In my last piece I mentioned the need for parents to be involved in their children’s education. I had a number of interesting challenges to the very idea.

A friend repeated to me Einstein's famous saying that "education is what’s left after you forget all the facts they taught you in school." "Leave the teaching to the school and concentrate on educating your child" he said. To him, being involved in his children's education meant providing them with parallel real life experiences and he couldn’t care a fig about tonight’s homework assignments; they are the responsibility of the child, and not the parent.

A mother of two teens commented that the best gift she could give her daughters was that of trust and self confidence. She wasn’t getting involved in the process of schooling. "Did you ever see the look of embarrassment, even horror, if your child unexpectedly sees you in the school hallway?"  “My child doesn’t want me to look over her shoulder” commented one of my daughter's friends about her nine year old. These parents were taken aback by what they thought I was suggesting.

It is my contention that parents need to know what their children are doing at school and to become actively involved in helping facilitate their success. I am not referring to homework and test preparation. I am not referring to being cooperative with the school and school personnel; we touched on those issues in previous pieces. I am referring to making the child's school experiences a part of the parent's life. I believe a parent's role is somewhere between coach and cheerleader; neither as critically involved as the former or as benignly enthusiastic as the latter. Allow me to elaborate.
 

Taking an active interest; or: "What is it you do in school all day?"

Indeed, we forget most of the facts we cram for tests during our school years. What we are expected to retain are the skills with which will enable us to learn and discover for ourselves. Even more importantly, good teachers will have inculcated within us a love for learning to last a lifetime.

Parents need to know what their children are doing at school and to become actively involved in helping facilitate their success

Learning skills do not develop in a vacuum; they develop through learning and internalizing the process. A love for learning develops from the satisfaction of understanding and the curiosity to know more. This too is a byproduct of learning and absorbing information, primarily in school. When a parent shows interest in the subject matter his child is learning that says to the child: what you learned at school matters. Questioning a child about what he learned is school is an essential component in his developing a healthy respect for what he does all day; he learns.

Questioning a child about school can be a tricky experience though. Ask a typical adolescent “what did you learn in school today” and the response, if you get a verbal one rather than some sort of primal sound, may be “nothing” or “stuff”.  The questions must be direct and specific for the child to be responsive. "What did you enjoy most about your Talmud class today?" If he responds with a multi-word answer the parent will have gotten a perspective of the child's engagement in the Talmud class. He may well say, "I didn't enjoy it at all" — that speaks volumes too. Regardless, the parent has demonstrated interest and that the subject is important.

On the other hand badgering a child for information and interrogating him about precisely what he learned may be counterproductive from a parenting perspective. What the child might deduce from continuous pressured questions is that the less he says or pretends to remember the better off he will be. He perceives the questions as an invasion of his privacy; of course he will resist. A lot more information would be forthcoming if the question were put something like this “did you learn any interesting Rashi commentaries today?” "How did the teacher like your social studies composition?"

In a nutshell: the questions must be detailed and about the work rather that about the child. Specific but open ended questions will generally elicit a coherent response which can then be followed up. Of course that presupposes some knowledge of the subject matter the child is learning, which is precisely what I mean by taking an interest in the child’s education.

I'd rather not head in the direction of the parent who spends the night studying with a child for a test and then asks "how well did we do on the exam?" Naturally, when taken to the extreme, that kind of "interest" will be more crippling than helpful.
 

We need to be brutally honest to ourselves about our children's abilities if we are to be able to be of help

Taking an active interest; or: "Showing up to my play"

Active interest includes attending the school play and the "siyum" and the basketball game and the…. These may seem like a waste of good time, but the mere fact of attendance says to a child "what you do is important to me." It will also open up all kinds of lines of communication and it enables more discussion about the learning process.

Our communicating with children — as opposed to our talking to them, our teaching or guiding them — involves aspects of their lives rather than ours. We need to talk to children about what matters to them for many years before they will be able to join a conversation about what matters in our lives. We need to show up at the play if we going to be able to talk about it with them. Anecdotally, I never heard anyone with grown children complain in retrospect about the time spent at school events, but I have heard many adults comment on the apparent lack of such active interest by their own parents and how they were adversely affected.
 

