Student Well-Being

Do Parents Leave the Ethics to Teachers?

By Liana Loewus — October 17, 2013 2 min read
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In a disconcerting New York magazine article, Lisa Miller asks whether it’s possible to be both ethical and a parent—and comes to the disturbing conclusion that it very well may not be.

She begins by asking readers to imagine a scenario in which they just discovered their 4th grader has lice—the night before the state language arts test that will determine where she goes to middle school. Miller writes:

So here is what you do. You pretend that you didn’t see what you saw, that the lice don’t exist. You fill your child’s mind with calm, positive, and confident test-taking thoughts as you put her to bed early. That you are potentially contaminating 26 other children in her class—costing their families untold hours of anguish and lost work, and thousands of dollars in dry cleaning—by sending your lice-ridden kid to school creates a gnawing sensation in your gut, but this is not a sufficient deterrent. The lice can wait, and the test cannot; in a contest between your kid’s near-term success and her classmates’ longer-term (and let’s face it, uncertain) pain, your kid wins. Besides, you tell yourself, layering rationale upon rationale, one of them gave it to her.

(Jaw-dropping, I know.)

Miller posits that the act of parenting blurs moral boundaries, causing people to do things they might have deemed unethical if their child wasn’t involved. Interestingly, her examples keep coming back to school:

Why else would an otherwise conscientious couple decide to hold their perfectly normal kid back a year, except that she’ll be that much older than the other kids in the class and thus that much better at sitting still during tests? ... Why else do parents do their children’s homework night after night, except that they fear that without the “help,” the kids would fail or falter or fall behind? Parents instruct their children to “get what they get and don’t get upset"—and then they beg and bribe the adults in their children’s lives, haranguing teachers for better grades and theater directors for bigger parts ...

It’s hard not to notice that in many of her proposed scenarios, teachers are put in the position of having to decide whether and how to uphold moral authority. The teacher will be the one to send the lice-ridden child home or return the homework done by a parent or refuse to raise a student’s grade. The teacher—who may very well be a parent him or herself—must repeatedly take a stand (or not) for the greater good.

It’s a role that probably seems familiar to teachers—they spend their days with kids weighing the group vs. the individual, deciding what to tamp down on and what to let slide. Many even directly teach students about morality and empathy through social-emotional learning and character-building lessons.

Is it all the more aggravating then when a parent forces you into this role? Or does it just simply come with the territory? Is there any satisfaction in being seen as a constant moral arbiter?

Fortunately, I believe the author is blowing the whole “parents are jerks” thing way out of proportion (even given the school-acceptance pressures among her New York City readership). As always, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.