School is such a fundamental part of our lives that it can be easy to make assumptions about your partner’s views on your child’s education. What seems obvious to you may be unheard of to them and vice versa. That’s why it’s so important to have ongoing discussions and align yourselves as much as possible. Otherwise, wires get crossed, signals mixed, and confusion occurs. The last thing any parents should want is to talk with their child’s teacher only to realize that they have completely different educational philosophies. That helps no one.
So, what kinds of discussions should you have? What topics are a must to address? What traps should you try to side-step? To offer some insight, we spoke to a variety of school counselors and therapists about the common mistakes parents make when communicating with one another — and them — about their child’s education. They offered strategic suggestions and largely emphasized an important point: Preparation doesn’t mean coming in armed with a detailed roadmap of your child’s projected journey from kindergarten to their first day at Harvard. Rather, it means developing awareness of each of your goals for your child and having an understanding of how to meet their educational challenges and augment their strengths. Here’s what to remember and what to avoid.
Mistake No. 1: They Assume Their Partners Share Their Views About Education
Parents develop their individual approaches to educating their kids, consciously or not, like they do everything else: based on their own experiences, emotions, perspectives, and expectations. Maybe marching band was life-changing for you, so you want the same experience for your child. Or maybe you’re fiercely committed to having your child attend local public schools rather than a private one, but your partner thinks a private one is important to better set them up for a competitive high school and college later on.
Here’s the thing: You won’t necessarily have the same priorities or agree on what school should mean in the grand scheme of your child’s life, but you don’t have to, says Washington, D.C.-based licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor Phyllis L. Fagell, author of Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond — and How Parents Can Help. It does help, however, if you at least know where your partner is coming from and what they value.
Before having a conversation about schooling for your child, first try to get into a curious, nonjudgmental mindset. And remember: The decisions you make now don’t necessarily have to remain in place forever.
“As a parent, when kids are young, you feel a lot of responsibility to get it all right,” Fagell says. “But one of the most mind-blowing concepts for me is that we have no idea if getting what we want is a good or bad thing. We all bring our hopes, dreams and emotions into our decision-making, and we can very strongly believe that one choice is better than the other. But the truth is we can’t know.”
It’s helpful to approach parenting with some humility and recognize there’s more than one way to get an education, Fagell continues. Talk about who your child really is and what their strengths and deficits are as objectively as you can, and make decisions based on their individual needs, she says. And try not to let the conversation get heated and confrontational; rather than being critical of your partner’s view or desires for your child, lead with curiosity and ask, “Why do you feel strongly about that? Why does that idea resonate with you?”
Remember you can always revisit your decisions and make changes, Fagell says. “Parents often make the well-meaning mistake of thinking that the stakes are higher than they are.”
Mistake No. 2: They Don’t Define What Success Looks Like To Them
When thinking about plans for your child’s future, it can be helpful to compare it to the process of buying a home, says Tim Klein, LCSW, clinical therapist, school counselor, and co-author, with Belle Liang, Ph.D., of How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Yourself and Your Way in School, Career, and Beyond.
Here’s why: People shopping for a home won’t just buy the biggest house they can afford without taking into account their individual and nuanced needs, such as the feel of a neighborhood and the travel time between the house and work or school. Yet many parents who haven’t had thoughtful discussions about their child’s educational goals often default to thinking they need to get their kid into the best schools they can afford, without taking into account other avenues that might be more advantageous for them.
“Not talking about why we want what we want for our kids is like assuming everyone wants the biggest house they can get for the least amount of money,” Klein says. “That’s not how we buy a house, so why make [educational] decisions like that?”
What can help parents guide their kids toward the best path is what Klein calls “purpose work.” This, he explains, is getting to the highest level of insight about a goal.
Say you want your child to go to Harvard someday. Ask yourself “If they go, then what do I want to happen?”
Parents might say they hope their child will be set up to get a great job, Klein says. “Then when you ask ‘OK, then what happens?’ you start getting to an interesting place.”
Parents often start to realize that Harvard is not really the end goal, and that ultimately, they just want their child to be happy and healthy, or to keep growing and do something meaningful in the world.
“That’s when you start getting more purposeful and high level,” Klein says. “And you can start to think about how your child might pursue those goals.”
It can be hard for parents to quell their anxiety about their child’s future and take the time to contemplate questions such as “What’s my intention? What’s most important to me in terms of their future, and what’s most important to them?”
“Many parents never have those conversations, where we define what success looks like for our kid,” says Klein. “When we don’t do that, we default to society’s definition of success, which is wealth, prestige, status, and power.”
Mistake No. 3: They Assume They Know What Their Kids Want And That Kids Know What They Want
Parents sometimes overshadow their kids by only talking about their own desires and not allowing their children to speak up.
“Parents love hard, and they can be quick to communicate what they think is best for their children without consulting them,” says former school counselor Lissett Bohannon.
In school counseling conferences with parents and students, Bohannon says that often when she turns to a student to ask questions about their plans and thoughts, they’d look at their parents before answering. But empowering your child to speak openly in a safe environment is important to their growth as both a student and a human being.
“Although you may have different ideas about what you want for your child, I think it’s important for their self-esteem and confidence to allow them to explore the possibilities of their own life,” she says.
A huge driver of disconnection and misunderstanding in family relationships results from a lack of awareness and purpose between students, educators, and parents.
“The most common mistake parents make is assuming their goals are shared by students,” says Klein. “Or that students know exactly the motivations and intentions that underlie these goals.”
