An "Activity Program" for Parents in Parent Education
by Elizabeth Johnson Reisner - 1935
The school must share with the parents themselves the responsibility for this family education. An educational program for parents ought to have as sound a pedagogy as one for children. This means essentially a program of parent activity.
IN "The Relation of Family and School Life in the Education of Children" (January 1935 issue of TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD), Professor Lois Hayden Meek says, "The schools have an important responsibility to make provision for helping parents to understand themselves and their children, to evaluate their own methods of guidance, to meet more adequately the problems of parents in this modern world." She says further, "School people must look forward to the time when, through family consultation centers and parent education activities, they can provide help in the solution of problems of family relationships."
Going on from where Professor Meek left off, and in supplementation of what she has said, it may be pointed out that the school must share with the parents themselves the responsibility for this family education.
There is a question whether any large measure of the responsibility for the training of children in the home can ever be assumed by others than the parents themselves. Parents may ignore their responsibilities, but will they ever abrogate them to the school? Or will they even accept much help from the school under the conditions of parent-school relationships in many communities? Therefore, it may be wondered how the schools could do it alone, even if they would! How could family consultation centers be established and begin functioning? Suppose those parents most needing help did not want to come? What pressures would the school then use? How would these pressures react on the parents who did not want their problems considered as "cases"? Would the consultation center seem to them different from the usual clinic of which they are so often apprehensive? Moreover, would not that prejudice and apprehension be augmented by the very nature of the propaganda which would probably be used to convince any community that the school ought to provide such a consultation center? Take, for example, the evidence which Professor Meek presented to make her case for consultation centers in the article referred to. The results of the clinical studies made from 1917 to 1927, which she quoted, may be just as valid to-day in picturing the lapses of the home. But does this piling up of evidence of the failures of parents bring them flocking to sources of wisdom and light?
But suppose, on the other hand, that there already existed between the school and the parents a close feeling of sympathythe "conscious interaction and interrelation" of Professor Meek's ideal! Whether this had been built up through individual contacts between the school staff and parents, or through organized parent-teacher activities, parents themselves could convince the parent body of the worth of such guidance.
We would like to show some of the possibilities of a program of parent education administered by parents, with the cooperation and support of the school; and to indicate how such a program can be a foundation for further parent education through consultation bureaus staffed by experts.
While recognizing the tremendous scope and significance of the parent education movement through organized parent groups in the schools of the country at large, I shall report here only our own experience as parents working with other parents in our own schools toward a better understanding of our children and of our relationships with them. Our sons have attended the Lincoln School and the Horace Mann School of Teachers College, where we have participated in the activities of the parents for more than ten years.
Both these schools have, from the beginning, realized that the education of the child takes place in the home as well as in the school, and that the school and home must cooperate in any program that is to be effective for the child. They took the initiative in setting up informal discussions of the school program, in an effort to enlist the parents' support for the procedures of the school, stimulating and building up the parents' increasing desire to understand what it was all about. They encouraged any initiative on our part in planning further study of the school, assumed some responsibility for guiding such study, but never showed fear of the consequences of increasing parent activity. In this atmosphere of confidence, with parents always welcome at the schools with honest questions of parents honestly answered by the teachers or administrative officers, it was inevitable that the parents should see any gap which existed between the philosophy of the school and that of the home, and that the home, in turn, had to meet the challenge of the school on its practice.
In answer to this challenge, and, indeed, in answer to our own awakened perception of our deficiencies, "study groups" were formed in each school, where we parents met together to learn just what was involved in our part of the joint project of educating the child. While still leaning heavily on the staff of the school, because their professional training and experience made their contributions invaluable, we began to assume more and more responsibility for discovering the major interests and needs of our groups and for planning and administering our programs. To-day, in both schools, study groups are directed wholly by the parents themselves, and many of the programs are entirely contributed by parents.
