Over the last 30 years, we have, between us, consulted to more than 2,000 schools, independent and public, in the United States and internationally. Our school visits have given us a deep appreciation for the range and complexity of challenges schools face and for their capacity to master evolving problems. With one glaring exception: For the past 20 years, each of us has encountered a relentless increase in educators’ frustrations in dealing with difficult parents.
The absolute level of concern is not the same everywhere, and in many schools administrators hasten to say that “most of our parents are fine.” We believe them. But every school we visit — every single one — reports more frequent and more severe problems with parents. In this article, we offer some thoughts about the roots and context of the general trend, but our focus is on coping with the small minority of the most difficult: those who bully the school. These parents are habitually rude or demanding or disrespectful, engaging in personal attacks on teachers and administrators, demeaning and threatening them. They repeatedly violate the school’s policies, values, and norms of conduct.1
Bully parents come in three basic types: the Righteous Crusader, the Entitled Intimidator, and the Vicious Gossip. The Righteous Crusader is perhaps the most confusing for teachers because she claims to have identified a moral problem and attacks the school for failing to address it. We had a call once from a head of school who said, “I have three mothers who are relentlessly challenging my teachers about a supposed bullying problem that does not exist, that no one else sees.” All educators are potentially vulnerable to the charge of failing to protect children because it cuts to the heart of their mission. Teachers can thus be easily threatened by a charge as mild as, “My daughter says you don’t like her,” to one as extreme as a false accusation of sexual abuse. A major international school recently had two of its teachers jailed for 10 months on an unbelievable — and entirely unsubstantiated — charge of sexual assault by a parent who was either disturbed or attempting to extort money from the school.
Entitled Intimidators make no bones about what they want: special treatment for their child. They demand that rules be waived, exceptions made, policies upended. They want teachers they dislike fired. A parent recently told his daughter’s school that he would not re-enroll her without a guarantee that a particular child would not be placed in her section. His rationale? “The school owes me. I was president of the parents’ association for two years.” (In this regard, the phrase, “As you know, I’m married to a member of the board,” almost always marks the start of an attempt at bullying.)
From Independent School Bulletin, November 1953
I would not conclude this paper without affirming that there is a time and place for the lecture method. My plea is that its use is all too frequent and that its quality and value are frequently poor and dull. The younger the child the more difficult it is to teach him by this method. And even with older boys and girls, the lecturer should stimulate the higher processes of the mind, rather than reiterate facts and expositions. These relatively lower processes — the acquisition of skills, facts, expositions, and models — can be had by observation and reading. And in this age of television and radio, set so frequently as they are to a low-grade intelligence, and keyed to an over-stimulation of the emotions, something must be done to preserve and cultivate higher reading quotients on the part of children. The comics, the radio, and television for
The breaking of the lock step in secondary education will not be easy from the point of view of administration, but somehow ways must be found of accomplishing the goal. Instead of narrow curriculums, broader curriculums with a larger number of electives must be planned; instead of companies and platoons marching through a prescribed course or unit at a uniform pace, variations of pace as well as of pattern must be designed. Present systems of recording marks, credits, honors, and awards will be strained to a point where principals and deans will be tempted to revert to the former plan of uniformity for all. Public relations will be tested, especially so when parents do not comprehend why their sons and daughters are being assigned to a particular course-content or to a pace somewhat different from that of other boys and girls. In place of a ladder having uniform rungs all of one color, the ladder must be one of varying rungs, perhaps or more than one color; and in many situations there must even be more than one ladder.
If the private schools of today, and the public schools too, in so far as their resources permit, are to cultivate an aristocracy of intellect and are to offer opportunities to their pupils in proportion to their gifts, the problems arising from lock step organization must be solved, individual instruction must replace group instruction whenever possible, and the pupil must be placed in a setting that permits more activity and less passivity in the learning process.
—From “Lock Step versus Individual Instruction,” by A.L. Lincoln, retired faculty member, The Lawrenceville School (New Jersey)
The Vicious Gossip has what we psychologists call a character problem, one that plays itself out in continually finding fault with the school or with teachers and broadcasting her complaints, often to a group of vigilantes that she recruits. Sometimes she has a valid concern and has identified a genuine teacher weakness or administrative failing. It is her exaggeration of the issue — the relentless, destructive quality of her storytelling to other parents, her repeated gathering of what Richard Chait, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has called the “Volvo caucus in the parking lot” — that qualifies it as bullying. We have both talked with teachers who have been victims of such campaigns and who end up feeling defamed and victimized.
Many factors contribute to the rise in bullying among parents. Three stand out: an epidemic of anxiety; a culture of competitiveness and loneliness in the upper-middle class; and a failure on the part of school administrators to recognize when they are dealing with personality disorders.
