Interviewing for Pain

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Among teachers there is perhaps no greater pain than hearing a parent ask his child, “What did you do in school today?” We find it painful because we know what the answer will be in most cases. I’m not sure why this happens (perhaps the effort of recalling the entire day is simply too much!) but the answer is usually a terse “Nothing.”

This brief exchange is often followed by a series of interrogatories that yield scant information. Sometimes the parent follows the questioning with a scathing review of the school, its teachers, and the indolence of young people today. And no one profits from this particular bonding moment.

It could be worse. I recently read an article that dealt with the very recent phenomenon of “helicopter parents.” If you haven’t heard of them, let me share! Starting about a decade ago many parents began hovering (hence the name) over every aspect of their children’s lives. The net effect was that college professors began to refer to incoming freshmen as “crispies” (they were “burnt out” from hearing Mozart in utero and being on every winning-and-trophy-giving team since birth, ) and high school teachers were receiving angry texts from parents regarding every grade they gave. Coaches were not immune, either! In this column I have complained that many parents act as their child’s “agents” rather than their parents. Time Magazine devoted an entire section to this behavior in 2009. It seems that a fairly simple lesson (we learn from our failures) is one that the helicoptering generation simply would not embrace.

But certainly the very worst form of this behavior is what a colleague of mine calls “interviewing for pain.” This is the one where mom or dad gives covert but positive feedback to a child who reports every bad thing that happened during the day. The student is essentially rewarded for tattling, reporting sensation moments in the cafeteria, or pointing out the shortcomings of his teacher who might have reached the end of his rope that day. It happens, you know. But like the old adage in news reporting goes, if a dog bites a man, it’s not news. When a man bites a dog, however . . .

Pendulums swing. And there is a swing back toward more realistic expectations of what it means to be an effective parent. Some have argued that the recession actually helped our children by forcing a new listing of priorities (limiting extracurriculars, for example) upon families. Whatever the case may be, I am glad to see terms like “free range parenting” and “slow parenting” making their way into our conversations. The truth is that our children need to fall occasionally. We should be there to help them back to their feet and encourage them to try again.

It is an expectation in some families that children will learn something new each day. I suggest that “Tell me one new thing you learned in school today” would profit everyone.

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN