Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When Should Parents Intervene on their Child's Behalf?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this morning that was sort of about when to stand up for your child.

This has always been a hard call for me.

When I was eleven, in sixth grade, I transferred to a Catholic school. Our English and reading classes were taught by Sister Ruth, a thin, ascetic nun with watery eyes. I had always loved reading. Sister Ruth assigned book reports, I want to say once a month but perhaps more often, and the first month I quite happily wrote her the best book report I possibly could--though now I realize that I wrote more along the lines of a book review, not necessarily regurgitating the entire plot and certainly not giving away the ending.

You can imagine my shock when my report came back with a big red letter F at the top.

Sister Ruth then called me to her desk and began quizzing me about the book. To my increasing amazement and shame, I realized she didn't think I'd even read it, or certainly not finished it. I stumbled through my answers, blushing redder and redder. At the time, I hated more than anything to be singled out.

Finally Sister Ruth held my report out. "Who wrote this?" she demanded. "Your mother?"

I said the first thing that came to my head, which was the absolute truth.: "My mother doesn't write as well as me."

Sister Ruth's nostrils tightened until white lines appeared down the sides of her nose. "I know you didn't write it. Sixth-graders don't write like this. Who wrote it?"

"I wrote it," I said.

I made myself not cry, not in that new classroom, but it took all my effort. I'd never had a teacher call me a liar before.  At home I told my mother what had happened. "I'll go in and talk to her," my mother said, but I begged her not to. I'm still not sure why. Some part of me wanted to be believed on my own. I wanted Sister Ruth to recognize my exceptional writing skills, my one sure talent. I wanted her to understand that she had judged me wrong.

She never did. Reading class became a misery. Every month Sister Ruth would call me to the front of the classroom and grill me about whatever book I'd reported on. "At least you've read it," she'd say grudgingly. Every month my book report would come back without comments, only the red letter F. I'd crumple it into a ball, ostentatiously and loudly, and aim for the back corner wastebasket from my front-row desk. Our war ended in a stalemate, in June.

Now I see how easily it could have been avoided. All Sister needed to do was ask me to chose a book from her shelves that I'd already read, hand it to me in class, and ask me to write a book report right then and there. All modern teachers know to do this, because the internet makes it so easy for students to cheat. But Sister Ruth, of course, was convinced she was right. She had no reason to prove herself wrong.

Now, too, I think that my mother should have intervened. Every report card that year came with a B in reading--almost the only Bs of my entire grade school through high school career, in the subject I was best at.  The Bs represented my perfect grades in every other assignment averaged with zeros for the book reports. So my mom knew it was still going on, though she could not have known how miserable the class was for me, every day, and though I still begged her not to intervene.

I'm still angry about it. I'm sorry to admit that, because it doesn't reflect well on me. I get updates from the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, because I send them money (not much), and sometimes they contain photos of Sister Ruth, now ancient and in a nursing home. Looking at her still makes my pulse race. I haven't gotten past being called a liar, so vehemently, so many times.

It created a strange dichotomy in me. On the one hand, I always want to intervene on my children's behalf before a situation gets too big for them to handle. On the other, I still recognize how I wanted to make things better on my own. It's further complicated by the fact that I'm a professional writer. The thought of some teacher sneering, "Who wrote this? Your mother?" at my children has always made me the most hands-off parent where homework was concerned, ever. My husband helped my children with their assignments. Me? Never.

Then we add to this mix--should I intervene for my child?--the fact that sometimes intervention makes things worse. I know this one first-hand, too. In middle school one of my children was repeatedly being called a name I found unacceptable--a name that would launch my children into deep trouble if they ever used it as a slur. So I told the teacher, who told off the offenders, who promptly increased their use of the word, but only when the teacher couldn't hear. My intervention made the situation worse.

Another time a different middle-school teacher came up with a nine-weeks-long assignment that one of my children found unacceptably personal and intrusive. Faced with the choice of either giving up too much personal information, or lying, my child opted to not do the assignment. I went it to the teacher to explain; her response was that the assignment had to be completed as given. My child got a C in the class--otherwise perfect work, zeros for a quarter-long project. I did not let my child complain about the grade, as it was legitimate. On the other hand, I also supported my child skipping the work, even after the teacher strongly suggested I intervene in that direction. To me, the compromise my child made was right for the child.

What do you think? When do you intervene on your child's behalf, and when do you step away?