Throughout this process of the development of self-directed activity in parent education, we have had the continuous support of the schools. This has been given in different ways: by the initial stimulus on the part of the school; by financial aid, when necessary; by generous cooperation of staff members in contributions to programs; but most of all, in the sustained confidence on the part of the schools that the parents would assume responsibility to make their meetings contribute to the welfare of the school. This confidence in us is the kind of support which has been the effective challenge to parents in these schools.
Of course this does not mean that the school's ideal for us, or our ideal for ourselves, has been realized one hundred per cent throughout these years. With more than a thousand families represented in these schools, there were, as a matter of course, many points of view represented, frequent conflicts of opinion, and occasionally some overt action inimical to the interests of the school. And it is also true that with so many temperaments and personalities among the teaching and administrative staffs, there would be times when there was a temptation to "shut down the lid" when the parental pot threatened to boil over. One time a staff officer said to a parent leader, in whose group open criticism had been made of certain school procedures, "You can't have parents meeting together like this, without a staff member present, and keep them from criticizing the school I It is just apt to make a mess!" But when it was pointed out that the dissatisfaction would have been felt in any case; and that those dissatisfied parents would have "let off steam" somewhere else; and, further, that expression of their opinions in the group had been met by an explanation and justification of the school's procedure by other parents who were more understandingthis administrator could see that the school had really gained through this experience.
Teachers and school administrators visiting Lincoln School and Horace Mann School have sometimes wondered at the urbanity of the attitude of these schools toward "the ubiquitous parent." On another occasion, one of the administrative staff was asked how he felt about an effort some parents were making to wield the club of group pressure to change a certain school policy. He replied, "I am not disturbed. There will always be parents who do not understand. Our job is to make them understand. This situation creates a temporary difficulty; but there is so much fundamental sympathy and understanding between the parents and the schools that an occasion like this is a challenge to us to reexamine our own position."
When a school and a parent body have built up a sympathetic relationship like the one described, a family consultation bureau with a trained staff who have experience and sympathy can function effectively. If such a center is supported by the school, and parents are left free to come (or not) with their problems, sure that they will be met considerately and understandingly, it is truly of tremendous significance in the progress toward that goal described in the last paragraph of Professor Meek's article. "Home and school have one common purpose: the guidance of children into 'life that shall be free.' Only through conscious interaction and interrelation will the way be found."
But such interaction means that guidance should not be directed solely toward "changing the parent." Inevitably parents will come to such centers with problems which they see as having originated in injustices on the part of the school. How could a consultation staff, employed by the school, handle difficulties such as these in a school where this fundamental confidence had not been built up? Would those administrators welcome the "mess" which a really impartial investigation of some of these problems might precipitate? A consultation center, where teachers as well as parents "consult," would offer wonderful possibilities for cooperation in the guidance of the child and for enlightenment of both the parents and the school.
Mutual respect and mutual confidence would be essential; and this is always a process of slow growth. Whether it is cultivated through the medium of organized parent groups in the school, or fostered solely through educational opportunities offered by such a consultation bureau, the influence of parents upon other parents will always be a factor which cannot be ignored. There will always be pressures of group opinion among parents for, or against, the program of the school. To unify these pressures in support of a program for the school would not be nearly so difficult as to unify them in support of programs for the home, which parents have been accustomed to regard as exclusively their own prerogative.
With optimum conditions in organization and personnel, it would take time for any bureau to develop this group support among parents. But boards of education would want to see results. "How many parents used the consultation center?" would be asked at the close of the first year. If no undesirable pressures had been used, would the cost of the experiment appear to have been justified? Would the school be able to wait for results, unless the spade work had already been done, and the ground softened by mutual understanding?
Not only is time needed, but continuous effort, to develop this basis of mutual confidence. It does not grow of itself. We believe it is the school's responsibility to promote the conditions of growth.
