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In speaking with a friend about her son today, she asked:
Based upon your teaching, what are the three biggest mistakes that you see parents make.

I answered without hesitation:

1.Telling a son or daughter that “it’s okay to defend yourself if someone has hit you first.” I inform my students to defend themselves with their feet by running away as fast as possible. Not only could that next punch change a person’s life forever, but you never know what a person might have in his or her pocket. As a kid, I ran into bullies with knives on two separate occasions, and both times, I found myself wishing that I had run from the altercation rather than escalating it by punching back. Reacting to a punch or a slap with one of your own can result in finding yourself on the losing end of something a lot more dangerous than a balled-up fist.

2. Involving oneself in disciplinary proceedings at school by demanding specific punishments for students who have wronged your child. This happens when a parent insists that a student be suspended or expelled for transgressions against their own child. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with parents expressing concern for the safety and well-being of their child, presuming that they have any roll in metering out specific punishments is a mistake. While it’s perfectly acceptable to demand that action be taken to ensure the safety and happiness of your child (and to be mad as hell while doing so), parents must trust teachers and administrators to do what is right when it comes to handling the specifics. Teachers and principals are unbiased professionals who are invested in the good of all parties involved, and therefore they should be trusted to do what is best. Attempting to involve oneself in the specifics of disciplinary proceedings can cause even more problems between the families and students involved.

3. Failing to make a child’s life difficult when he or she fails to meet basic academic requirements. Several years ago a former student came to visit me. She was an extremely intelligent young lady who had performed at a high level in elementary school but was now slipping in middle school.  After showing me her brand new phone and telling me about the weekend that she had planned, which included a trip to Six Flags with friends and two sleep-overs, she handed me her progress report.

One B, one C, and four Ds.

“Do your parents know about this?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I got it two weeks ago. They’re mad.”

Apparently not mad enough. They had just purchased her a new phone and were allowing her to enjoy a weekend of fun with her friends.

I asked the student why she was performing so poorly, and she admitted that her friends and her new boyfriend were distracting her from her learning.

As a good friend of mine likes to say, “You can pay now or you can pay later.”  As hard as it may be to discipline your child, failing to make your child’s life miserable when he or she fails academically will only cause greater problems in the future. Having raised a teenage step-daughter, I know how challenging those years can be, and I know how difficult it can be to constantly punish a child who is failing to meet expectations. But if you don’t strike while the iron is hot, you’ll find yourself with a seventeen-year old who lacks the study skills, work ethic and grades to realize success after high school.

That former student, for the record, is doing fine today. She managed to pull her academic career together during her sophomore year in high school and will be finishing college next year. But she was lucky. She realized the importance of academics before it was too late, and her exceptional intelligence allowed her to make up for lost ground.

Not many kids are blessed with those levels of wisdom and intelligence at such an early age. For most kids, parents must fill those gaps with support and discipline.

When they don’t, both parent and child will inevitably be paying later.