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Why does my child seem to respect the teacher’s authority more than mine?
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
A question that I’ve fielded a number of times, and that has come up perhaps even more often during the pandemic, is “Why do my kids listen to their teachers more than to me?”
There are a number of factors involved in this dynamic, but one is that— well, kids are smart. They pick up that Ms. Doe knows more about how math is taught now than dad does, that the teacher really DOES want a rough draft instead of a polished five paragraph essay, or that the word of the day exercise is not checked and doesn’t really matter. Children, especially elementary school students who have one primary classroom teacher, get to know the expectations and preferences of their teachers, as well as that of the school culture in general. Thus, when a parent frets about getting an assignment done in time or says, “Surely the teacher doesn’t expect you to write a book report over vacation,” the child may resist, knowing “the inside scoop” in this particular case.
A second issue is the professional mantle of authority that teachers have in all things academic. As a parent, think about this in terms of listening to medical advice from your doctor versus from your spouse or a friend. Yes, you know that your spouse and your friend care about you, but are they experts in the field? And even if they are, do they know you in the particular capacity that’s most relevant (whether it be as a patient with a kidney issue or as a math student.) In other words, most of us, including youngsters, automatically offer more deference to experts in their fields and to those who know us in their professional capacity.
With at-home virtual schooling during the pandemic, the natural division of school and home became more blurred. It created greater necessary as well as inadvertent involvement by parents, and thus even more tension between teachers’ and parents’ authority. However, there are a number of ways this tension can be eased.
In my experience, parents can negotiate their own role regarding academics in a number of ways. First, if you are going to closely monitor your child’s work, stay appraised of what the actual demands are. Most schools now have a virtual portal where assignments are listed. If they don’t, most classrooms have syllabi and descriptions of different projects that make the requirements clear. If they are not clear, it is probably best for you and for your child that you reach out directly to the teacher to clarify. This way, your child is more likely to trust your advice because they know you are have the same information they do.
Second, even if your child needs close oversight to start or finish their assignments, resist making them repeatedly redo or revise their work. The teacher needs to know what your child’s capacities and style are, to know best how to teach them. If the teacher keeps getting what is essentially your work, they will not get to really know your child — and your child will not get the benefit of tailored feedback and guided improvement.
Finally, remember that it is okay for children to occasionally fail or get into trouble. Sometimes when a child balks at a parent’s advice on an assignment or behavior, only to get a poor grade or negative teacher comment, it can be a good lesson in realizing that parents too, sometimes know a thing or two.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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