An educational program for parents ought to have as sound a pedagogy as one for children. This means essentially a program of parent activity. At Lincoln School and the Horace Mann School the parents are learning, through more and more practice in cooperative projects, to feel themselves as part of a school community, where a sharing of privileges entails also a sharing of responsibility. This has been true for a long time in respect to many of our parent activities; but it has been only in the last year or so that we have been able to work out a method in our study groups which embodies this principle.
The interest of our groups has often centered in the philosophies and classroom practices of the school; and we have learned the difference between criticizing or merely "discussing" them, and studying them. We have come to see that often we need a professionally trained person to interpret them to us. However, the major emphasis in our study program has been, for many years, on that part of the child's education for which we are responsible in the home, and particularly our attitudes and practices as parents in relation to our own children. Our problem has been how to get the help we need in our individual situations, how to satisfy the demand for the expert counsel to which we have been accustomed and at the same time develop the activity among ourselves which would foster cooperative attitudes and the sharing of a feeling of responsibility for the group, and would inspire all of us to want to learn better methods with our children. We believe we have found the answer in a method of studying in Parents' Seminars.
The use of the term "seminar" in connection with study groups for parents would have amused our academic friends a few years ago. But now that freshmen in many junior colleges do all their work in seminars, parents need not be timorous about appropriating the word to describe the same type of study.
In our seminars we meet together in small informal groups and exchange carefully prepared reports of our own study of our relationships with our children. These reports present constructive illustrations of how we have tried to apply to our concrete situations the principles which have been developed in lectures and discussions with professionally trained speakers. Our contributions are usually anonymous, being read by some other parent, with the real contributor unknown to the group, because it is desirable to center the interest on the methods we have used rather than on the individuals concerned.
Some of these reports have been so stimulating and helpful that it has seemed worth while to collect them in a series of pamphlets1 so that other parents in the schools, through reading them, may wish to join in future studies. It is hoped, too, that they will be suggestive to many parents not in our schools, both in the concrete experience offered and in the method of study they illustrate.
One seminar discussion of the early sophistication of modern youth was a striking illustration of how parents of widely different points of view are able to share appreciatively some ideals and some experiences. As they reported their ways of dealing with the problems of late hours, smoking, and cocktail drinking among boys and girls of high school age, these parents could see that their points of view represented a horizontal scale. There was the extreme right wing of parent opinion, represented by a mother anxious and determined to conserve the moral standards of her Quaker background. And there was an extreme left wing, who, themselves not sure what could be called right or wrong, felt that children should be allowed almost complete freedom.
After this discussion, some of the "liberal" mothers could see why the school must take a conservative stand on some of these issues, and they knew better how to explain this to their children in a helpful way. Many mothers wished to think their positions through again.
Moreover, we all realized that everyone had come for help, and there was a feeling of responsibility to make the study helpful to the whole group. We recognized, too, that we had some common goals, and that every contribution made constructive suggestions.
The courtesy of a respectful hearing for a carefully prepared report is itself a means of fostering tolerance. We parents need more practice in listening to one another's points of view without feeling we must instantly challenge them, or justify our own different opinions. Learning to see all around a question calls for self-control as much as for intelligence. As we have heard the papers read in these seminars, and have sensed the sincerity of conviction behind them, we have found ourselves reexamining our own procedures. Furthermore, we have found ourselves wanting more expert counsel on the matters under discussion. This is the spirit of seeking self-improvement upon which a bureau of consultation can build successfully.
But this desire for the help which the school is ready to give cannot be provoked from without. It must grow from within, be nurtured by sympathy, and developed through activity. Active participation in the program through which they are to learn is just as important for parent education as for childhood education; and this kind of participation means sharing of responsibility for, as well as sharing results of, the program.
1 Parents and Purse Strings. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1934. Parents and the Latck-Key. To be published in the fall of 1935.
One pamphlet in preparation, dealing with the parent's relationship to the boy-girl problem, the title of which is not yet determined, and another concerned with the development of responsibility in the child.