremental steps from being totally dependent as a young child to being generally independent as a young adult. The parent also knows from his or her own experience that learning from failure is a part of life. However, there is ample evidence that parents are finding it more difficult to apply these truths to their own children. I refer to three interesting pieces, the first a cover article earlier this year inThe Atlantic where Lori Gottlieb admonishes parents with the title, “How to Land your Kid in Therapy.” She describes the phenomenon of children who are not allowed to experience failure, or “what discomfort feels like,” and who grow up unprepared for what adult life throws at them. Wendy Mogel addresses the same point in her book, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, as does David Brooks in a New York Times article, “It’s Not About You.” He raises concern over young people with tightly regulated childhoods who “will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured.”

Is there really an epidemic here? Educators will attest to the trend where parents are more likely to rush in too quickly to solve a problem or to intervene before failure occurs. I have seen the fallout from this approach far too often, where the child (or college student) is not able to handle reality when it inevitably appears. Fortunately, this style of parenting remains the approach of a minority.

Parents and teachers simply cannot engineer success on their own timetable. I recently received an email from a colleague at a former school, who mentioned that a certain student had just complete his masters degree from Oxford and had an excellent job at a respected foundation. I was amazed. Could this really be the same student who had barely passed his academic requirements in high school, and who only seemed motivated to play basketball? I recalled his parents and their confidence that he would turn out fine, and how right they were.

Next, maintaining good communications with children is an important part of the parent’s job description. Parents are required to find those meaningful opportunities to engage with their children about real topics. They should be good enquirers together. Regrettably, I’ve too often watched parents sit in a restaurant while their children are engrossed with a digital game on their hand device and then reach for their own devices whenever messages arrive. What a lost opportunity! Parents should look for chances to find a quiet space to listen to their children, leaving their Blackberries behind. They should talk about life, share wisdom, but not preach…for sermons are unlikely to be heard.

Parents should remember that their job description is as supervisors and will remain so until their children are out on their own. I am a little uneasy when a parent says to me, “My child and I are best friends.” It’s great if that means that the parent and child are able to talk meaningfully with each other and enjoy the same experiences. However, it’s not a peer relationship. Consider the adult workspace. A supervisor may have a great personal relationship with someone in the office under his or her authority, but there are times when supervision must be exercised. Becoming too close can be a problem.

As a supervisor, a parent’s job is to provide age-appropriate parameters for his or her children, and to help them find success within those boundaries. Children have a job description as well, and that is to push against the boundaries. Boundaries can be moved, but in alignment with the parent’s best judgment and not because he or she has yielded to complaints. For example, most parents today are under some pressure about Internet access. “Everyone has Facebook!” “I need a computer in my room.” “Can’t I have an iPhone?” Parents need to draw the line, but where?

That leads to another item on parents’ job description: collaborator. They should seek the counsel and support of other parents; otherwise, the job will be a lonely one. As children grow older, their role is to divide and conquer. “You’re the only parent who won’t let me stay out later.” “Everyone else gets more allowance.” “Don’t worry, his parents will be home.” “Don’t you trust me?” Kids today are wired to each other around the clock, and parents are no match if they try handle their responsibilities alone. Through focused conversations, parents can help each other to establish social norms that they will try to enforce together. Parents need to take a position about those families whose norms are different. Take for example the generations-old question of alcohol. Some parents believe that alcohol is fundamental to adolescence and will allow their children to drink at home or accept that their children drink on weekends. “I want my child to learn to drink responsibly.”  Other parents take strong issue when this attitude is in violation of the law.

It’s tempting to gloss over these challenges, but avoidance is not a solution. Many readers will have heard of incidents in the their communities involving private weekend or summer parties that led to undesirable consequences, even when parent supervision was present and the rules had been clearly stated. It is at such moments that parents need to meet with each other to consider what they’ve learned about setting and maintaining boundaries. If I have any specific piece of advice, it is that all parents should make it clear that they would like to have a conversation when their teenager comes home, no matter how late. “Just knock on my door.” That serves as a clear message that with trust there must be accountability.

A parent’s job description requires long and irregular hours, sometimes late at night and on weekends. It’s those long trips to soccer practices, making it home in time for family dinners, showing up at school for presentations, and helping with the homework. Let’s project to the time when the child is about 16 and able to get around completely on his or her own and is quite independent with schoolwork. The moments that a parent finds at this juncture with his teenager are precious indeed, and conversations can be rich.

Write your job description and hold yourself accountable to its requirements.