When anxious parents are the problem, what is the solution?

baby-girl-knee-padsHow should schools, nurseries, kindergartens and other education, childcare and play services respond to anxious parents? I was asked this question recently by an Australian early years educator who heard me speak a couple of months ago.

She explained that her setting’s outdoor space was very small and sparse, but that it was located in some more extensive school grounds. She was keen to take the children into the grounds, so they could play games that they do not have room for in their own yard. She wanted to do this, not only because of the extra space, but also to prepare the children for the transition to the ‘big school’ that many of them would soon be joining. She continues:

Unfortunately, one parent has refused permission for their child to have anything to do with the school, because “she’s not going to that school next year”. I’ve spoken to my managers, and there’s nothing I can do about one parent preventing all the children from going to the school. I am not able to ask the child to stay home on those days. I am not able to leave her with one staff member at the setting. I am not able to leave her at the school office. And when I appealed to the mother she said that it is my problem.

It is amazing that one parent can determine what all the other children will be able to do! I asked my managers if they could make it a compulsory policy from next year’s enrolments that parents give permission before enrolling to access the school grounds. However, they said no, as I am supposed to engage with our community, according to regulations.

They did say they would look into it, as they hadn’t come across a parent like this before. I said they should, because there’s always one parent! If a parent doesn’t give permission then it’s certainly to their child’s detriment, but to affect everybody else’s rights to go on an excursion or to do an activity that is deemed beneficial and educational is not right.

Note the real problem here. It is not parents as a group. It is not even that some parents are more risk averse than others. Yes, some parents may be overprotective. But many are not – they actively try to give their children opportunities to have everyday adventures, to experience risks and to take some responsibility for themselves. The real problem is that because of the policies and procedures of the setting, the views of a single parent are enough to derail things.

baby-knee-padsParents, like the rest of us, are on a spectrum when it comes to their attitude to risk. At one end of this spectrum, some parents apparently feel the need to protect their children through against all possible harm, even the harm from crawling on a hardwood floor.

Many parents are at the other end of the spectrum, and are relaxed about allowing their children to take a bit of responsibility for themselves as they grow up. Some, for instance, are happy to allow their children the chance to complete the North Face of the Doorframe – though note the parent’s comment on the video: “This was undertaken by a highly trained three year old who was well aware of the risks involved.”

All too often, systems and procedures effectively give risk averse parents a veto. Schools, services and settings feel under pressure to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. And as the anecdote above shows, more often than not, the result is that all children lose out on some vital learning experiences.

My take-home message to services – and especially service managers – is simple. If you want to allow all children the chance to spread their wings a little, you cannot set your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. In the nicest possible way, you need to be assertive with the ones at the fearful end of the spectrum. Of course, confrontation is not helpful, but they should not be allowed to think that they have a veto on what you offer to children.

How worried are you about the influence of anxious parents? What messages to parents get about your values – for instance, in your publicity materials, or your mission statement – and how well do these values square up with your practice? Have you succeeded in winning the more risk averse over to the idea of expanding children’s horizons? Or do your procedures get in the way? I would love to hear your views and ideas.

16 responses to “When anxious parents are the problem, what is the solution?

  1. cherese bradnum

    I think parents today are swept up with the notion of what they think is right. Seems a shame that a whole class should lose out because of one. I think society not just parents are so worried of children hurting themself or getting sued they do not allow children to take risks. Only yesterday when waiting for a bus a women came out of her door and told. My children not to Play on steps as she didn’t want to be responsible if there was an accident. If my children fall in an sure. They would get up, brush of the dirty and just get on with it. My children, my responsibility. But am example of how something so simple can be turned into a health and safety issue. Children need to learn how to take risks and to evaluate what kinda risk.

  2. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

    Eminently sensible view and advice! Schools need to stop pandering to parents’ views over educational issues (they also need to stop blaming parents for things schools should be responsible for e.g. reading)

    • I am a mother of 3 and wokerd until my oldest was 4 1/2. At that time, I quit my job as a teacher to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. My youngest started kindergarten today. I have volunteered in my children’s classrooms for the past 2 years and will continue to do so this year. Volunteering is one of the most satisfying experiences you will ever have! You get to know all of your children’s classmates on a personal level and it allows you to participate in your children’s lives on a whole new level. There are many wonderful public schools out there! Do some research. Talk to some parents who have children attending the schools. This is the era of choice. If you live in a district that is unsatisfactory, you can open enroll and choose a school that works for you. No school is perfect, but with parental involvement, all schools are made better!

