Each summer we send an anonymous parenting survey to all of our parents. We encourage parents at every grade level to answer the questions, to open up conversations about parenting decisions that we largely make in isolation. This data can help rebut children who say “but everyone my age has a cell phone / stays out until 2 am / goes to R-rated movies.” The data from our survey allows parents to respond “actually only 43% of the students in your grade receive an allowance / are allowed to drink wine at Kiddush / do not have chores.”
Questions for parents of all children include bedtime, amount of technology use, whether parents own a gun in the home, how frequently parents help with homework, and how frequently families eat dinner together. Questions for parents of older children include whether they allow their children to watch R-rated movies, whether they have a cell phone, whether they are comfortable sharing their history with drugs and alcohol, whether they would want to hear from other parents with concerns about their child’s at-risk behavior, and whether they would in turn contact other parents with concerns about other children’s at-risk behaviors. We also ask how frequently family values are discussed, how much access parents have to their children’s social media posts, and whether host parents are open to receiving phone calls about supervision from guest parents when children have grade-level gatherings in the home. Some years we have asked about kashruth and Shabbat observance, depending on what exactly we are seeking.
The goals of this parenting survey and follow-up meeting include:
As a Jewish day school in particular, the more core values we share with parents, the stronger the partnership; this survey and the follow-up meeting allow this partnership to flourish amid a substantive, values-laden conversation.
Our first parenting meeting of the year is dedicated to sharing the results of this parenting survey. Before the results are distributed, we ask people to stand along a continuum as they respond to certain prompts such as “I put a lot of pressure on my child to succeed.” Those who agree completely stand on one end of the room and those who put no pressure on their children stand on the other side. Parents share why they are on that particular side of the room, and often there is movement as parents share reasons that other parents may not have thought about. One of the most revealing visuals is the contrast between when every parent present stands on one side of the room concerning a desire to hear from other parents with concerns about their own children…but almost nobody remains on that side of the room when asked about sharing their concerns with other parents. We then discuss how to rectify this discrepancy, and often end up with the school offering to be the conduit for these conversations. At a previous school a parent who was unaware of one of her children’s addiction actually lost that child, and pleaded with other parents to please share any suspicions at all with other parents, as it could save a life. This was an incredibly emotional moment for all of us at that meeting.
The survey also reveals degrees of parenting choices, depending on the multiple choice answers provided. For example, when asked about gun ownership, the yes answers are subdivided into the options unloaded and locked away, unloaded and not locked away, loaded and locked away, and loaded and not locked away. I worked at a school where a family reported that they had a loaded gun not locked away, which of course encouraged a very specific conversation before any child spent time in the home of another. For the question about wanting to hear about your own child’s at risk behavior, the yes response is subdivided into “with any suspicions at all,” “only if the parent was quite confident that my child was at risk,” and “only if the parent was certain that my child was at risk.” Notably, parents would like to hear with any suspicions at all, but will only share (possibly) with other parents if they are quite certain about the other child’s behavior choices.
The survey often reveals the variety of choices we make in our own homes. An intentional consequence of discussing the survey results is that parents are more likely to have a conversation with other parents as a result. Typically a conversation about one child spending time at the home of another could start with a variety of possibilities, including “I wanted to make sure an adult would be there the entire visit” or “I wanted to see whether I should send my child with kosher snacks” or “I wanted to be sure that, if you own a gun, it’s locked up.”
For many of the survey questions there is no “correct” answer. For some questions, there are recommendations from parenting experts which apply most of the time. For example, in general it is not recommended to share your own personal history with drugs and alcohol, because you could inadvertently glorify the experience or provide your child with a response such as “well you did it so how can you discipline me for that?” Of course, this general advice does not apply to all children or all parents. For example, one parent at a previous school revealed that she had to reveal her history, as she was an alcoholic (who had not had a drink in many years) and her child had to be aware of the genetic predisposition to addiction.
Often parents find themselves with similar challenges, and they remain after the meetings talking in a small group about a particular issue. Parents with older children are invaluable in these discussions, as they often reassure other parents that there is an end to the challenging stage their children are going through. They are also eager to share parenting techniques that worked with their children, and those that did not.
Other interesting results of the survey are age-based. At almost every high school age, parents have expressed comfort with their children going on 1-on-1 dates “next year.” Parents seem to be more comfortable with their children watching R-rated movies alone beyond sophomore year of high school. Of course generally parents help their children less and less with homework over time, partly because they are trying to encourage independence and partly because Calculus homework is not something many parents are confident about!
Another revealing question is whether parents would go through their children’s rooms, with or without specific concerns. More important than the responses is the discussion that follows, trying to balance a child’s right to a certain amount of privacy versus concern for the child. Another question that has similar parameters is whether children are given a curfew. We discuss the implicit messages, positive and negative from each choice. While setting a curfew, for example, communicates a certain amount of distrust, it also communicates that “I care enough about you to prioritize your safety (over your happiness).”
We generally ask only one parent to fill out the survey. However, at the first parenting meeting, sometimes we see parents of the same child standing at opposite ends of the spectrum during the activity. For example, one parent may put a lot of pressure on the child, while the other does not. One parent may be comfortable with their child seeing an R rated movie, while the other is not. As fascinating as the discussions are with the entire parent group, sometimes the discussion within a single household are just as lively!
Because all of these conversations are initiated due to the parenting survey, the construction of the survey is quite important. Each year we also ask parents whether there are questions we should have included, which means the survey is typically a little bit longer each year. Naturally we also have to consider how much time people will spend on the survey, particularly if we are asking for responses for each child (to account for the various grade level questions).
There are times when parents have contacted me later in the year with concerns about another child in the school. I have placed phone call to parents where I have said “I am calling from the school. This is not a disciplinary situation. But in the spirit of the survey, where parents want to know if their children are engaged in at-risk behavior, I want to share with you that I have second-hand information that your child may be cutting / bulimic / drinking alcohol on a regular basis.” Most of the time the parents are thankful for the call but don’t believe the issue exists. More times than not, I have received a follow-up phone call, thanking me for sharing the information and verifying the concern. Then we can work together to help the child.
The other positive outcome from this parent survey and follow-up meeting is that we are all gathering together with the intention of partnering to raise the children who attend our school. This visibly gives the message that we are all on the same team, and we are all partners. Everyone leaves with good feelings and lots to think about. Finally, I always tell parents that at a very minimum, getting to know the parents of your child’s friends is invaluable so that you can speak together openly about your children. When I was a child we had parents of friends who we considered Mommy #2 or Daddy #2. The survey and follow-up meeting increase the likelihood of our students having the same advantages!
Paul S. Oberman, PhD, is currently the Head of School at Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston. He has been involved in education since 1989 and learning from his mistakes as an administrator since 2002. He loves considering education at all ages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.