To help lead kids on the educational path that’s right for them, parents can benefit from a technique counselors use to help them identify where their interests lie and help them explore them. Ask kids “If you could skip school for the next two weeks, what would you do with that time? What would you want to do or learn? What would you want to get better at?” Klein suggests.
The next questions should be around exploring why they’re interested in that thing, he says. If they say “get better at a certain video game or sport,” ask them: “Why that video game (or sport)? What is it about it that's so interesting to you? Why do you want to get better at it?”
Rather than obsessing about whether kids are interested in pursuits you might consider a waste of time, get curious about why they are interested in those things, Klein advises.
“What’s driving their interest and motivations? Often the answer to that question is something they can pursue in school, work, or life,” he says. “If you start big and are open to having a conversation to see where that leads, you’ll get incredibly rich information about what they want and can go from there.”
Mistake No. 4: They Blame Problems On Each Other
Bohannon once met with a couple who spent their meeting time blaming each other for their child’s failing grades.
“The meeting was with the parents, my student, and several teachers, and it turned out to be very unproductive because each parent was blaming the other for the lack of communication,” Bohannon says. One parent regularly checked the school website to keep track of their child’s assignments, for example, and criticized the other for not knowing the website existed. It turned into a blame game when they should’ve all been working together and communicating as much as possible.
Instead of accusing, couples must ask how they can work together for their child. For the above example, parents could work to build a schedule together to check on assignments and progress or create calendar reminders so everyone knows who’s checking on what each week or month.
Mistake No. 5: They Want Quick Fixes For Complex Issues
Upon learning their child is having some difficulty in school, many parents want to rush to fix the situation immediately. But depending on the situation, there can be a lot of layers to address before acting.
“Often, parents rush into a situation prematurely, with only their child's side of the story,” Bohannon says.
In some situations, however, it might be more appropriate for children to start building the life skill of advocating for themselves. When it’s appropriate, parents should encourage kids to be courageous about asking for help from their counselor, principal, or teacher when they need it.
“Unpacking situations and layers to stories are part of a school counselor’s day-to-day work,” Bohannon says. “I’ve found that most often, it helps to come together to discuss situations with all stakeholders before making a rash decision.”
Perfect is the enemy of the good, Fagell notes. Some parents don't realize they’re getting in their own way by pressuring kids with expectations that are too high, or pushing them in directions that end up fanning the flames of their insecurities.
“It requires parents to manage their own anxiety,” Fagell says. “No one performs better when they think the stakes are high and that they’re lacking in some way. Parents can get anxious about their child’s perceived deficits, and that can blind them to their child’s strengths and end up killing their motivations.”
Long-term goals can be a trap. Parents can get so caught up in achieving them for kids that they can miss important opportunities to help them learn to self-advocate, ask questions in class, and risk giving the wrong answers, which are all fundamental social-emotional skills that will help them succeed no matter what their goals might be.
Mistake No. 6: They Don’t Realize Counselors And Teachers Are On Their Team
Try to remember counselors are there to help your child, not judge them or your family, urges Geoff Heckman, counselor department head at Platte County High School in Missouri.
“I don’t know of any school that doesn’t want the best for its students,” he says. Counselors want to hear parents’ and children’s concerns so they can steer them toward resources and support systems that can help their kids succeed.
It could be the case that parents, students, and counselors don’t all have the same goals for a child. It’s therefore important, in any meeting, to provide space for everyone to say what’s most important to them and explain why, Klein says.
“When everyone can listen and understand different points of view, it provides essential context for clear and accurate communication,” he says. “Start simple, with the question ‘What feels most important to you right now?’ and provide space for parents, students, and counselors to share their answers.”
Mistake No. 7: They’re Afraid To Be Open And Authentic
Remember you’re not the only one meeting new people who will play a huge role in your child’s life, but that your child is as well, Bohannon says. “I always encourage parents to model how they’d like their child to react to new situations and new people.”
Fagell urges parents to use the school and its resources, which entails being authentic about where kids might be struggling.
“Sometimes parents are afraid to be vulnerable because they’re afraid it will negatively impact their child,” she says. “Remember that educators do that work because they want to help kids learn.”
So don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Counselors, in fact, are a bit of an untapped resource for parents, Fagell continues: “They have a large sample size of students and are therefore hard to shock,” she says. “They can help normalize a student’s struggles and give you a broader understanding.”
When parents open up about their child’s challenges, it can be a relief to hear from counselors that what their child is experiencing is a typical struggle at their age, and more importantly, you can work on a plan together to help set kids up for success.
“When you meet with school counselors or teachers, don't get ahead of yourself; don't worry at that point about labels or medication or whether your child might be put in a different class,” Fagell says. “You can agree to disagree, but go in with an open mindset of ‘Let’s ask questions and process the information we have’ rather than be so busy locking horns with counselors that you can’t help your kid.”
Mistake No. 8: They’re Not Proactive
You don’t want to helicopter around your school counselors and teachers, but checking in with them about your child’s progress two or three times a year, if things seem to be going fine, is reasonable, Heckman says. (If your child is struggling, you might want to get in touch more often.)
Heckman says it’s a good idea to jot down things you notice about how your child is progressing, things in which they seem to excel or are excited about as well as those with which they’re struggling. Your notes can be helpful when you do meet with counselors in person, he says.
“You can say to counselors ‘Here’s what we’ve noticed our child is struggling with; how can you help?’ or say ‘Here are some areas my child wants to investigate and learn more about; what resources and support do you have?’”