Parenting Like a Principal

Today, as I sat with a child in my office, one of the most fascinating discussions of my entire career began to ensue. Mind you, this particular student wasn’t kicked out of class, or called in for cutting. As a matter of fact, he’s not even enrolled in our high school.

This was my 5th grade son, affectionately referred to on Twitter as “EmerKid2.”

A little backdrop: Our son has recently been struggling with bringing home all of his homework materials. Today, yet again, he forgot an important textbook that he urgently needed for a pressing assignment. My wife was taking our kids out to dinner at a local restaurant as a special treat, and we agreed that it  didn’t feel  appropriate to include our 5th grader in this reward on the heels of this repeated offense.

Instead of enjoying a night on the town, EmerKid2 came to sit in my office and reflect on his behavior. When he arrived at our campus, he was visibly upset about missing the special dinner. I led him to my office and gave him a seat, and then left for a few minutes to go take care of some other matters.

When I returned, EmerKid2 was in much better spirits (coincidentally, my candy bowl was suddenly much emptier than it had been a few minutes prior). My son had taken out his Geronimo Stilton book, and was happily eating Mike & Ikes while poring over the pages.

I sat down in my chair and looked across my desk at the young charge in front of me. He looked back at me.

And then something wild happened.

We had a conversation.

Not a lecture. No yelling, pleading, or cajoling. Just a calm, respectful, mature give and take. I asked questions. I listened to EmerKid2’s answers.  It took me a few minutes, but then it hit me. I was having a administrator-student conversation, but with my own son. Somehow, sitting my office, my Assistant Principal instinct took over, and our conversation followed a template that I had been through thousands of times with my students.
And it was working!

 
I learned about the specific circumstances of his class schedule that were making it difficult for him to remember to pack his books in his bag. I learned a little more about which teachers assigned homework for which days. Armed with that information, we came up with some action items (I actually taught him what an “action item” is!) for what he can do to combat the issue of forgetting his materials. We also came up with an incentive plan that would reward him with a trip to Dunkin Donuts upon bringing home his work material for a week straight.
It was clear to me that being in my office had strongly impacted the manner in which I guided the conversation (the candy didn’t hurt either). I was approaching my son as I approach my students.

 
Now don’t get me wrong. I work very hard to maintain loving and respectful relationships with my kids at home as well, and we’ve had many positive conversations before. But I’ve also gotten extremely frustrated with my children, and I’ve even yelled at them.  I do think that there is an added degree of tension when it is your kid, that sometimes causes me as a parent to become overly emotional. Perhaps it’s the natural parental instinct to protect your children from harm. When it’s your own child that is doing something wrong, something clicks in the parent’s brain that gets our blood racing, and at times causes our first response to come out heavy handed, even when stemming from a place of love. When the discussion is with a student, as close as I may be with him, there is a natural separation, which allows for less negative emotion to seep into the conversation.

 
I came away from this experience with a firm resolve to bring more of the strategies that I have employed with my students into my home. Things like really listening, asking lots of questions, and trying to keep out negative emotion. It seems that the setting of the conversation is quite important as well. My esteemed colleague and friend Rabbi Elly Storch suggested that I designate a room in our home as the “conference room,” a quiet and separate place to have these sorts of conversations in. I agree wholeheartedly, especially in a home like ours with 4 awesome (loud) boys, and a baby sister who is learning to follow in their footsteps.

 
There will also be a good amount of candy.

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