Pebbles in our Sandals: Difficult Parents in the Jewish Day School Setting

David A. Portnoy

Overparenting is a relatively new term that describes the behavior of mothers and fathers who are too involved in their children’s lives—in terms of raising resilient, self-sufficient children—to interact positively with social institutions such as health care providers, organized youth activities, and schools.

The amount of time teachers and administrators now spend responding to parents is greater than ever before, and the heavy stress school professionals are experiencing has made this issue one that is front and center for nearly all professionals working in schools. In short, teachers and administrators are beleaguered by, and deeply concerned about, the distraction from the most important aspects of their work (instructional leadership, curriculum, staff development, student service) that responding to parent-initiated communications has become.

Teachers and administrators report that the most intractable problems they have encountered in recent years involve dealing with aggressive and difficult parents. Few, if any, teachers or administrators went into K-12 education to deal primarily with other adults. And yet, if you were to ask most principals and other school leaders about their greatest administrative challenges, there is little doubt that difficult parents would be near, if not at, the top of the list.

Have parent-school relations reached an all-time low? Are mounting parental pressures on schools deterring qualified people from entering the profession, or driving good people out? How is parent behavior affecting administrative time constraints, decision-making, and job satisfaction? In general, what effects are such overparenting behavior having on school professionals’ time, job satisfaction, and stress? And, most important, what is in the best interests of our schools, and of our children?

Most research to date on the interrelationship between parenting and schools has focused on issues of underparenting, i.e., the deleterious effects of non- or under-engaged parents on student achievement, attendance, and behavior. This existing research has, as its goal, the identification of initiatives and programs designed to increase parental involvement in their children’s schooling, and on resultant improvements to school communities, and to student achievement and behavior. Overparenting, on the other hand, is a relatively new term that describes the behavior of mothers and fathers who are too involved in their children’s lives—in terms of raising resilient, self-sufficient children—to interact positively with social institutions such as health care providers, organized youth activities, and schools.

In a school setting, these are the parents who micro-manage their children’s schedules, class placements, extra-curricular activities, and social relations. These are the parents who challenge the Little League coaches and umpires; rail against the injustices of the college admissions process; and challenge both teachers’ and principals’ decisions about anything they feel does not meet each and every need of their children, and, perhaps more accurately, themselves. These are the parents who view themselves essentially as customers (as in, “The customer is always right”) in an educational system that only reluctantly adapts to business models. They consider schools as organizations that exist simply to satisfy their perceived individual needs, rather than as learning and living communities designed to educate, nurture, and respect each and every member of that community—students, parents, teachers, and administrators alike.

This is the leadership challenge that a growing number of teachers, coaches, counselors, and administrators are encountering, on a more frequent basis today than ever before. Its effects on teacher and administrator job satisfaction, and on professional stress, call into question the all-important issues of teacher and administrator recruitment and retention. According to management expert Michael Fullan, “If leadership does not become more attractive, doable, and exciting, public and private institutions will deteriorate.”

Why are school parents acting this way? Likely sources of parental behavior include generalized anxiety and fear about their children’s safety and their futures; about the global economy; and about their child’s fitness for admissions to a highly selective college or university. Indeed, a new genre of literature, dubbed Admissions Lit, has been described as books and articles “about the great rat race of getting your children into the right schools.” According to the New York Times Education Life Supplement, “Parents behaving badly is the real subject of admissions lit … predatory parents who treat the education of their offspring as a sort of social blood sport and will do anything—lie, cheat, grovel, sue—to get an advantage.” Almost daily, we are barraged with outrageous stories of the college admissions system and the anxieties that accompany an experience that was, in the memory of some, a reasonably straightforward process that did not require a shelf of self-help books and a pricey private consultant. College admissions is but one of the issues plaguing overparents, their offspring, and the many institutions with which they come into contact, most dramatically the schools which their children attend.

Michael Thompson, who estimates that only about 5% of our parent populations are truly difficult, has suggested that a mutual fear between parents and teachers is responsible for much of the anxiety on the part of both parents and schools. Writing within the context of independent schools, he notes:

Fear infects the relationship between independent school teachers and independent school parents—a fear that is often denied and only painfully approached. I see evidence of this fear throughout the independent school world, no matter how much a particular school may say it is a “community,” or “like family.” Parent-teacher relationships, even when good, are less than they could be because of the latent fear between the parties.

Heads of school often feel caught between the two, criticized by teachers for favoring parents, criticized by parents for being insufficiently responsive, or too protective of mediocre faculty. Parents often feel subtly—or not too subtly—excluded from schools.

Thompson analyzes the sources of parent fear, including these insights: “Your child-rearing mistakes are on display through your child’s behavior”; “Every parent is trapped by hope, love—and anxieties”; “Parents are so vulnerable with respect to their children”; and “Teachers have immense power over children’s lives.” He then zeroes in on the stressful reactions of teachers and administrators:

Many independent school teachers have to sit across from parents who make two times, or four times, or fifty times more money per year than they do. It makes them doubt themselves and their value. A school head made the observation that much of the conflict between parents and teachers is class warfare. One of the things that teachers say to me to explain their fear of parents or their fear of lack of administrative support is, “The customer is always right.” Many independent school parents, whatever their income, are high-status in a variety of ways that can be intimidating to teachers.

As if the class-status differential were not enough, Thompson goes on to describe the ways in which independent school parents tend to interact with teachers and administrators. Noting that so many independent school parents are high-powered professionals and business people, he hits the nail squarely on the head, and in characteristically understated language: “Parents bring their professional skills to bear on their relationships with teachers even though they may not be helpful in a school situation.” He explains:

If parents can sometimes come to their child’s school feeling amateurish, anxious, ignorant, and trapped, they are naturally going to reach for the set of skills that make them successful in the “outside” world. Independent school parents usually have such skills in abundance, and they are often not helpful in a school context. I have seen attorney parents treat their upper school directors as if they were opposing counsel; mental health professionals analyze the motives of a teacher, child, school head, and every other child in the class. Recently, I had an entrepreneurial parent who had come to me for help make a business presentation of his child that took up the entire hour we had together. It was an articulate, polished, forceful sales presentation; however, it did not help the situation, because I was not “buying” his son, I was trying to help a child who was already in the school and already annoying many teachers there. Even when parents know they are intimidating teachers, they cannot stop exercising their strongest muscles, the ones that make them powerful in their own professional lives.

So, what, after all, is a school leader to do? We can begin by recognizing the changes in our institutions and the stakeholders that comprise them. As parent-school relations evolve, it can also be helpful to develop strategies, both organizationally and interpersonally, to deal with the most difficult parents in our communities, either by assigning certain school professionals to them, or by figuring out ways to communicate with such families so they do not sap all our time and energies.

To end on a hopeful note, we can all consider such school-parent interactions as professional development opportunities for ourselves, as we learn to navigate the more difficult among them. As a mentor of mine used to say, “Every member of our community—student, teacher, parent and administrator—is doing the very best he or she can on any given day.” May we have the strength to believe it, and to act accordingly, in the best interests of all the children we serve. ♦

Dr. David A. Portnoy is Head of The Emery/Weiner School, a grades 6-12 college preparatory Jewish community day school in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009