It goes without saying that you're the most important person in your child's life. But it's also true that there are lots of other adults who matter—like principals, teachers, coaches and scout leaders. Seriously, aren't you grateful that your daughter gets a "No" from her guidance counselor when she begs to switch classes to hang with her questionable new friends? And when your son tunes out your good-sportsmanship advice, is there a better cure for his throwing a bat than the coach benching him?
As kids get older and more reluctant to confide in parents, they'll often turn to other trusted grown-ups. We need these people. They maintain our sanity and help us raise good kids. Unfortunately, not all of the adults in our children's lives are so wonderful, and it's tempting to wind up in mama-bear mode when trouble hits. Please don't. Tracking down the offender to "get to the bottom of this" or sending e-mails in all capital letters isn't effective and could actually make things worse. Instead, be prepared.
1. Decide your role.
Your first move is choosing whether to be directly involved or to help your tween or teen advocate for himself. If the issue is something about the work or activity—your child can never understand a teacher's assignments, the coach gives him zero play time or the scout leader doesn't work on the promised badge—that's a conversation your child should have with the adult. As a behind-the-scenes guide, your job is to help him write down what he'd like to see changed and what resolution he can live with, and to think through the best time to approach the person (i.e., not right before class, after a losing game or if the pack is running wild).
On the other hand, if the concern has to do with dignity and respect—the teacher or coach humiliates or makes fun of your child, or any of the kids, or is otherwise inappropriate—you must intervene directly. This is especially true when it comes to comments about appearance because tweens and teens are horribly self-conscious about their bodies, and adults often forget how hurtful small, seemingly harmless remarks can be. No matter how angry or frustrated the adult is, no one ever has the right to say things like, "How can you be so stupid?" or "You fat, selfish oaf." (I am not making this up. A mom just e-mailed me that her 14-year-old son's coach said this to him when the boy was out at second base.)
2. Know who you're dealing with.
Most parents don't realize that there's going to be a hidden power dynamic between grown-ups. If you're sensitive to this, you'll be able to focus less on how mad you are and more on finding answers. In my experience, I've seen three types of adults who work with kids:
The Partner: These men and women know how to listen respectfully and work with you as allies. Of course they will be your favorites. Even when they make mistakes and conflicts arise, you'll be able to arrive at some type of reasonable agreement without too much drama.
The Pushover: There are plenty of teachers and coaches who come across as clueless or uncaring. But the point is, it's probably not true that they're against you or your kid. You might be dealing with someone who's been yelled at or threatened by other parents, who hasn't yet developed the right social skills or is so stressed-out that giving up seems like the only option. For example, say the teacher isn't seeing that your kid is being bullied in one of his classes. The truth could be that the bully's parents have some kind of power in the school and the teacher is too scared or inexperienced to know what to do.
The Tyrant: You know who these people are. They're the ones who react to questioning, disagreement or difference of opinion as a challenge that must be squashed immediately. They often get away with terrible behavior because parents are too intimidated to speak up or mistakenly believe that disrupting, say, a winning team, isn't worth the trouble.
3. Consider the source of your facts.
If you actually saw the incident in question (meaning you aren't taking anyone else's word for it), you've got your evidence. On the other hand, when your child reports the behavior (meaning you didn't see it firsthand) be aware—and I'm not saying your kid is lying—that there might be another side to the story. Keep an open mind and think about how you can approach the situation as an information gatherer. Imagine saying to the teacher, "I want to talk with you about something Emily said. I know kids can be really sensitive, but she told me that when she asked to use the school printer, you thought she was lying about ours being broken. Can you tell me why she may have given you that impression?"
4. Set up the meeting.
E-mail the offender and arrange a time and place where you can calmly but firmly tell the person what concerns you and why. As in, "Coach, I value having my son on this team, but when you scolded the guys for 'throwing like a bunch of third-grade girls,' I was really upset. Correcting the boys that way teaches them it's okay to disrespect females and I know you don't want to do that." Or, "I realize you have a lot of kids to think about, but I believe it makes it harder for my daughter to learn if she feels accused of something she didn't do."
If you're dealing with the partner, your job will be easy because he'll want to make things right. Usually the pushover will settle down once you've communicated with your tone, body language and words that you're not going to cry, yell or call your lawyer, and you can move right into brainstorming solutions together.
The tyrant is a tougher case, though, and you may have to head off some fireworks. You might hear something like, "Girls are so dramatic! No offense, but your daughter has always been a little too sensitive. It's time to let go a bit, don't you think?" Most people at this point are tempted to go on the attack, or are so upset and shocked that they say nothing. Instead, give yourself a few moments to reflect on this question: If your child were in the same situation, how would you want her to behave so you'd be proud of how she was raised? Now use this vision as motivation to face the situation with courage and dignity. In other words, take a deep breath, skip the impulsive reaction and go straight to, "How can we resolve this?"
If you're the one teaching, coaching or leading, remember to:
1. Deal with your child exactly as you would the rest of the kids, and expect her to treat you like any other leader.
2. Accept that you'll still cringe extra hard if your kid is the one who blows a play or mouths off.
3. Be aware that you're everyone's role model for how to behave toward children with differing abilities and parents who are pushy.
4. Enjoy developing relationships with your child's peer group.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.