I’m hunched over, running at half-speed down the street. My legs are starting to burn, and my back is demanding that I soon stand up straight and stretch. But I keep running. My right hand is glued to the seat of my 4-year-old son’s bicycle, which, for the first time, is training wheel-less.
Sweating, I come back in the house, and my wife asks how he did.
“Not bad,” I tell her.
“Did he do it?” she says, clarifying her question.
The truth is, he didn’t do it, but I don’t know whether he could have or not. I never actually let go of the seat. I knew with 99.99% confidence that if I did let go, he would have fallen and bloodied his knees. I didn’t want to let that happen, so I hung on tight.
“You have to let go,” my wife says, “or you’ll never know.”
Sounds like a line from a Disney movie. And I’m there, my hand on my chin, deciding to rethink my life and do better.
But really, this is parenting. When do you let go? When is it OK to let your child injure himself? To what extent?
And were my parents really this clueless?
Yes, they were.
Unfortunately, most of the issues facing kids in school these days (sex, drugs, bullying), are much scarier than learning to ride a bike.
Why get involved?
Things are different for students now. Katrina Townsend is immersed in the world of new student realities in Flagler County. As student services director, she is used to change.
When I visited with her in her office last week, Townsend got a call from a guidance counselors. I heard only her end of the conversation:
“Yes, a male can apply for maternity leave,” she said into the receiver. “I can’t give him six weeks.”
She hung up the phone and smiled at me. This wasn’t a male teacher asking for “maternity” leave. It was a 17-year-old male student, at Matanzas High School.
Teen sex is at the center of the discussion when it comes to the new realities. A recent study showed more than half of all Florida high school students have had sex.
“To be very clear, I’m a teen mom,” Townsend said. “I had a baby in high school. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”
Townsend said that from her experience talking to high school students today, some are getting pregnant because of “normal physiological reasons,” and others might be doing it because of self-esteem issues — or a combination.
This kind of talk helps answer the question of why parents should get involved.
Family time matters
Several university studies (Columbia, Harvard, Vanderbilt) in the past decade have shown family dinnertime to be a predictor of success. But in Flagler County, according to Townsend, it seems to be happening less.
“Many things have changed about the relationship students have in their own homes,” she says. “(Growing up,) my family was together every single night. (Now,) in my home, it’s pretty much a weekend thing.”
Sherri Hunter has been a teacher and guidance counselor in Flagler County for 34 years, and she sees a similar trend.
“I think the world we live in is a busier place,” Hunter says. “That is an old-fashioned concept of families going to work, going to school, and then sitting down with a family meal … They don’t have routines … There’s a lot of stress on our families and our community.”
Townsend adds that she sees parents who are cognizant that they aren’t able to spend much time with their children, and therefore they end up playing more of a friend role.
She recalls a conversation with a parent. It went something like this:
Townsend: Why was your child absent?
Parent: I couldn’t get him out of bed. He was playing online all night.
T: Did you tell him to get off?
T: Did you unhook it?
P: I can’t do that. It’s his.
Spending all night online isn’t the only way technology impacts education and families. One issue is privacy. Townsend said she has seen middle-school students post things that reveal they will be all alone, and where: “Going to the dance. Mom is at the movies. Dad is at home.”
“That could put them in a lot of danger, and they don’t see that,” Townsend says. “Kids see it as private, but it’s not.”
She says a 20-year-old from Florida State University was recently caught using a false Facebook profile to contact students at Buddy Taylor Middle School.
Parents also can be proactive in knowing what their children are watching, for example, on YouTube.
“Kids are really exposed to everything in an instant — everything you can imagine, just about,” Townsend says. “We could never have dreamed of this when I was growing up.”
In addition, technology is changing how kids develop communications skills, Townsend says. Texting and communicating on Facebook give students an escape route.
“If you’re texting back and forth and you have any kind of a disagreement or issue in the text ... you don’t have to continue to solve the issue,” she said. “You just end it.”
Hunter says parents are more involved in elementary school, but in middle school, they back off because they want to let their children have more independence. But Hunter says middle school students need it more than ever.
Randi Fasnacht is a guidance counselor at Indian Trails Middle School, and she agrees.
“These children are becoming much more independent, and parenting can become much more complicated,” she writes via e-mail. “ … It is hard for parents to know when to step in and when to let their (children) advocate for (themselves). Electives and lockers are areas that a student can usually handle on their own with a little guidance … Bullying, failing grades, unhealthy choices and discipline referrals are areas where parents need to be involved.”
C- is the new F in high school
Townsend also said parents don’t always realize what is expected of their high school students now, as compared to 25 or 30 years ago — particularly in math and science.
Because of changes in state graduation requirements, some students are required to pass chemistry to graduate, and others aren’t.
“For many parents, this can be very confusing, and they’re just hoping that everything works out,” she says.
But with so many students, there are bound to be occasional errors with scheduling.
“If there’s only one error per year, and it’s your kid, that’s a huge error,” Townsend said.
One thing parents may not always realize is that students must have a 2.0 grade-point average to graduate from high school — that’s a C average. It’s no longer good enough to get C’s and D’s.
How to get involved
Now that we know why to get involved, the question is, How?
The first answer follows the discussion on grades. Townsend says parents should be monitoring their children’s homework, grades and attendance — as soon as teachers record them — through Skyward Family Access, an online system. To access the system, parents should visit their children’s schools, present a photo ID and follow directions from there.
Hunter encourages parents to help students with their homework by practicing with flashcards or asking questions to promote critical thinking. Read with them.
Talk to the teachers
Teachers often have specific ways parents can help. Hunter, Fasnacht and Townsend all agree e-mailing teachers is a must.
“It’s essential that we stay a team,” Hunter says. She adds that schools are working harder than ever to provide parents with data to make parent-teacher conferences worthwhile, and to make a plan for success for the student.
“In the old days, if a parent came to school, if they didn’t get good news, (the parents themselves) felt they were being called to the principal’s office,” Hunter says. “We don’t want to do that. We want parents to be part of the process.”
Talk to the student
Another way: Talk. Turn off the video games, the TV, the cell phone.
There is a story of a father and son who went on an expensive vacation. The father asked what was the son’s favorite part, thinking he would pick the whitewater rafting or the amusement park rides. But the son said, “My favorite part was the time when we sat outside and looked at the stars and talked.”
“It is so important for parents to keep lines of communication open,” Fasnacht says. “ … It is important for them to check in with their child everyday about what happened at school. A good time to do this is at the supper table. Although you may get grunts and groans as responses, it is worth the time and energy it sometimes takes with teenagers.
“Having something specific to ask is helpful. For example: What was the best part of your day? What do you wish would have gone differently?”
Townsend adds: “Go to events at the school with your child. Show them school is important.”
Hunter, Fasnacht and Townsend also agree that many parents and students all around the county are making school a priority. We just need more of it.
Putting it into action is sometimes harder than it sounds, but the principles are simple. It’s not about knowing all the answers or buying all the right toys.
“I believe in the saying, ‘Kids don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care,’” Hunter says. “If the parent shows they care, it’s showing the kid we believe in him. It helps. That’s the formula for success.”