The problem of tired and sleepy students is often highlighted by educators as a pervasive problem. A recent conversation with a long-time educator, however, has left me concluding there may well be another more general area impacting negatively on our children's development that needs immediate attention: lack of active, supervisory participation by parents in their kids' education.
Being aware of how your child is doing in school needs to be as much a part of the family routine as bedtime.
A good self-check you can do weekly is to ask yourself, and to discuss with your spouse, "Are we comfortable with how the kids are doing in school right now?" This of course includes how they are doing academically, but it also includes knowing how they are doing socially and in their relationships with teachers.
Here is the crucial part to keep in mind. Knowing how your child is doing in school does NOT mean that you need to solve every problem or that you even can solve every problem your child is having. This is such an important point because parents often feel helpless about problems in school and so prefer to ignore them until and unless the problems get out of control.
You know very well that it would be a bad policy to ignore bedtime until your kids can't get up in the morning without a struggle. Ignoring things is not a good policy for anything relating to your kids and it is definitely important to take an active participatory interest in your child's school life.
This does not mean that you become overbearing either with your child or the teacher. The last thing teachers want is a parent calling every other day asking, "So, what did my Sara do in school today?" Teachers, however, respect parents who treat them like partners in their children's education.
The educator I was visiting with remarked on how parents sometimes handle a call when there is a problem with their child. "They, of course, act like it's a bother," he said. "That's natural; we just told them something they really did not want to hear. But I am amazed because so many parents will then act as if, 'It's your problem. You're the experts, you fix it.' Parents have the attitude that if it did not happen at home, it's not their problem."
Parents, he is saying something very important. Let me put it in a Jewish perspective. The Torah says, "And you shall teach them to your children," meaning the precepts, the rituals, and the traditions of Judaism. The Halacha, the Jewish law, derives the parents' obligation to also teach their children a trade and other subjects as well.
There is an inner, spiritual dimension to this Halacha. When the Torah says that you shall teach your children, it is not merely issuing a directive. The Torah is relating a spiritual truth: parents are their children's primary teachers about life. Your children learn from seeing how you behave and your attitude toward how they behave, what you make important and what you ignore, how you treat people, and so on. Your approach to school and teachers is part of the foundation of your children's education and guides them on how they should approach school and education. This is the spiritual message Judaism gives to all parents.
Let's bring homework in now as an example. Helping your children with their homework is a great and time honored way of getting involved in their education and in their lives. So many times, though, it becomes an unpleasant struggle. There are two major problems operating here. One of them is that the parent is just plain tired and would rather do something more relaxing. I have no solution for that. I can only offer you sympathy — you are not alone. Remember, though, just as you would rather be relaxing, so would your child. The hour you spend helping with homework instead of relaxing is teaching your child what you value in life.
The second problem has to do with parents' expectations of their children. I want to share with you a lesson I received many years ago from Rabbi Isaac Wasserman, the Dean of Yeshiva Toras Chaim in Denver.
My son was no different than anyone else's child. Studying with him was sometimes frustrating and not at all fun. I complained about this to Rabbi Wasserman and he replied, "Why do you think children find it easier to learn with their teacher than with their parents?"
I said I didn't know.
"Because when they learn with their teacher they start out as a zero and whatever they show they know raises them closer to a hundred in the teacher's eye. On the other hand, with their parents, before they open the book they are a hundred. But once they say anything, all they can do is make mistakes and get closer to a zero in their parents' eyes."
Homework is not an opportunity to point out all of your children's academic or behavioral shortcomings no matter how tired and short of patience you are. You are helping your child with his or her homework for that exact reason — to help your child. Praise your child for what he or she knows and offer help with what is difficult. Homework is an opportunity to get to know firsthand your children's strengths and weaknesses, not to criticize them.
The Jewish perspective is that the teacher, the principal, and everyone involved in your child's education are your agents, educating your child in your place. Treat these professionals as your partners and your representatives. This means always speak about them to your children with respect.
When doing homework with your child, do not belittle them or blame them for your child not knowing material. They are your agent, back them up. When you think they have acted wrongly, contact them, let them know how you see the situation, explain how you backed them up in front of your child, and seek a solution together. You will be pleased with the cooperation you receive from educators when you have this attitude and you act in this way.
You don't have to wait till there is a problem to show you are involved in your children's education. Pick up your child from school every so often and use it as an opportunity to say hello to the teacher and to ask a quick "How is it going so far?" It's hard to leave work early, but if parents take turns every three weeks or so, then it works out to only a few times a year for each parent. And make sure to smile — the teacher has had a long day, too.
Parents' involvement in their children's school life should be as much a part of the family's routine as meals, chores, bedtime, religious rituals, and entertainment. The key words in parenting are consistency, self-discipline, and gentleness. Remember this especially with homework. And apply it to all areas of your child's school life so that you are fulfilling in the best way the Torah commandment to be your child's teacher.