The rising tide of anxiety among parents stems in good part from a trade-off between opportunity and predictability that has grown even more severe in recent decades. To be a confident parent requires, among other things, that the rate of change be slow and that the choices for children be few. How else can parents feel sure that what they know is what their children need to learn in order to live successful, productive lives? But the rate of change — social, economic, technological — keeps accelerating and most parents (and schools, for that matter) want students to have maximum opportunity, to be able to become anything they want. This freedom, unprecedented in human history, has obvious appeal, but it means that certainty and confidence for adults about what’s good for children, about how to raise them are in sharp decline. Couple this with a growing uncertainty about future employment, caused by both the financial meltdown of 2008 and the increasing cannibalization of the professional careers by technology, and it’s no wonder that growing numbers of parents are apprehensive about their children’s prospects and eager for the school to provide guarantees for the future, or that they find it hard to tolerate any evidence that their children’s experience is anything but optimal.
This anxiety is often accompanied by isolation from other families and from experience with a diversity of developmental pathways in childhood. Increasingly, the typical independent school parent couple is composed of two professionals. While they have a lot of resources, they may not see much of other people’s children, particularly in mixed-age groups or free-play situations, and so they lack a crucial perspective about how children navigate and learn from the normal stresses and challenges of growing up. What they do have is a willingness to advocate for their children. The combination of anxiety, inexperience, and a tendency toward advocacy can lead to ferocious overreactions.
Finally, independent school educators tend to give parents, their tuition-paying customers, the presumption of good mental health. Unfortunately, this is not always warranted. In every school, some parents suffer from genuine personality disorders, which means they may be high functioning in many respects, but in certain areas of life consistently distort reality. Although all of us who are parents can lack perspective when it comes to our own offspring, a few have a profoundly distorted view of their children or a deeply rooted mistrust of institutions, notably the school. Too often, it takes months of parental misbehavior for administrators to recognize that they are dealing with serious psychopathology that will not yield to normal intervention.
Special Vulnerabilities of Educators
Increases in bullying behavior by parents are one side of the equation; vulnerabilities of educators are the other. Independent school teachers tend to be a highly conscientious group. They thrive in the company of children and try to accentuate the positive. They have a strong service ethic and have chosen a career that is much closer to that of the clergy than to, say, anything corporate. The benefits for students are obvious. But all this means teachers are easily made to feel guilty, that they haven’t done enough for students. It also means, as we have noted elsewhere, that they are extremely conflict avoidant. Hence, when confronted with intense criticism and unreasonable demands, they are easily undone. Many teachers — and many former teachers who are now administrators — find themselves repeatedly trying to placate, persuade, convince, and accommodate Righteous Crusaders, Entitled Intimidators, and Vicious Gossips. To no avail.
Bully Management Basics
Dealing with bully parents begins with a twin perspective: First, that bullies are externalizers; second, that they almost always need to be handled by administrators, not classroom teachers. Bullies blame outward; they show little capacity for self-observation. They almost never ask themselves, “Am I doing something to upset people or that keeps them from seeing things my way?” Trying to reach them through extended rational discussion is fruitless. No matter how intelligent they may be, bullies demonstrate arrested social/emotional development. In this they resemble certain students. Educators will rarely go wrong by treating a bully parent exactly the way they would an outrageous and aggressive high school student.
The ideal approach can be summarized in three words: “limits, limits, limits.” Bullies deserve thoughtful attention and an invitation to be reflective, but when these don’t suffice, they need to know — unequivocally — the minimum nonnegotiable conditions of belonging in the school community. They need to hear, “You have every right to your opinion, but you cannot swear at us,” or “We hear clearly that you want us to change your son’s grade, but we will not do so.”
These kinds of messages can be delivered by a teacher, but almost always, true bully parents must be turned over to an administrator. Period. We counsel teachers that after one terrifying parent-teacher conference, they should never again meet alone with that parent. Managing bullying parents is a job for those who can speak for the school.
The hardest thing for teachers and administrators is to not become defensive in the face of withering criticism. This is easier said than done, but when being accused, it is crucial to hold on to this idea: “Whatever we did, we did nothing to make this person as crazy as he or she sounds at this moment.” A lack of defensiveness, combined with a persistent, relentless curiosity about how the parent reached her or his conclusions about a situation, can often calm things. At the heart of any inquiry should be a desire to learn what the parent is hoping for and what his or her biggest fear is. Often, the biggest bullies are, underneath, deeply frightened. Once you set boundaries on their behavior, it may be possible to get to the heart of the matter.
But not always. You can’t win them all. When every normal remedy has been exhausted, sometimes the only solution is excommunication. For the health of the school community and the protection of the faculty, it is sometimes necessary to expel a bullying family, even when their children are quite wonderful and completely innocent. No school makes this decision easily. But when it comes to most extreme bully parents, the sooner the better.
1. “Bullying” is now widely misapplied to much normal child and adolescent behavior. We use it here as it is defined in dictionaries: a bully is a “blustering, browbeating person [who is] habitually cruel to others,” who “badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”