When I was a small child, my mother was the center of my world. I would watch her put on her makeup, sitting on the toilet top while she looked into the bathroom mirror. She had a small compact with rouge, taking the small powder puff and applying color to both of her cheeks. Rather than mascara she used an eyelash curler. I used to cringe thinking it hurt, but she never flinched. Finally she applied red lipstick, smacking her lips together before blotting them on a tissue.
My obsession with her went beyond her makeup. I would go into her jewelry box and drape her necklaces around my neck, place some of her rings on my fingers. She loved clothes and, even on a budget, had a great sense of style. She knew how to put together an outfit, selecting accessories – shoes and purses – that would lift whatever she was wearing.
She was a great cook and in the kitchen, I was her student. Like my grandmother, she never relied on recipes, instead putting the ingredients together based on touch and taste. (One reason that later in life I had trouble duplicating some of her favorite dishes.)
I also absorbed some of her opinions, the people she liked or disliked, whether relatives, friends, or celebrities. While she never forced her opinions on me, I often embraced how she felt. Until one day. I was probably about 10 years old and we were watching a movie together. The star was Audrey Hepburn and my mother said, “I’ve never liked her. She’s a terrible actress.” In that moment something shifted. I realized I didn’t agree with her and didn’t have to. Her opinions didn’t have to be mine. I loved Audrey Hepburn and still do, regardless of how my mother felt about her.
I tell this story because it gets to the heart of how parents are handling parenting these days. More than 20 years ago, when Margaret Sagarese and I wrote parenting books and delivered talks to parents, their concerns focused on how to impart to their children their values, specifically respect for others, the tried and true Golden Rule. There was never any talk about politics, pushing an agenda, whether right or left. Parents were more concerned about helping their children succeed in school, make friends, and avoid alcohol and drugs. We never heard about a “woke” agenda that tried to alter how history was taught in school. We never had parents rail about books that should be banned. Any talk about gays focused on how to help these children avoid being bullied and ensure that they had a positive school experience. Among parents there was a “we’re in this together attitude,” no divisiveness influenced by how one voted.
And there was respect and trust for teachers. There was a recognition that their years of study and experience teaching made them more qualified than most parents about what and how to teach in the classroom. If a controversial book was part of the curriculum, parents saw that as a teaching moment, a way to start a conversation with a child about sexuality, racism, conservation, whatever the topic. There was no talk about banning books. Doing so would have been a sign not only that parents didn’t trust teachers, but that they didn’t trust their children to analyze what they were reading and make their own decisions.
PTAs and PTOs provided a forum for parents and teachers to work together for the welfare of all children. These days rather than being allies with teachers, parents are more often adversaries, working outside the classroom to attack what happens inside the classroom. Teachers are no longer heroes, they are enemies to be vilified. We all had teachers who inspired us, who opened our minds and encouraged us to achieve our potential. Parents used to appreciate having these adult role models in their children’s lives. Now, however, parents are suspicious of teachers who have a lesson plan that may reflect history and culture that does not fit in with what is being talked about in the home.
In 1949, the lyrics from one of South Pacific’s songs, “you’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear” may have been uncomfortable for some audience members to hear, but it made people think and, in some cases, change the way they thought about passing down their prejudices. Children are not born hating others, whether because of the color of their skin, their ethnic origin, or their sexual orientation. Their beliefs evolve, in the beginning with what their parents teach them, but, over time, what they absorb from their encounters with others, teachers, professors, coaches, classmates, team mates, and friends. Add in social media, and a young person’s sources of learning are endless.
Many of the candidates running for office promote an aggressive type of parental involvement, basically bullying. Civil discourse has gone out the window, replaced by school board meetings characterized by name calling, threats, and abuse.
Parents do have an important role to play in a child’s education, but a heavy-handed, political approach being employed by many parents will backfire. Maybe not now, but at some time in the future when these children are adults and can finally follow their own consciences, they will look back on their childhood, not with fondness, but with resentment. The closeness that a parent thought would happen instead will result in empty seats at that holiday table.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years and Cliques: Eight Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle.
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