At Curriculum Evenings I always offer a few words of welcome. It’s a comfortable, familiar ritual. Yet, at our recent upper school event, I felt a peculiar urge to declaim like a 19th century orator. Perhaps it’s no longer having children of my own in the school; perhaps it’s the confidence born of completing a decade as head at Laurel School; perhaps it was a geyser-like explosion of deeply held conviction. I could not hold back. After welcoming the audience and inviting them to enjoy a glimpse into their daughters’ lives; after acknowledging that my own two girls are launched and that I miss them every day; after reminding everyone to permit their children to cultivate resilience by resisting the temptation to rush in to fix every frustration; after encouraging the adults to build community among themselves by greeting a new family; after commending the faculty for their exceptional pedagogy, I took a breath and said:
“Here’s the thing. If she is on the Internet, you must be, too. Even if she is taller than you are, you are still her parent. I want us — school and home together — to teach the girls to use the Internet — and all forms of social media—responsibly; they will make mistakes. While I want each of them to be respectful and thoughtful in their virtual interactions, they are adolescents; they don’t always make good decisions. You need to know who she is, who her social media persona is; you need to keep up and be knowledgeable about Facebook (passé as far as our students are concerned); Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever new technology comes along next week. And you need to learn whatever techniques she uses to keep you from seeing what she’s up to — not because she isn’t a good girl — no doubt, she is, but she’s navigating a brave new world. The Internet is the Wild West and the code of conduct has not been ratified yet. It’s easy to be unkind and believe you are untraceable, but we will not tolerate cruelty in this school.
“And here’s another thing: You are, of course, free to make your own decisions in your home, but if you serve alcohol to other children, you are breaking the law, and you will have written your daughter’s exit plan from Laurel. We love your girls, but we will not have parents tear at our community’s fabric — you put children’s lives at risk when you are unable to say, ‘No, I won’t serve beer and wine.’ At least in my old school in Manhattan, they never drove anywhere — they got into cabs. Here, they all drive on narrow, often poorly lit roads. So, be the parent who calls another parent to find out who will be home. Be strong in the face of a sulking, whining, disappointed teen. Be a good partner with this school, whose expectations for your girl are high. Would you prefer she be educated in a school that had low expectations for her? Thank you for your trust; thank you for holding the line.”
The parents clapped.
I smiled and added, “You may not clap if it’s your daughter who gets into trouble, but thank you. You are always allowed to blame Laurel School for your good parenting, and your daughter is always allowed to blame the School for her good behavior. Ultimately, I want her to make strong decisions by herself, but if she needs some help along the way, she can blame us and explain that her membership in this community matters to her.”
Afterward, a parent said, “Thank you for that parenting booster shot, but you know the parents who needed to hear you weren’t there.”
“No,” I nodded. “Sometimes, that’s how it goes, but I said it for those who are here. Each of us has power — it’s easy to blame others, but we all benefit from remembering that NO is a perfectly acceptable response to the unreasonable request of an adolescent.”
Three nights later, I repeated myself to our middle school families, reminding them that we’re not always ready when we need to be — one minute our daughters are toddlers, the next they are using iPhones at boy-girl parties. Like a flu-shot, my effort to affirm good parenting bears repeating annually — out loud, in writing, in different ways for different learners.
We have wonderful parents in our school who want to do right by their children; I realize, more and more often, adults look to the school to help them be brave, to be adult. I’ve spent my entire career working with adolescents; many of these families are walking that path for the first time — it is easy to get bamboozled by a child we adore. We can all use a booster shot from time to time.