When a diverse array of parents are forced into the same space because of their children’s shared schooling, conflict is bound to take place. There are dozens of reasons parents get pissed at each other: there’s the selfish drop-off of a clearly sick child, a kid teaching another kid a few dirty words, or, in the worst circumstances, a kid that sends another kid home with tears and a bruise. It all challenges the parental imperative to keep a kid safe and touches off deep and primordial instincts. And it feels great.
“The protection of the young and the needy is the most positive emotion we can ever experience,” says Dr. Oksana Hagerty, an educational and developmental psychologist who serves as a learning specialist at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “It’s in our genetic composition. It’s how we survived during evolution.”
That instinct can create a nearly irresistible urge to put a finger in the face of the offending parent and hurl an indignant, “What the hell is your deal?” That’s because the in-your-faceness of it all feels compellingly like protection, and protection makes people feel good. The problem is that feeling good isn’t the best reason for a confrontation.
“It’s a conflict that nobody needs. It won’t help to fix the problem,” Hagerty explains. “You’ll get upset, the other parent will get upset, and your kid might see you in an embarrassing situation if it gets too heated.”
Hagerty recommends, in the vast majority of circumstances, that parents talk to the teachers and the administration before ever confronting another parent. After all, that is where the fix can occur. Because most points of conflict between children (and by extension parents) are at some level failures in the teacher’s or administrator’s duty.
Why, for instance, would children have enough time alone to teach each other dirty words? Why is there not appropriate supervision to stop the playground bully from giving others bruises? These are the kinds of questions that will ultimately lead to the goal of the incident not happening again, no matter who the other parent is or how they parent their kid.
“So if a kid is sick and they’re being taken to school, this is the administration’s responsibility,” Hagerty says. “So who’s not doing their job here? The parent or the administration that allows a sick kid among other kids?”
Not to mention, righteous parental anger can often be chalked up to a failure of empathy and intellect. On the empathy side, it should be pretty easy for a parent to recognize that parenting can be a real hassle. Maybe the sick kid is there because the parent had no choice but to work and had no one to take their kid. So they leaned on the leniency of the school and immunity of the class. What if the kid with a filthy mouth has an intellectual disability that hampers their inhibitions? That must be tough for the other parent to deal with.
The failure of intellect comes when a parent can’t stop themselves from getting in another parent’s face, says Hagerty. “A mental pause is a sign of intelligence. It’s something that makes us different from lower animals because we take a pause before we act,” she says. “Literally step back. Don’t act immediately. Give yourself time to think.”
From there the rest should come relatively easily, as long as the teacher or administration is approached with a sense of unemotional, yet concerned urge to problem solve. “Look for a way to fix the problem without hurting the other side,” Hagerty says. “Make it a lesson for your own kid, of dealing with the problem and not jumping on the problem and acting irrationally.”