Parent Vs. Kid Status

When parents have a choice between making they or their kids look good, they pick themselves:

The often-dreaded parent-teacher conference … seems to be an evaluation of student performance, [but] is more often than not an evaluation of the parent and the teacher, by each other. …

Instead of defending their children, parents are consistently critical about their children when talking with teachers, often delivering unsolicited, negative information about them. “Parents … [are] showing that they already know about their children’s potential or actual troubles, displaying that they are fair appraisers of their own children, willing and able to detect and articulate their flaws, and reporting on their own efforts to improve or remedy their children’s faults, shortcomings or problems,” …

Teachers regularly work to encourage parents to be first to articulate critical assessments of the student, such as by asking for the parent’s perspective, observations, questions, and/or concerns about the student’s progress. … Teachers … [then provide] face-saving accounts on students’ behalf (e.g. “That’s not atypical of kids”; “For a 12-year-old boy, normal is pretty flaky.”) … “It is the teacher who consistently works to end the parent-teacher conference interaction on a positive note, delivering future-oriented, favorable or optimistic comments about the student.” (more; HT Eric Barker)

Yet another example of parents caring for kids less than they claim.

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  • I don’t see how making one’s kids look flawed to the teacher is bad for the kids. Yes, in the real world, talking behind someone’s back about their shortcomings will generally affect that person negatively. But when talking to that person’s coach, teacher, or other agent who’s interests are in *helping* the person, it seems like an honest appraisal of that person’s flaws is beneficial to the person.

    Of course, parent might very well value their own status over the well-being of their kids, but I don’t see how this is evidence of that.

    • lemmy caution

      This is true.

      Also, parent’s know what the teacher is likely to think about their kid based on past conferences with other teachers. They want to make it clear what approaches have been tried before.

      It also depends on the kid. I have one kid where we would not volunteer any negative info because the kid does very well in school and we wouldn’t want the teacher to treat any little negative blip as a long term trend. I have another kid with the ADD and the teacher needs to know what is going on and what we have tried.

    • Roland

      You gotta be kidding me. At least where I grew up it was all about authority, teachers over kids and parents over kids. Kids were supposed to shut up and do as they were told. AFAIK this is part of every school to a greater or lesser degree.

      And btw, I see this same pattern go on nowadays when I’m an adult. I still see my parents critisizing me in front of others. I think they would rather fit in with the general consensus than stand up for their child.

  • Gene

    I’m with @Jess Riedel.

    Praising your child unrealistically would probably indicate that your judgement is not to be trusted and this would make you look worse. But it is not clear how it would make your child look better, assuming the teacher is also an impartial judge.

    Further, critical appraisals of areas you think need work might actually result in improvement. It’s not clear how praising, realistically or unrealistically, a child to their teacher provides much benefit.

  • kebko

    I’m usually with you, but this seems like nonsense. Signalling isn’t required for any of the behavior described in the article. I imagine any conversation between a possessor and a service provider about the improvement of any inanimate object or any creature to follow the basic outline of the article.

    “My shirt has been tugging here, and here’s where it’s too loose.”
    “Yes. That’s common with this type of garment. Here’s how I’ll alter it. That usually works.”
    “OK. We’ll see how it goes.”
    “I think you’ll be happy with it once I’ve finished.”

    I’m sure that the parent teacher conference is riddled with signalling, but this article isn’t getting at it.

  • JSA

    Since your child’s fragile mind is in the hands of the teacher for several hours each day, you would prefer the teacher reveal her true opinion of the child, rather than secretly thinking that your child is a reprobate while smiling to your face. The teacher’s *perception* of the child has a huge impact on educational outcome, independent of the child’s aptitude.

    The opening of the parent-teacher conference is a delicate dance where the parents try to signal that the teacher needn’t be afraid to share frank and open feedback, while the teacher tries to signal that she’s not a crazy bitch who is out to destroy their child. Each side attempts to assess how much sugar-coating the other side is applying, in order to be able to assess the real truth.

    It’s that simple — it’s just a communication protocol negotiation.

    • Shannon

      Exactly. Reading this just made me think: “So, Robin doesn’t have kids. Noted.”

      The analysis is just starting from some really weird assumptions. It’s closer to the truth to say that parents view kids as *parts of themselves.* Normal parents are always angling for advantages for their kids, but often they try to get that advantage by creating a false intimacy with the kids’ teacher. So you get lines like “Jimmy’s really hard sometimes, isn’t he?”

