The welcome power of parental engagement

Over the past 3 weeks I have spent some very uplifting time with parents of school students in Asia and Europe, and I have been reminded again of the vital importance of parental engagement in the educational – and life – journeys of their children. I have spent years – decades, now, in fact – listening hard to parents, and seeking always to establish a better understanding of their children and of their needs, in order to create a shared understanding about how we can – together – help guide and nurture them in the years ahead. Once this practice of drawing on multiple sources to understand children is instilled in educators, it is hard to shift it (and why would one want to?), and I find myself slipping naturally into deep listening mode whenever I meet parents, in whatever context. It takes a village to raise a child, after all, and the more we can understand about children from their parents, as well, obviously, as from the children themselves directly, the better our chance of providing those children with the kind of education and support that they will need to thrive and flourish in the world.

Of course, this does not mean that parents know and understand their children in their entirety, and this can often be challenging for parents to realise and accept. In fact, from the moment our children leave the womb (and almost certainly before this), as they begin to interact with the wider world, they start to form as an even more unique human being than their unique combination of genes would already suggest. With such original human beings in front of us, as parents or educators, we have to understand that there is no absolutely clear roadmap ahead of them, and no cookie cutter or conveyor belt approach to guiding them and supporting them that will result in a sure-fire outcome (contrary to the assumptions that underpin many curricula). Our assumptions about who children can or might be are also coloured – inevitably – by our own assumptions, perceptions, vicarious hopes and ambitions … in fact, at times it is a wonder that children manage at all to escape childhood with a strong sense of their unique selves. As the people closest to children in their earliest years, and who are bound to their children with unconditional love, parents are uniquely placed to see early traits in their children, and while these will evolve and present in different contexts beyond the parent-child relationship, parents have a rich and deep understanding. If they are prepared to notice, reflect, and above all share what they see with the wider community of caregivers and educators of their children, while remaining open to seeing their children from the different angles of others, they are giving their child an enormous gift – of shared understanding.

No one person can be all things to a child – a parent is not an aunt, a family friend, a teacher, or a kind stranger in a shop who stops to say hello and play for a moment. Each of us has our own roles to play, and we need to be mindful of the boundaries of these, respecting what others have to bring to the task of bringing up a child. For some children, circumstances dictate that certain relationships will be more important than others; there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ balance of people around children.

But one truth is evident – when parents engage wisely with others, especially schools, about their children, knowing when to intervene, when to advocate, and when to withdraw, all the while sharing as clearly as possible their insights, feelings and perspectives, then we will all have the best chance to work together to help each and every child thrive.

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