Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


First teachers

Q: Parents, a Wall Street Journal article says, have become cool. On TV, at least. After years of shows about youthful rebellion, teens are bonding with their fashionable and understanding parents. It might be so in real life, too. One study says 75 percent of teens get along with their parents. Is this necessarily a sign of a successful family? Or are some parents overplaying the "friend" card with their kids?

The generation that grew up with the slogan "don't trust anyone over 30" is struggling to cope with a generation under 30 that seems to be having a hard time growing up. It's not just parents calling to complain that Jennifer is unhappy with the food at college, or parents who want to plead their (college senior) child's case at a hearing on an allegation of plagiarism.

Well beyond graduation, parents today are showing up in the workplace, demanding to know why their Precious did not get a raise or was fired for incompetent performance. Helicopter parents seem unable to graduate to graceful retirement in the hangar; they remain on call to Medevac in for Jayson's little life emergencies. Just ask any director of Human Resources.

I grew up in a loving family with wonderful parents who managed to keep seven children healthy, well educated and out of serious trouble most of the time (except for a few "incidents" involving brothers, known only to the guilty parties!). In fact, I'm writing this blog from my mother's home, where I prepared Mother's Day dinner for this remarkable woman late in her eighth decade -- and even now she still can give me that archly critical look that tells me my attire is all wrong or my opinions unacceptable. We are friends, now, after all these years -- but I still know who's the boss in this relationship!

Since the day I left home for college 40 years ago, I considered myself independent enough to manage my own affairs, figure out my challenges and cope with my occasional setbacks. I thought that was what "leaving home" was all about -- my college classmates and I loved the freedom of being away from parental scrutiny so that we could try out our wings.

It would never have occurred to me to call Mom or Dad about that nasty first year German teacher or the fact that I felt wronged when I didn't make it into a certain honor society or the utterly ridiculous way my first boss treated me. I certainly did not call them about the incident in which I danced down the center stripe on Michigan Avenue after an especially good party. Thank goodness, the dean didn't call them, either. We learned to grow up by owning up to our own responsibilities.

Of course, back in the day, it wasn't so easy for college students to complain to the folks, what with our antiquated means of communication like pay telephones or actual letters, written in longhand, sent by postage, taking as long as two or three days to get to them. Replies often took longer, since most parents knew that waiting a few days was the best response to most complaints.

"Friend" was a noun, not a verb, in those dark and ignorant days -- we could not imagine a world in which anyone might 'friend' her parents, or vice versa. We loved them; we respected them; we sometimes argued with them or avoided them; but most certainly, we did not 'friend' them!

Not so with the rising generation that keeps its umbilical cord firmly attached via cell phones, texting, tweeting, Facebooking and frequent shopping trips with Mom. We educators welcome and applaud caring and involved parents -- to a point. Caring involvement quickly becomes a strangling co-dependency, however, when adult children continue to expect their parents to run interference for them.

One morning a few weeks ago, a student rushed breathlessly into my office demanding a pencil. I had no pencils and directed her out to my assistant's desk to find one. Unhappy that I did not drop everything immediately to help her, she came back seconds later to say that there were no pencils out there and she needed one. I told her, perhaps in a somewhat testy voice, that I had no pencils and I said, "I am not the pencil lady." The student grew angry and replied, waving her cell phone, "You will hear about this" as she ran out of my office.

Not five minutes later, my phone rang, and it was the student's mother, speaking in a manner that I can only describe as nonstop yelling, the gist of which was that I owed her daughter a pencil because her daughter had a math test.

When the woman stopped for a breath, I tried to explain to the mother that our job as educators -- hers and mine -- is to teach her daughter to take responsibility to come prepared for tests, not to expect everyone else to do her work for her. My explanation only evoked an even louder response about the mother's perception that I was not supporting her daughter's need. It was only 8 a.m. and my day was off to a very bad start.

This incident stayed with me because it illustrated the crux of the problem with the often-conflicting roles of educators and parents today. We need to be partners and collaborators in the education and development of the next generations, but too often, we become adversaries in pseudo battles generated by grown children who refuse to accept their own responsibilities.

Parents are, or should be, the first and most important teachers for children. Teaching is not the same as consumer advocacy. Children do emulate the lessons learned from parents. A parent who reads to children and sets high expectations for their success in school fosters excellent academic sensibilities in her offspring.

A parent whose constant reaction to authority is anger and accusation teaches her children to be suspicious and aggressively hostile in school and at work. Such anger and hostility undermine the child's opportunities to learn how to be successful on her own merits.

Parents who choose the "best friend" model of parenting miss the most important obligation they have: teaching their kids how to grow up well, healthy, independent and ethical. Helping a child to grow, to learn and to succeed is a profound parental responsibility, one that often risks popularity and friendship in favor of stern discipline. Well-grounded parents know, however, that what fosters resentment among children in their teens and early 20's leads to admiration, gratitude, and, quite possibly, great success later in life.

True friendship between parent and child is a great gift for both late in life. Growing together in a mature friendship depends heavily on a healthy balance in the parent-child relationship at each life stage. Parents must remember that their first and most important role is as teacher.

By Patricia McGuire  |  May 10, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  family and friends Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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As a parent and life long teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. McGuire.
Common sense. That's what it takes.

Posted by: ellykluge | May 12, 2010 6:42 PM
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Amen! I am in absolute agreement with what Ms McGuire has written. Friendship with your child is the great gift after years of a hard job done well.

Posted by: mlc2 | May 12, 2010 1:13 PM
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I completely agree with this article being a 25 yr old it is utterly ridiculous to wittness the babies that claim to be adults in my age group. Most dissappointing is when a parent so vehemently defends bad behavior. It just tells the child they are never responsible for their actions, and when things go wrong in their lives its someone elses fault. So annoying.

Posted by: greymr | May 12, 2010 1:05 PM
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