Taking an active interest; or: "Responding positively to our children's strengths and weaknesses"

Parents need to be realistic about their children's school-related (as well as other) strengths and weaknesses in order to help make their school experiences as effective as possible. Of course we can complain about how last year's teacher was able to reach my Avi and this year it just isn't the same, but to what end? We need to be brutally honest with ourselves about our children's abilities if we are to be able to be of help.

We adults all have our foibles, weaknesses and personality quirks. We learn how to navigate our social and professional lives in spite of our inabilities and insecurities because we learn to capitalize on our strengths if we want to be successful.

Of course our children are different. Did you ever hear of an "average" Jewish child? Our children aren't average G‑d forbid! They have no business getting a B on a test, unless it wasn't a fair test. All our children are exceptionally bright; their poor grades are a reflection of poor teachers, a poor school system or a bad grading method. Our children don't get into trouble or do the wrong thing unless they are being misled by that terrible bully in their class. Of course our children are unfailingly polite and respectful. Okay, not all our kids, but certainly mine and yours. There are almost as many variations on this theme as there are parents. Too many of us don't want to recognize our children's weaknesses.

Let me again reiterate that I am not referring to tutorial help, I am referring to helping a child develop healthy self esteem and confidence so as to be able to navigate the school system and its expectations successfully. A parent should know at what kind of subject each child does well (and realistically, how well); what comes more easily and what takes more effort, and yes, which subject is really difficult for their child. We can help our children cope with difficulty when we know where they need to be encouraged, where they need to put some extra effort into a subject or project. Again, that presupposes realistic knowledge of deficiencies. If we know which foot hurts we can know which to massage.

Which teacher has not had to explain to an incredulous parent that his child was not really an A+ student and that he was really doing as well as could be expected? When we are realistic we make realistic demands, and more importantly, offer proper and effective encouragement. We can give meaningful praise when we are aware of who our children are; praise that offers encouragement and builds self esteem. "You studied well for that test and will remember the material." "I like the way your work is organized and clear," etc. The student will remember that while he may not be getting prefect scores, his effort and his special strengths are appreciated.

Helping a child develop personal interests and hobbies is part of the educational process. When a parent becomes aware of a particular interest it is a good idea to help the child channel it in a positive direction. So, your kid has an artistic flair; only nine but enjoys drawing and using colors? Get him drawing pencils and a drawing tablet. The best way to kill the interest is to say, "I got you colored pencils and drawing paper and you're playing with your construction set? What did I waste my money for?" Your job is to facilitate, not to start badgering.   
 

Taking an active interest; or: "Learning to listen to what is being communicated and knowing what to do about it"

Getting a child to talk about school experiences will only bring parent and child closer together

How can you help your child if you are not sure where he needs help? Good point. Children tell us about what's going on in their lives in a variety of ways. They do in fact at times actually tell us directly, but more often children will use less obvious means of communication. Their general behavior and demeanor are of course telling, as are mood swings, body language and appetite. Parents will quickly recognize when a youngster is trying to non-verbally say something. We need to be conscious of the fact that our children may be trying to communicate with us, even when they can not express themselves in day to day language.

This is by no means a discussion of non-verbal communication. The point I am trying to make is that parents need to be aware and look for ways to chat about what children are feeling. School looms large in the life of any child and its influence grows as children get older. So getting a child to talk about school experiences will only bring parent and child closer together and the child will feel he has an ally in his school struggles.

Engagement in our children's lives does not mean that we need to let them push our buttons and be manipulated into becoming their agents in any adverse issue they face. Too often when a parent hears or perceives a problem he will spring into action. "I'm going down to the see the principal and I'll straighten this out once and for all." Most of the time it's not a good idea. Our children need our advice so that they will be able to handle their own affairs properly; they don't need us to handle their problem for them.

Being positively involved in our children's lives means knowing what they are experiencing at school and what issues they face; it means listening and being there for them; it means offering encouragement and helping them develop self confidence. It certainly means setting limits and assigning appropriate consequences for non compliance. It may mean giving advice when asked and being a shoulder to cry on. It does not mean fighting their battles nor acting in their stead. Like training wheels on a bike, the child needs to know they are there so he won't fall but the less they are used the better the ride.