Families & the Community Opinion

Follow-Up: Why Parents of High School Students Should Be Less Involved

By David Ruenzel — April 23, 2012 2 min read
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David Ruenzel

The assumption running through the accumulated blogs and postings is that parent involvement is always a good thing. But I find this assumption extremely questionable at the high school level. Indeed, I’m convinced that parents of adolescents should slowly fade out of the school picture altogether.

The parents of the more savvy kids do exactly this: They provide their children with whatever resources they can and then stay out of the way. They know that the best schooling, like the best parenting, has as its primary goal the self-sufficiency and intellectual independence of the young person.

Readers might agree that this stepping back makes sense if the student is well-adjusted and high-performing. But what about the student who is struggling socially and/or academically? Don’t these parents need to be extra vigilant, checking, for instance, their children’s daily homework?

Actually, no. Over 20 years of teaching I have sat in on countless strategizing sessions between parents, teachers, and students, have sent home endless weekly student progress reports to parents, and have witnessed parents hector their kids to work harder.

And how often have I seen any of this work? Never. Not once. Typically, the student becomes only more surly and rebellious, chafing at being under the parental spotlight. After all, young people most seek independence, not scrutiny.

Judith Martin, in her classic 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, argued brilliantly that it is peers, not parents, that make the real difference in teens’ lives, and that parents think they are more influential then they actually are in guiding the lives of their children.

So should parents of struggling adolescents simply throw in the towel? Certainly not. Arrange for tutoring if the child is struggling in a subject. Get professional help for a child struggling with learning differences or emotional difficulties. And choose, if possible, a school where the child will have the very best peers and teachers that are the very best mentors.

But be realistic about how much difference you as the parent can really make at this point. And above all, remember this: that adolescence has been a tough time since time immemorial, and that the great majority of young people, with our love and support, get through it scarred but unbowed.

David Ruenzel is an English teacher at the Athenian School in Danville, Calif., and former senior writer for Education Week Teacher.

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