Parent Disengagement: Learning to Let Go

This spring and summer as a partner on the GEAR UP Kentucky state college readiness grant, CTL is leading a series of face-to-face and virtual leadership academies for teachers and administrators in participating schools. The work provides opportunities for professional learning and leadership development in areas we know are critical to building a school’s college-going culture. One of those areas is parent engagement, which both research and casual observation suggest contributes significantly to the likelihood that a child will aspire to, be prepared for, and successfully attain and complete a college education.

As part of my work in communications for CTL, I recently produced a video for Partners for Education at Berea College for which we recorded parents and students participating in the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program at an eastern Kentucky middle school where parent engagement is not generally the norm. I was impressed by the obvious enthusiasm of both parents and students for the opportunity to interact with school personnel and one another in program activities. As one mother told me in an on-camera interview, “It’s a good time for us that we learn and grow together.”

Flying off seedMy own parents and my husband’s were very supportive and involved in our lives as students from the earliest years and beyond. As parents ourselves, we were likewise deeply engaged in our son’s and daughter’s school careers from preschool through high school and college. When I was a leader of the band boosters at our kids’ public high school, at the start of every school year I would tell parents of incoming freshmen that while they might believe their newly adolescent kids no longer needed or wanted them to be there, in truth there’s no more important time in a child’s life for parents to be involved.

So there you go: Participate in your kids’ schools and activities, encourage them to share with you what they’re learning and doing, and with whom they’re learning and doing it, and you’re all set, right? Not so fast.

Our own kids knew better than to question our involvement: It was a given that no matter what, we would be there for everything—open houses, teacher conferences, school events, performances, games, presentations, social activities—every occasion when parents were invited and some when we were not. Fortunately for all of us, both our son and our daughter were usually appreciative and often enthusiastic about our presence. Even as adults now living on their own with significant others, they continue to share their lives with us and call on us regularly for counsel and advice.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that somewhere in the middle of our deepest parental engagement, there were moments when we came to realize that parental disengagement is sometimes not only appropriate but necessary both for young people learning to become independent and for parents hanging on for dear life during the amazing rollercoaster ride we call parenthood.

One such standout moment for me as a mom came as our daughter, then a high school senior, was finishing a year in which she had served as an elected regional board member of an international youth group. Bursting with pride, we had of course attended both the out of town installation and de-installation events a year apart. Following de-installation, the group’s tradition was to hold a special late night ceremony in which the outgoing officers were celebrated by their peers who would share remembrances of their young leaders. Parents occasionally attended, and my husband and I were excited about the prospect of seeing our daughter’s friends pay tribute to her in such a special way—that is, until our daughter announced in no uncertain terms that we were most definitely not welcome to attend!

You’d have thought I would have been prepared, having read and re-read Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger (Harper Perennial, now in its fifth edition) as her older brother got ready to leave for his first year of college a couple of years earlier. The book, by an assistant vice chancellor for students, and a psychotherapist and member of the counseling staff at Washington University in St. Louis, is thoughtful, insightful, packed with good advice and liberally sprinkled with good humor.

But I was (briefly) devastated, deeply disappointed at not being allowed to share a special event in our daughter’s life. We managed to get past that bump in the road, moving on to weeks and years of shared important moments and events then (as now) yet to come. And I slowly came to understand that our daughter legitimately needed—demanded—an opportunity to have an important occasion with her friends to herself, to begin to establish reasonable boundaries for her emerging life as a young adult. Or as a friend with children about 10 years older than ours has noted, that our job as parents is to give children both roots and wings. Easier said than done!

In future posts I’d like to explore what that means for parents, especially in this age of instantaneous virtual communication. (Our son and daughter are just old enough that cell phones—not even smart phones—were just coming into wide use as they transitioned from high school to college.) When should parents step up, and when should they pull back, to ensure that young people develop the skills and self-confidence to learn, grow and make mature decisions on their own, yet remain safe and supported? What are the implications not just of parental engagement but disengagement in the process of helping kids prepare for life after high school? Please share your own thoughts and experiences as educators and as parents, and we’ll consider them together.

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