Love, Hate, Manipulate: Communicating Effectively with Unhappy Parents


What are practical ways to interact with manipulative parents? What is the core problem with manipulative parents? What’s underneath the communication problems you experience with parents, and what can you do about it? Specifically, how do you effectively communicate with a parent when basic trust and respect has broken down? A panel of education veterans respond to school administration’s worst fears. They discuss the cultural shifts that enshrine children’s happiness and the opportunity for school leadership to build expectations for parents and school to work together for the health of the church.

Jonas: What are practical ways to have interaction with manipulative parents (with some of their tendencies), speaking truth yet keeping insurance for ourselves and our staff? Along with that, what’s the core problem with manipulative parents? Must we only deal with the symptoms or can we get to the root? Gerald: This is asking the right question. What’s underneath some of this?

As I talked to a board chairman who was substituting for several weeks for their high school teacher, he said,” I learned more in those four weeks about students and what life is really like than I had before this.” He’s been a chairman for a long time. Excellent, excellent chairman. He said, “I didn’t realize some of this.”

One of the things we need to recognize is that parenting really, truly has changed. The culture has pressed in deeply and if you’re over 40 it’s not a bad idea to think about the difference in what we mean when we say things. When we talk about child training in church and school or whatever, what’s being said is being interpreted two different ways. Compassion feels like—or a relationship feels like, “Well, we just, we dote on, we really take care of, make sure that there’s nothing hard for this child.”

When we talk about having a relationship with our children, the older generation… when they’re talking about it, they’re realizing that they didn’t have the relationship with their moms and dads they might have wished for. What’s happened is we’ve swung, I think, on the other side pretty far and and it’s all about relationship and making sure the child is happy and that the child is set up for success in ways that will be the easiest possible for that child. I don’t think that parents always realize what’s actually going on, how they’ve become influenced, but children are very selfish, because we’ve parented in a way that makes them the center of their universe. It’s why children don’t have grit today. They can’t do hard things. We’ve made it so simple for them.

I think we have been too afraid to say the truth. I find young parents willing to listen. My sense is that in our community there’s a growing… those that have first-graders, they’re new parents, they’re realizing some of this. And I think it’s up to us to begin to say, “Can we talk about this?” We don’t lead the discussion necessarily or anything like that. It’s “Can we talk about this?” And let’s not talk past each other, because there’s a language barrier going on.

Ken: The traditional model has been that school and school staff are in loco parentis or, in the Latin phrase, in the place of parents. Parents have delegated the responsibility to the school for their academic developments and even spiritual and moral education and development. Today’s culture is shifting, like Gerald has suggested. It’s shifting to where they want to be more involved. There’s a partnership that they’re longing for and it comes out sometimes in a way of manipulation and not really respecting or fully, actually, releasing that delegated responsibility to the school. Perhaps as board members, begin to address how this functions and what is the responsibility of the school and what are the parents’ responsibilities to the school as well. Gerald: What we need to do is think through how we’re going to respond to those issues. They’re trying to be helpful. They care so much. I think we have to be willing to talk about how we go about these things—what’s appropriate—and talk about the place of school and home, parents, how this functions together. Jonas: You simply have to talk about as a school family, being aware of these influences and how we’re going to function.

So, how do you go about having effective communication with a parent who hates the teacher, does not trust her, will not talk to her? How can the school board intervene?

Gerald: Well, first of all, communication is a two-way street and so it does need to start going two ways. These are always difficult. A couple of things to remember, I think: Matthew 18 always applies. A direct approach is always appropriate and we always start there. By the way, it depends a little bit on the situation. The principal or a chairman may need to go with somebody, especially if it’s maybe a lady and it’s pretty… If it’s a pretty rancid situation and it’s pretty hot, you need to protect your staff, too, at some level, but always Matthew 18. We always start there.

You can lose trust in a moment and it could take years to regain it. I think it’s always helpful to think about, “Has the teacher, has the school, has the principal, has the board, somehow broken trust with the parent? And how?” To also offer that: “is there a problem? What is the problem?”

I think at a certain point the board does need to say, “Well, this isn’t the way we do things. The gospel doesn’t call us to this, and we need to resolve this. There needs to be resolution. You don’t have to like the teacher, but you need to love her.” There have been times when it’s appropriate to say to a parent, “You know what? I don’t think you’re a very good fit for this school.” We can’t operate a school without mutual trust, and we own what are our issues and the parent needs to own their issues.

If you have a principal in the school, he needs to be front-lining that for the board and needs to be very involved to understand what is going on and should be heading off things before they get to the “hate, doesn’t trust, won’t talk” level.

Linford: And after seven weeks of conversations go by, you might just still have to walk away and bear the accusation that it wasn’t handled right. Sometimes… We’ve sat in board meetings already for hours trying to decide how we’re going to approach this and realizing—this question here had something about saving some insurance for yourself, and you just can’t always. Sometimes you just have to know that they’re going to make a loser out of you, and pray and go on your way. You did the best you could. And I’m glad this is always the minority, only a handful. The most are very supportive. But one of the ways they manipulate you is to point to the things you haven’t been doing. You haven’t been praising enough. You haven’t been encouraging enough. And you know what, you always can do better, but you just have to walk away sometimes.

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