Reduce school pressure by trusting the journey

Posted October 13, 2008 10:53 a.m. EDT
Updated October 13, 2008 12:12 p.m. EDT


For parents frustrated by the shrugs and mumbled one-word answers to the question “How was school today?” psychologist Michael Thompson has a suggestion: Think about how you would have answered that question during your own school days.

In his book “The Pressured Child: Freeing Our Kids from Performance Overdrive and Helping Them Find Success in School and Life,” co-authored with journalist Teresa Barker, Thompson encourages parents to reflect on their own school experiences. Was it boring, scary, loud, uncomfortable or exciting? This first step, he writes, helps parents “get back in touch with the gritty reality of being a child in school” so they can better understand their children’s experiences and respond in loving and effective ways.

Thompson will discuss his book and his theories from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 28 at Cary Academy. Order tickets by visiting the Carolina Parent Web site.

In the book, he delves into the lives of several middle school and high school students from diverse backgrounds. He weaves their personal stories – gleaned through interviews and shadowing them at school – with his own experiences as the father of two children and 20 years of working with schools, students and parents to present a picture of the academic, social and developmental challenges of school life.

But don’t have the misguided notion that a better understanding of the pressures facing students will help you be more effectively involved in your child’s lives. In a recent interview, Thompson quickly dispelled any notion that parents should take away from this book ideas on how to get more involved in their children’s school day to learn more about the pressures they face.

Parents accustomed to knowing every detail of their children’s early lives, from how many Cheerios they ate for snack to which toy and what friend they played with, can find it unnerving not to know what’s going on for six or more hours five days a week. And it can be difficult to stand aside when a child faces a problem.

To avoid crossing the boundary between providing support and becoming too involved, Thompson suggests applying a “would-I-have-wanted-my-mother-to-do-this-for-me?” test. He provides an example of a third-grader who is struggling socially. A parent might arrange to get some of the kids from the class together, which could be a good move. But calling other parents and asking, “Why isn’t your son nicer to my son?” doesn’t pass the test.

“It is essentially the child’s journey,” he says. “Development is in charge.”

In essence, parents need to trust their child’s development and their child’s unique school journey.

“You can’t go to school with your child. You can’t pick your child’s friends,” Thompson says. “You wouldn’t have wanted your mother to go to school with you.”

He isn’t advocating for a complete hands-off approach, though, and he is sensitive to parents’ feelings of helplessness when children go to school. "The Pressured Child" includes advice on how to engage and support children during times of transition or periods when they need assistance.

Finding a school that is a good match for a particular child is the most important factor in a child’s school life, he says. In the book, he outlines five things schools should provide to be a good fit, as well as things that boost a student’s fit with a school. But he advises parents to keep in mind that no school is perfect for all children. The right fit depends on the child.

Thompson cautions parents not to accept grades as “the goal and measure of their children’s school success” or to focus on the future. Instead, he asks parents to “set aside your fears and assumptions and expectations,” think about the psychological and developmental changes during this time and tune in to the reality of your child’s daily life.

“School is neither a race nor a competition,” he says. It is more like a long-distance hike, a “test of endurance, character and above all perseverance.”