The Paradox of the Anxious Parent, Dr. Michael Thompson, Ph.D

The Paradox of the Anxious Parent, Dr. Michael Thompson, Ph.D


“Teaching is a rational profession, parenting is an irrational one”


            This is Michael’s first appearance at NAIS since Boston 2006 and he noted how grateful he is to return. 


            His main theme: we have to find a way to put limits on parents, because more and more information will neither ease the paradoxical parent nor improve the experience of the child.  The more involved the parents are, the less the child trusts the adults in our community, the less independent they become, and the less able they are to believe that the experience that they are having belongs to them, is for them.


            Over the past few years, Michael has spent more time teaching parents directly or working with teachers about dealing with difficult parents.  Why is that?  Teachers are not trained to work with adults–they went into teaching to work with students–and in the past 20 years, parents have really wanted to be involved.  They want to be informed and involved in the process.


            There is the paradox of the parents who won’t let go, who want the “laidback” experience, but also want their children to get into “those” colleges, the most competitive ones in our country. 



  • Parents are more involved in the education process.  Parents are fully mobilized to see their children (and their children’s experience) through the school journey, and when they sign a contract with us they make a covert and unreasonable contract with us, one that we neither see nor recognize initially, but because readily apparent very quickly.


  • The re-enrollment contract and the “psychological contract” are not the same thing.  We don’t know what the psychological contract until we let the parent down.  Parents want their students in the very best schools, but are disappointed and frustrated when their children struggle or are in the bottom half of the class of these very good schools.
    • New Yorker Cartoon: A mother talking to a friend while she has her arm around her daughter in front of the school: “Can you believe what’s happened to me?  She earned a low grade in self-esteem!”
  • The school romance: irrational hopes for schools
    • Parents often have an irrational belief in what a school can do for their child.  Schools are deeply flawed institutions, just better than anything else that we have tried.  We understand that we are deeply flawed, but we also believe that we are working to do what will be best for our students.  Parents are irrationally hurt when they see that the school that they have chosen somehow isn’t perfect.  They become intensely hurt and respond poorly when their irrational hopes for the school is somehow betrayed.
    • New Yorker Cartoon: Cheerleaders before a crowd of parents shouting: “Hang your fading hopes and dreams on your children’s high-school teams!”
  • Parental Expectations: Rational and irrational; some are rational and some are irrational
    • Parents want their children to grow and develop in a moral community
    • Parents want their children to develop meaningful relationships with adults outside their family; both rational expectations
    • What we are seeing more and more is that the teacher has to play the part of the parent’s psychologist; an irrational expectation
    • They want to be full partners in the educational process; an irrational expectation 
    • Parents start to use teachers as therapists, and it is insidious how it starts, as it starts with helping the child then the attention turns to the parents.  It is important to let parents know when they are outliers in their parent behavior.
    • Parents have rational expectations of administrators, but they also have irrational ones, such as wanting to organize and determine who will be fired or determine which children should be taken out of the class–the ones that may be interfering with a child’s learning experience.  They make special requests for child to have unreasonable time away from school
    • New Yorker Cartoon: Father talking to friend at his home: I address all of Daniel’s and long-division needs”
  • Teacher Expectations: rational and irrational; again, some are rational, such as wanting to be supported both by the administration and the parents, but some are irrational
    • Teachers want no criticism from parents; that’s irrational
    • Teachers want to believe that they can say anything–your child is ADD–and not be criticized; that’s irrational
  • Expectation for administrator: to provide a safe, autonomous environment
    • New Yorker Cartoon: Parent teacher conference with little girl standing between the parents and the teacher: “Tracy will be a good little poet someday if she’d lose some weight”
  • Administrators Expectations: Rational and Irrational; it is rational for administrators to expect teachers to be prepared, engaged, thoughtful, and professional, but it is an irrational expectation of the administrator to believe that it is the teachers job to make the administrator look good.
    • Can expect teachers to support the mission of the school, but you cannot expect them to make you look good
    • New Yorker Cartoon: Commencement speaker before a group: “First off, but way of establishing some credibility, I’d like to note that twenty years ago I was living in a fur-lined van”
  • 4 Paradoxes of Parents
    • The paradox of control: this generation of parents has had unusually high control levels of control over their children. Radios and cameras in the nursery for instance.
      • The problem of having so much control that they cannot let go.  Having students at boarding schools and talking with their children 8 and 9 times a year; parents want the boarding school experience, but those parents who want that contact are undermining the mission of the boarding school.  The parent’s actions tell the child/student that the adults there are not competent enough to take care of him/her; the only competent, trustworthy adult is the parent, and that is a harmful message
      • New Yorker Cartoon: Children standing on a playground with football helmets on their heads: “I liked recess a lot better before the safety helmets”
    • The paradox of choice: the more choice that one has the less happy that one will be with his/her choices; the more choices that one has, the more that one will second-guess him/herself.
      • New Yorker Cartoon: Admission officer speaking with parents with their child in a classroom in a school: “We’ve created a safe, nonjudgmental environment that will leave your child ill-prepared for real life”
    • The paradox of information: Parents believe that they should know everything all the time.  They think that if they have information every day, then they believe that they can steer the experience of their children. Parents who check their children’s grades every day are interfering with their children’s ability to grow independently.  Too much information for the parent interferes with the child’s ability to believe that this experience is his/her experience.  Parents who are hooked on information (weekly letters, daily emails, daily checks on grades and progress, on-line commentary) have trouble letting go and interfere with their child’s ability to grow independently.  Parents have to learn to trust their child.  Parents with too much contact with their children are unable to trust their children.  We used to walk to school or bicycle to school or take public transportation.  Now students spend so much time with their parents in the car. Parents are hooked on control and on information, which undermines the children, the school, and can undermine development.  If a parent tracks his/her child constantly, then the child can come to believe that the only trustworthy adult is the parent.  That is not good.    
      • New Yorker Cartoon: Elementary School teacher with flashcards in her hand while sitting before a class of students: “Who dealt this mess?”
    • The paradox of the “great parent”: no child’s school journey was ever made greater by intense vigilance by parents.  95% of parents are wonderful, helpful, interested in partnering with the school.  It is the 5% that is problematic.
      • New Yorker Cartoon: Mother talking to child: “Why are you special? Because I’m your mommy, and I’m special.”
  • Improving the Relationship: Between Teacher and Parents: we have to find a way to put limits on parents, because more and more information will not ease the paradoxical parent.



One response to “The Paradox of the Anxious Parent, Dr. Michael Thompson, Ph.D

  1. What a tremendous message! I have seen this happen over my 19 years of experience teaching, and I believe that what Michael Thompson has said is really true. If only we could get this out to our entire community and start making improvements in order to have a more positive and productive experience for our students. Ultimately, they are the ones stuck in the middle of all of our irrational expectations.

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