      This parent isn’t throwing Jimmy under the bus. She’s trying to *play* the teacher, to establish a friendship that will ultimately be beneficial to Jimmy. This would be obvious to anyone who has been in the situation.

  • Michael Wengler

    We should also ding parents for telling pediatricians what is wrong with their kids. How unsupportive can you be!

    • I dunno, people get pretty nasty when their physicians tell them their children are technically obese.

  • Nikki

    What about when it comes to appearance?

  • blink

    What would a parent-teacher conference look like in which the parent acted like a perfect altruist? I doubt it would be simply praising the child, so in what ways would it differ from what we observe?

    Also, the interaction depends strongly on the status of the parents. Low-status parents tend to be more critical and also more likely to agree with the teacher, especially about negative assessments of the student. High-status parents are quicker to defend their children and to contradict the teacher’s (negative) assessments.

    • I think an altruist parent would check for what specifics were behind the teacher’s evaluation, discuss it if the child’s behavior in school is significantly different from their behavior at home, and not complain about unrelated negative features of the child.

      • Is there anything in the study that says the parent are complaining about unrelated negative features of the child? Comment like “Timmy isn’t great at sharing” can be very relevant to school even if it’s not strictly academic.

      • Jess, I can’t reply to you, so I’m replying to myself….

        I was picking up on “Instead of defending their children, parents are consistently critical about their children when talking with teachers, often delivering unsolicited, negative information about them”, which admittedly might not be irrelevant information.

  • James

    I don’t get the “throwing the kid under the bus” part.

    Every kid has strengths. Every kid has areas of improvement.

    My oldest son is very smart. But, he also needs to work on restraint when he’s frustrated and following directions when he say needs to stop reading a book he really wants to keep reading and the teacher needs him to transition to working on something else, like math.

    Should I not talk about the things he needs to work on?

    I think it’s natural to focus more on areas that need improvement than the things that are going great in things like a parent-teacher conference.

  • This is interesting, considering that I’ve seen teachers complaining about parents reflexively defending their kids.

    Maybe that’s relatively rare, but so extremely annoying for the teacher that it gets talked about. Also, it fits neatly into the cultural narrative about huge amounts of trouble caused by overindulgent parents.

    • James

      Our oldest son’s 2nd grade teacher would probably say that about my wife and I.

      But, since our son’s next two teachers didn’t have nearly the problems with our son, we still think it was largely an oil and water issue between our son (and us) and the teacher.

      I was done with the teacher when what she told me in a face-to-face meeting was the polar opposite to a comment on our son’s report card a few weeks later.

      If I was completely confused by the teacher, I can’t imagine how bad it was for our then 7yo son.

  • Colin

    Parents display a lack of bias in assessing their kids academic abilities. Overcoming Bias reports these findings as damning for the parents. Odd.

    • Pithy and cutting.

  • Randy

    I often leave P/T conferences frustrated because the teacher will not give any concrete information about my child. The teachers have a habit of speaking in code using educational jargon to avoid any overtly negative comments. “Your daughter might benefit from cross-discipline exercises that focus on differentiated instruction.” Me: “Are you saying that my daughter is having trouble in a traditional classroom?” Teacher: “Not at all. She is a great student. It is a pleasure to have her in my classroom. I just think she would benefit from differentiated instruction.”

    It’s not the parents fault. Most just want an honest assessment and a strategy to get the best results.

  • John Thacker

    In the culture I grew up with (and also in Japanese) one would do this, but put a different spin on the reason. In fact, the parent and teacher are both being polite, and signaling a desire for future encounters.

    It is polite to criticize the members of one own’s in-group when speaking to an out-group member, and polite to praise another’s out-group. This signifies a desire to have a productive relationship with the out-group. The child is obviously a member of the parent’s in-group when speaking with the teacher; no one would assume that the parent’s admission of faults actually threatens that status.

    This provides both an opportunity for the parent to humble oneself (through one’s in-group) before the teacher and defer to the teacher’s expertise, while allowing the teacher to show sympathy and concern for the parent and child.

    It’s clearly signaling, but in no way does it represent parent vs. kid. Parent and kid are part of the same inseparable in-group.

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