Parents might expect their elementary school-aged kid to run into a certain amount of relationship problems during the weekdays. After all, they’re spending eight hours every day with dozens of other people their own age. So parents might feel prepared to chat if their kid comes home complaining about a bully or dust-up with a pal. But that conversation shifts significantly when a kid returns home complaining about their teacher. Another kid can be ignored. Not so with a teacher (to good effect, anyway). This creates a delicate balance between not belittling a kid’s genuine emotions, while not undermining the authority of their current and future educational leaders.
The parent’s first step is to simply hear their kid. That doesn’t mean listen and dismiss, it’s means actually hearing them. But the trick is in acknowledging what the kid is feeling without playing into their emotional turmoil.
“When your child comes home and complains Mrs. Smith doesn’t like them, don’t rush to reassure your child that she does,” explains parenting coach and 25-year veteran of school outreach Elisabeth Stitt. “Instead, acknowledge the child’s truth and emphasize with how hard that must be.”
That means using “active listening” through phrases like, “I hear that you feel Mrs. Smith doesn’t like you.” In that way parents accept the emotions without taking a stand on what the teacher does or does not think. Following that up with recognition of how difficult it is to feel unliked put the ball back in the kids court if they want to add any more information.
Stitt explains, that this soft way of communication should continue as the kid talks. A parent shouldn’t nag for proof. And as the conversation progresses a parent can slowly start to suggest that their kid see the teacher’s perspective.
“As a parent, you are still not turning on the child and accusing them,” Stitt says. “Non-combative language leaves space for the child to consider the teacher’s point of view.”
But it’s important to note, too, that not every adult is always right in every situation. Even teachers. So part of the conversation, acknowledging the kid’s feelings is building trust in themselves.
“You also want to build their gut reflex,” explains positive psychologist Dr. Robert Zeitlin, author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids. “You don’t want them to become obedient and over-rule when something is wrong and they should speak up.”
Zeitlin does acknowledge, “that’s not consistent with the compliance model the school would prefer,” but sometimes nuance is important. A way to address the nuance of the gut versus the system is to help the kid take a longer perspective. What if they did decide it was so rough to be with the teacher that they decided not to go to school anymore? Parents can walk them through a hypothetical future, from the first day they stay home to all the things they’d miss by the end of the year.
But while Zeitlin might not sound like he’s a big fan of authority, he also encourages parents to the best. “The distance has grown between these two adults who are critical to the child’s developing the resilience and skills they need,” he says. “Assume the partnership can be produced even from decent and constructive criticism.”
And that decent and criticism may or may not need to happen through emergency conferences. But great pains should be taken to separate what the parent is doing with the administration from their kid’s day-to-day. Which means the way parents talk about Mrs. Smith should stay as neutral as possible.
After all, 8 hours of school a day are already tough enough. There’s no need to make them worse.