  3. I can not see how the child was not able to remain at school in another class (to opt out if you will). The problem is not just an over anxious (?)/ awkward parent, it is also in the schools response to the situation. Perhaps there is the fear the fear that children of such parents will be seen to be missing out as they are not allowed to participate, but that is a truth that can not be avoided, and is not the problem of the school to deal with, but for the parent to explain to their child (and hopefully relect upon). At my daughters school, a child has an allergy to peanuts, result? My daughter is not allowed to take a peanut butter sandwich in her packed lunch. I think along with the fear of litigation, and injury is the parental fear of time taken off work when things go wrong along with the penalties this can cause (both professional and financial). The legislation intended to protect our children is ruining their childhood, their future perspectives as adults, and therefore their future perspectives and actions as parents themselves. I think the media also play a huge part in this, I listen to isolated incidents and accidents involving children with a sense of fear and dread of what pleasures will be further removed from our children. We have so many laws to protect our children now, and they have so many rights, some quite rightly so, but the majority of these laws and rights remove our children from a real life with real responsibility, and give a distorted perspective of what their place in the world is.

  4. I would imagine that for you to take children to another “venue” that this would require permission slips, and be classed as an excursion. In this case the parent has the right to opt out, but not to restrict other children and parents from attending. I am not aware that there are any regulations governing that all children miss out on this type of experience due to an objector. If it is part of a transition program, the idea of transitioning is to give 1-3 experiences (maximum – as advocated by Kathy Walker as well respected educator with experience in this field) at the end of the year, so that the kindergarten experience which is so vital is not interrupted or devalued in it’s own right. It is also not determined by the school your child will attend, but by the experience of visiting a school setting. If your aim is to provide more interesting outdoor play experiences, then I would encourage you to get creative in your own space.

  5. I am imagining that MOST parents could be open to a discussion about the idea beforehand. If you could sit down in a quiet place, without distractions, and ask the parents to tell you more about their concerns, perhaps you could share with them some of the goals and intent of what you want to do. Also, you could expressly share your thought process regarding safety precautions that will be in place, and see if you can help assuage some of the fears?

  6. As you rightly say, this (like the nut ban example given above) is more about the school/nursery’s own risk-aversion than it is about parental anxiety. Who knows what this particular mother’s reasons are for not wanting her child to participate? Of course, do what you can to talk to parents and allay their fears, but the point is that many schools (including my children’s primary school) seem unwilling to take a stand on putting children’s needs (especially outside the classroom) above their fear of being criticised or blamed for any potential mishap. I would say that schools need more help to develop policies that enable them to make stronger, braver decisions for the benefit of the majority of children. Perhaps if this less risk-averse attitude (which some good schools do have) was better recognised and rewarded by regulatory bodies like Ofsted it would help encourage schools to adopt it.

  7. Great blog post. I tend to agree – the concern here is the decision made by the management team and the interpretation of policy and practice in place.

    I’m wondering if there are different expectations in Australia around the i off-site visits. In Scotland, the school grounds are not considered off-site thus no parental permission is required to take pre-school children out of the nursery outdoor space into the wider grounds. Second, the ratios of staff to children remain the same too, so extra parent helpers are a luxury and not a necessity to using the wider grounds. Children love the space and freedom afforded by a bigger, larger environment in which to play. They like the change and then can view their nursery outdoor space with fresh eyes and ideas.

    Here in Scotland, the only two curricular activities which parents have the right to remove their child or request alternative activities are for:
    1) Aspects of religious and moral education such as acts of religious observance
    2) Aspects of sex education.

    However, sometimes the angst that is created by outdoor activities means that parents feel the need to question the validity of the outdoor activity. It is important that a school knows its rights and responsibilities as much as a parent knows theirs.

    Most of issues I’ve come across have been around children with additional needs such as profound physical or behavioural challenges being able to access residential and other outdoor experiences.

    Not long ago, I did encounter a nursery that had asked its parents if they minded their children playing outside in the rain. The majority of parents said “Yes – they did mind and did not want their children playing outside on rainy days.” So the nursery used the parental opinion to justify staying inside during wet weather. Unfortunately, this was an unhelpful approach because the inspectorate systems in Scotland both expect outdoor play to be offered on a daily basis so would expect the staff to “educate the parents to the benefits of outdoor play”. Also it creates confusion as to what parents can have a say over, and what they can’t. Parents are often confused enough by the education system without educators needlessly muddying the waters.

    Parents who express their opinions are great (and as a teacher and head teacher I have had many in the past 20 years) . They ensure school policies and procedures are robust and help me clarify my principles and vision. They have made me check and double check the validity of my classroom practice.

    I like working with parents who are worried or ask questions because its an opportunity to engage in dialogue, share ideas and ultimately provide a better education for their own and other children.

