A dunce cap for Joe Chicago
By Shelley McKinney
Mr. & Mrs. Joe Chicago, please be seated. Thank you.
First of all, I am sorry to tell you that I have been very disappointed in the work you've been doing lately. There have been several incomplete assignments and some work that hasn't been done at all. I know that you are capable of doing better, and you are not working up to your potential in several areas. This needs to change -- do you understand? It is time to stop playing around and get serious about the way you are parenting your children.
It couldn't get much more offensive than this, could it? And yet beginning this fall, Chicago teachers will send home a report every five weeks that "grades" parents on what kind of job they're doing with their kids. And just in case this wasn't insulting and intrusive enough, parents who don't make the grade will be referred to "workshops" that will help them "improve their child-raising skills," according to Blondean Davis, who is the Chicago Public School Board chief of schools and regions.
Paul Vallas, the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools adds, "The objective here is to help parents by continually communicating with them and sending home a check-list that can serve as an instructive instrument, but also as a reminder...of what they should be doing."
What if the parents don't want to be "reminded"?
This "parent check-list," as Vallas describes it, will grade parents on a number of criteria, such as whether or not the child is appropriately dressed and is going to bed at the proper time and is read aloud to by the parents; if the child is tardy in the mornings, and on parental involvement in homework.
It seems like Vallas's heart is in the right place. After all, this is the man, according to a May 19, 2000 article in the Chicago Tribune, who purchased 5,000 pairs of boots for students who came to school improperly shod for snowy winter weather. He is also currently having 30,000 children tested by optometrists and fitted with glasses, if they need them. Although one might wonder where the money for all those boots was earmarked in the annual budget of the CPS, you have to say that he seems like the sort to actually do something useful for the children. Paul Vallas is a hands-on kind of guy, and that's rather admirable.
"We all complain about the lack of parental involvement...Let's do something about it," he says firmly. I can picture him striding determinedly down the hall of an elementary school in his dark business suit with a shopping bag full of pink snow boots banging at his heels, in search of a pair of cold little feet. It's a pleasant thought.
But these check-lists? As much as anybody would hope that a parent with any common sense whatsoever would know not to keep a second-grader up until 11:00 p.m. on a school night watching The Exorcist, we all know that there are parents out there who do unconscionably stupid things. Unfortunately, their dubious style of parenting is theirs, and they are free to practice it until their children are old enough to move out. As long as they aren't harming their children by physical abuse or wanton neglect, it is not the Chicago School Board's business what parents do with their kids. If parents choose not to read aloud the complete works of Dr. Seuss, that's their business. If parents choose to not help their children with homework, that's their business. It seems to me that this "check-list" might have the negative affect of completely alienating some parents.
Here's a sad fact that all veteran teachers have learned to face: not everyone is willing to be taught. This is sadly true not only for students, but I predict it will be true for their parents, also. I'm also betting that there are going to be quite a few parents who will be livid that some teacher, who doesn't even know a particular family's dynamics, is presuming to judge them on their parenting skills, or lack thereof. Some might accuse me of making a big leap here, but I don't think so: In my opinion, this is the politically correct, non-judgmental world that liberal thinkers have set us up with: You don't dare tell anybody that anything they are doing is misguided, or just plain wrong.
Don't misunderstand me. There have always been idiot parents out there. But a generation ago, people tended to have the same values and the same codes of conduct. It wasn't unusual for everybody's mom in the neighborhood to be symbolic of your own mom, and if Mrs. Baranski told you and your friend to stop picking Mrs. Wiles's tulips, by golly, you'd better get out of the garden. If your own parents ever found out that you had given even one moment of displeasure to either of those two ladies, there was a world of hurt awaiting you at home. The few parents who didn't abide by the parenting rules were looked at with eyebrow-raised askance by other families on the block. Few people needed check-lists when I was a child growing up in the seventies because parents adhered to the child-raising standards that were passed down from their own parents. Even the more avant-garde parents (who allowed their children to call them by their first names) followed the rules, even though those kids ate bean-curd-and-lentil "meat loaf" on Tuesdays, instead of the regular old ground-chuck kind that most moms made.
Obviously, things have changed. Now that values and morals have all become relative, anything goes that isn't downright illegal. Parents who would let their kids stay up to all hours on school nights and have soda pop and ice cream for dinner, or develop hammer toes from wearing outgrown shoes would have been the pariahs of the neighborhood at one time. But we are not allowed to express any disapproval of people's selfish and destructive, albeit legal, behavior anymore, and I believe that teachers in Chicago's public schools are going to find out that Paul Vallas has bitten off a great big chunk of trouble for them to chew on. Mr. Vallas and the CPS teachers cannot make parents put their kids to bed at eight o'clock, although I suppose it will afford some of us some cynical amusement watching them try.
And anyway, I'd like to see a more ecumenical checklist. Not all the students in Chicago's schools are from lower-income homes (that's who those check-lists are aimed at, in case you haven't figured that out yet) and I think that Paul Vallas is misguided in not taking a swipe at yet another sub-group of parents. For instance, how about questions such as: Do you have your child involved in 4,000 after school activities to boost your own ego, even though your child has no opportunity to just relax and be a kid? How many hours does your child spend each week in after-school care while you and your spouse pursue your Very Important Careers? Are you unnecessarily materially indulgent with your child to assuage your own guilt at purposely taking a job that requires lots of travel and/or extremely long, late hours?
A man as in touch with the needs of children as Mr. Vallas is must realize that lousy parenting wears two different faces. Big Brother would surely want him to address both of them.
Shelley McKinney is a staff writer at Ether Zone and freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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