Let parents parent and teachers teach

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Tuesday, for the first time in many years, I won't have a kid going back to school at the TDSB: a teary moment but one we know must come. So, heartfelt thanks to teachers, principals and also (sometimes especially) support staff for a mostly great run. And in the spirit of a parental valedictory address, let me turn to Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown's recent climbdown for inspiration.

In a tight time-frame, Brown managed to say he'd "scrap" modest changes in sex-ed, then defend that position vigorously, then reverse it completely -- all with apparent sincerity. He spins well, and not in the usual political sense of lying. He pirouettes. What I want to seize on is the opening line in his initial declaration, intended as self-evident boilerplate: "I believe parents are the primary educators of their children." That's where he began to go wrong.

It's just untrue. Parents are the primary parents of their children, not their teachers. Parents may be secondarily -- perhaps metaphorically -- educators, just as educators can fill in parentally -- but that's symbolic too. Mostly parents should parent, which is hard enough. For learning purposes, kids need people at a distance, who are therefore easier to absorb instruction from and, when needed, criticism; who can calmly point out when kids succeed and don't.

Personally I think when Hippocrates said, "First, do no harm," he was talking about parents and got misquoted. It's weirdly hard to shape or mould your kids -- their resistance is seldom futile -- but it's remarkably easy to mess them up, because the bond is so taut that every interaction reverberates inside them. Philip Larkin is the authority here: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do." If you manage not to, you've done well.

The whole point about teachers is that they don't have the intense connection to kids that parents do, so they can effectively teach. Warmth in teachers is overrated, even in the early grades. Older kids may find it false or offensive, whereas respect at any level is always in season. For warmth and love, you need parents or -- next best -- a sympathetic adult, somewhere.

In a well-functioning social system, parents parent and educators educe. But systems rarely function well and that's the main justification for parents getting involved in their kids' schools. My own favourite parents' group, People for Education, burst into existence in the late 1990s as a desperate, explicit response to Tory premier Mike Harris's efforts (for his own obscure, fascinating reasons) to ravage Ontario's schools: to stop him from doing (yet more) harm.

What about positive roles for parents? They're probably innumerable. Here's one that appeals to me: parenting as witnessing. You don't "teach" your kids what to do or how to be, but you play back to them the best in their own impulses and responses to the world and you do it appreciatively and enthusiastically. I call as my witness, Leafs' coach Mike Babcock. The National Post asked what he'd tell his younger self about figuring out what to do in life. He said: "I was lucky. My mom told me I was special every day. She told me I was going to make a difference in the world… I heard that my whole life." Note that he was not told what he should do, or even nudged in a particular direction.

Yet being directive can work too, in fact almost anything can, depending on the parent. In that way it's exactly like teaching. In either case there's no one right way, since both are about relationships, which depend on the unique individuals involved. What I don't get is why that seems harder to understand in the case of teaching than parenting. Let parents parent and teachers teach.

As for Patrick Brown, what eggs him on? Is he truly as malleable and flexible as he seems? He was a Harperite during his years in Ottawa as an MP, opposing same-sex marriage and even ready to reopen abortion. Now he's trying to look as Wynnian as Kathleen Wynne on gender. But even a weather vane needs a certain unreflective stiffness in order to move with the wind. There are worse things in politics than an unprincipled readiness to shift continually for the sake of power. Like what? Like rigid ideologues and brazen blowhards.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: stockicide/flickr

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