  8. As most people have spoken about educational settings, here’s my view on the issue from a public park provision perspective (alliteration unintended) –
    When I wanted to create a new, expansive adventurous play experience at a specific spot in a town’s premier park (because that was where children aged 8-16 would gather each day after school, and that’s where they said they wanted it) some parents objected, using the same old hackneyed excuses such as a sudden crime wave out of nowhere, drugs, noise, blah, blah. My head of department was what I suppose you would describe as a typical risk-averse manager, more afraid of how it would affect her career if the tide of objection won the day, rather than being determined to see a positive outcome for the wider community. Fortunately I had a fantastic, supportive Cabinet member who believed in what I was trying to achieve and had seen it all before. She was willing to stand up to any of the weak arguments against the project and she made sure it was delivered as planned. And best of all, the site’s user numbers have been huge and youth crime in the town centre fell almost 20% over the next 24 months, which I can only imagine has really frustrated the doom-merchants. So I guess what I’m saying is that the management, whether in a park, school or elsewhere, has to have some backbone; a determination to do what’s right for the greater good. A sprinkling of common sense, a willingness to make sure the rules work for, rather than against, and an understanding of `why they are there’ also helps.

  9. Thanks for all the comments so far. I really appreciate the thought and time behind them – and the positive feedback (thanks Juliet!). It is great to see this post has sparked some debate. Picking up some comments on the facts of the story first: Penny – my guess is that the early years setting only has one group of children, and staff ratios mean there is no option to leave a single child behind. Nic – the point is that the effect of the parental decision to opt out is to stop the experience from happening. (By the way, I don’t think the experiences are part of a formal transition program – that’s more of a spin-off. They are primarily about making best use of what is to hand locally.)
    On the wider issues: fear of litigation may be a factor. The message here is that this fear does not match up with reality. The Countryside Alliance carried out research in 2009 on compensation payments for claims relating to school trips and excursions. It found that the total amount paid out by local authorities across England and Wales over the last 10 years was below £1 million. Around half had not settled a single claim over the whole decade, while the average payment was a few hundred pounds per council each year: equivalent to a few pounds per school. Even in the US, litigation may not be as big a problem as people think – see a recent post on Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids blog.
    Michelle – I am sure you are right that most parents would be open to discussion in these sorts of situations. The question raised by the example is: what do you do about the ones that are not? This is where the procedures and policies need to work for educators, not against them.
    I think that the comments from Alka, Alice, Juliet and Neil bring out the key point. The bottom line is that educators and service providers need to be more robust and articulate about the importance of these kinds of experiences for children.
    Keep those comments coming. I’d love to hear more stories: of problems caused by parental objections, and of how these have been resolved.

  10. I say majority rules: 1 or 2 parents object out a class of 20-25? Well, I’m afraid you lose this one. You either keep the kid home, or if they go to school that day, they’re going to the playground or sitting in the library. And it’s not the school’s problem or the class’ problem, it’s probably not even your kid’s problem. Clearly it is YOUR problem. So sick of one or two whackos calling all the shots, and even sicker of schools showing no spine in the matter. Bet you anything they didn’t give the names of the dissenting parents. I say if your complaint is strenuous enough, attach your name to it and be ready to discuss it and offer a solution or alternative. You know….like a GROWN-UP?

    “Not my problem”….give me a break….

  11. I think the insurance industry probably has a lot to do with the over cautiousness of child care providers. I currently have to personally escort my 9yo son and sign him into his before school care centre which is on school grounds (and adds about 10 mins to my journey to work as there is no parking near the centre). This is at the same time as we have been told he doesn’t qualify for a school bus pass because at 9 years of age and living 1.5km from school, he is quite capable of walking to school rather than catching the bus.
    As for the situation in your post, how ridiculous! Can the children be taken in two shifts and that child just not go on either?

  12. I do homeschool my chdilren. It is the best option for our family.They get a customized education instead of a cookie cutter one, with 100% parent involvement WITHOUT the inflated tuition. They learn about the real world by living in it, rather than reading about it in an artificial, forced-socialization environment. Where else in life are you segregated solely based on your year of birth and neighborhood? Public school is not the only, and is certainly not the best, option for socialization.

  13. Pingback: “Those rocks in that well are too dangerous.” | Rethinking Childhood

  14. Pingback: Risk, fear and freedom: a plea to parents | Rethinking Childhood

  15. Wow. That is truly disturbing to me. In our school system (US) if parents don’t sign the field trip form then the kid has to stay behind with a teacher at school. They can’t ruin it for the rest of us. However, when it comes to things like peanut ‘allergies’, one parent can rule the school. I read that 50% of patients who believed they had a food allergy were actually not allergic at all. But because one parent in my child’s class doesn’t want to risk exposing their child to nuts my child can no longer bring his PB sandwich for lunch. And if he does continue to bring PB for lunch, my child will be told to sit at a separate table by himself. This overprotective culture we’re embracing needs to be toned down a bit.

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