Dealing With Supportive-Aggressive Parents

Chip MillerChapin Miller is the Academic Dean and a history teacher at The Gunnery. He brings an unusual range of experience to his life in boarding schools, from time spent as a surveillance technician in the Air Force, to life as a copper craftsman, and even a brief stint in sales. Much of his work both as an undergraduate and in graduate school has revolved around pedagogy, with a particular interest in educating for active civic engagement. He has lived in many countries, and in many dorms. He has coached soccer, boys and girls crew, and the outdoor program. 

In describing our values, we often use words like grit, courage, character, independence, integrity, creativity and innovation. We ask that our students take intellectual risks, cultivate self-awareness and respect for others, and embrace a sense of responsibility to their community. Though our phrasing may vary, these values are at the core of what we do. Yet they are not always an easy sell.

This disconnect may stem from a focus on high profile colleges and narrowly defined professional goals, on dreams of becoming a professional athlete, or on a desire for immediately quantifiable results. The inability to see that success on any of these scales requires that one embrace values such as those mentioned above is part of the problem. Another part of the problem, which can feel very large at times, is the challenge of dealing with supportive-aggressive parents.  These parents actively manage their child’s success for them. Grades, rules, even exercise can be obstacles to supportive-aggressive parents, and obstacles must be removed rather than overcome.

It’s a frustrating dynamic, but a friend pointed out that while we care about all of our students, our parents’ concern is often for their own child exclusively. They love their children, and their intentions are good. I find it helpful as well to keep in mind the basic anxiety behind the behavior. In the end, managing the anxiety, anticipating and alleviating it, is better than reacting to it or dismissing it. It is also helpful to remember that they are a small percentage, however vocal, of our parents.

Frederick Gunn, our school’s founder, believed that disciplinary situations are among the best moments in which to educate. Discipline is not about dealing with bad kids. It’s about dealing with good kids who have made bad decisions. It’s about kids being human. My real challenge in working with a kid who has made a mistake is not determining if a rule was broken, but whether or not the student can acknowledge the mistake. Can he or she learn from it? Can he or she grow?  Here is where the supportive-aggressive parent’s impulse to remove obstacles does the most damage. In their rush to insure that their children achieve their goals, in their insistence on clearing all bumps from the road, supportive-aggressive parents will circumvent the lessons so essential to a child’s success. In this way the values that we all care so deeply about are compromised.

How then do we get ahead of this dynamic? How do we encourage parents to embrace the obstacles, to welcome the lessons contained within? How do we invite parents who understand that their children grow through challenges to help us win over those who do not? How do we convince the supportive-aggressive parent that in clearing all obstacles from their path they are crippling their children?  Happily, the days when parents placed their children on the Hogwarts Express and were not heard from again are gone. A collaborative partnership is far more productive, but the supportive-aggressive dynamic threatens our progress in this area. This larger concern draws me to these questions, and hopefully to their answers.

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