Of Schools, Single Parents, and Surrogates

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The statistics are by now familiar: One in every four or five students in school today lives in a home with one parent. And before they celebrate their 18th birthdays, nearly 60 percent of today's children may spend as long as six years in a single-parent home. Schools may need to develop different approaches to serve these children. But what precisely they should do--and what single parents should do--is not clear.

My recent work at the University of Wisconsin with middle-school parents indicates that schools should mind their own business. They should do what they can do and do it well. They should provide single-parent children, as well as other children, with a sound education. But they should forget about being surrogate parents to children just because one parent is missing from the home. They should allow parents to mind their own business of being parents to their children.

Schools operate under some misconceived generalizations about the single-parent home. They often feel that it is "broken" and, therefore, in need of outside assistance. They expect these homes to conform to a "Donna Reed" pattern of one parent working outside the home and one parent remaining in the home to care for children. Homes in which one parent fulfills both of these responsibilities are considered somehow deficient. This attitude however, suggests only one thing: Schools don't understand the communities and families they serve.

To understand single-parent families and deliver the services that respond to their needs, schools must address three issues: the nature of the single-parent family, the nature of the school, and what constitutes an effective meeting of the two.

Schools simply need to know what a single-parent family is. It isn't necessarily the stereotypical one adult living with children in a home that is economically, educationally, and culturally disadvantaged. There may or may not be other adults who help the single parent raise children. There may or may not be a high value placed on education and a willingness and the ability to help a child with academic and non-academic problems.

Schools also need to define what a school is in working with the single-parent family. Middle-school parents I have talked with suggest that school is a place where children should be able to talk to sympathetic teachers if they are having emotionally difficult times. It is not, they say, a place where children should be singled out. But despite this, single-parent children often are pulled out of class by well-meaning guidance counselors or social workers to discuss emotional troubles that are only temporary.

Parents also suggest in interviews that school is a place where children should be able to participate in supervised extracurricular activities after school and fulfill home duties. Yet schools usually do not allow for partial participation in such activities, so that students may attend events some days and be home other days.

Most importantly, parents agree with most educators that school is a place where all students should receive a quality educa6tion. For the single-parent child, getting a quality education may mean that the school must provide extra educational services that the parent lacks the time or the skills to provide.

To effectively address the needs of these children, schools need foremost to determine what constitutes an equitable meeting of the single-parent home and the school. And doing this requires that schools ask single-parent families what kinds of assistance they need. Many families do not need or simply do not want the school to assist them with personal problems. Others would appreciate information about resources that are available through other public and private agencies. Still other families do not know how to ask the school for help they need and desire. It is the school's responsibility to establish ways to determine, with input from families, what it should do and what the family should do to help children.

From my work, I have learned that there are specific things schools should and should not be doing to help. Learning when to respond and when not to respond will clarify the role of school and home in providing these children with better educational and family situations.

Schools clearly should not make three kinds of responses. They should:

  • Quit making unrealistic expectations of single parents. Between full-time employment, total responsibility for parenting, and maintenance of a home, many single parents do not have the time and, in many cases, the academic skills to spend significant amounts of time at night assisting with homework and tutoring their children with difficult assignments. They are also unavailable to come to school during work hours to volunteer or to meet with teachers and administrators.
  • Avoid narrow programmatic responses to the complex, varied problems single-parent children may experience. Do not assume a child will have problems just because he or she is being raised by a single parent, and do not try to run a counseling service for those children who do have problems. Many single parents want to take responsibility for these problems and feel that they are "none of the school's business."
  • Stop trying to be surrogate parents. While the school may at times disagree with the values of the single parent, the actual parenting of children should be left to the home.

At the same time, schools should respond to single-parent families in three specific ways to better define the role of school and home in meeting children's needs. They should:

  • Develop "real" communication between home and school. Real communication establishes two-way interaction between home and school that responds in a timely manner to the needs of individual children. Procedures for contacting the school that are accessible and comfortable for parents are an essential part of real communication. Schools need also to develop accurate methods of maintaining up-to-date records of changing family situations as the basis for effective communications.
  • Develop local responses to the needs of single-parent children. Collect information in the local district to determine the unique characteristics and needs of local families and children. Be flexible in modifying local programs to changing local family situations.
  • Strengthen the educational response to single-parent families. Realize that these families may need additional assistance with homework, tutoring for difficult subjects, or simply finding a place to study. These responses clearly fall within the school's primary mission of education.

Single-parent children are coming to school in increasing numbers. They bring with them a set of needs as varied and unique as their individual family situations. Schools clearly need to respond to those needs. But the most appropriate response is that schools mind their own business and do what they're best equipped to do: Provide children with opportunities to get the best education possible. This probably means providing additional educational services. But, after all, that's what schools are in business to do, it's what single parents want them to do, and it's what single-parent children most need.

Vol. 10, Issue 33, Page 25

Published in Print: May 8, 1991, as Of Schools, Single Parents, and Surrogates
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