Sunday, January 22, 2006

An overheard conversation

One experience which we probably all share is being in a public place and having our attention drawn to a conversation too loud to ignore. This happened to me during a recent holiday as I stopped off between appointments to grab a bite of breakfast.

At the table next to me sat two mothers engaged in what was essentially a contest to see which could bad-mouth her child’s teacher the worst. The emotion and volume of their conversation made it hard for me or anyone else at the surrounding tables to tune them out. One particular point, however, got my attention.

“My son got a zero on an assignment,” one mother stated, “and I didn’t find out about it until 5 days later in the weekly folder.” She continued, “If my child makes a zero, I expect to know about it that day!” Her point was clear. Keeping her informed (and on an up-to-the-minute basis) was the responsibility, and total responsibility, of her son’s teacher.

It took every bit of self-control I could muster to keep from turning to her and saying:

“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I agree with you 100% that if your child makes a zero, you should find out about it that day. But I disagree with you on who should be the bearer of the news. That responsibility belongs to your child. It’s called sitting down around the dinner table and making a discussion of how the school day went part of the conversation. It’s called giving an 8-year old some 8-year-old responsibilities so that when he’s 30 he can hopefully take on some 30-year-old responsibilities. It’s called having some expectations in your household, and being honest with Mom ought to be one of them. Then when the weekly folder does come, if there are surprises in it (like that zero that he somehow forgot to mention), you hold Junior accountable.

“Your child’s teacher is not going to be with him 24-7 to give you an instant update on who he is with and what he is doing in the community. If the only information you are getting on what Junior is doing is from his teacher, you are going to be looking at far worse problems in the next several years than a zero on an assignment.”

As I continued with my meal, a battle was going on inside my head. Part of me was urging me to speak up. After all, there is a young man who needs to accept responsibility for reporting to Mom the bad news, and a teacher who deserves better than being the subject of this conversation in a public place. The other part of me was saying to just to be polite and eat. After all, it’s none of my business—or is it?

As we think back to our own childhood’s, we probably remember fondly the various responsibilities our parents gave to us and for which they held us accountable. Responsibility was a gift they gave to us, and we are better people for it. In this day of “instant everything,” it is so easy to leave the child out of the loop and remove responsibility altogether.

As the situation played itself out, I simply finished my breakfast and paid the check. As I walked out the door, I could not help having felt that by remaining quiet, I had become part of the problem.

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