“Your job is cocoa.”
It’s the only thing I remember from any Back-to-School Night that I’ve ever attended. To date, I’ve been through 29 of them.
“Cocoa,” Ann Dimond announced to the fresh crop of 1st grade parents in her classroom. With a four-week-old baby on my shoulder—my fourth in seven years—I was deliriously tired, sufficiently overwhelmed, and desperate for parenting hacks. Ann’s 25 years of teaching experience more than qualified her.
“When your son comes home from school, pulls out his homework, and proceeds to tell you that it’s too hard and he needs your help with it, tell him, ‘Gee, that sounds rough. Can I make you some cocoa?’ Because I don’t send anything home that we haven’t already done in class. He’ll tell you he’s never seen it before. He’ll tell you he doesn’t understand it. The work isn’t difficult, and you’ll be able to help him easily. I ask you instead to offer him cocoa. The work is his. His homework. His to understand. His to complete. His to turn in. His to muddle through. Would doing it with him get him through it faster and make your life easier? Short-term, yes. But you’re not doing him any favors in the long run. Now that your son has homework, your job is cocoa.”
There’s no trace of baby left in the infant who slumbered on my shoulder that September night seven years ago. Time has gobbled up my delicious babies and left my house reeking of feet and armpits. With two middle schoolers in the house, I hear plenty of well-intentioned advice from fellow parents about the dangers of Snapchat, Internet porn, unprotected sex, drugs, and underage drinking. I find myself perusing Instagram memes, opening fortune cookies, scrolling through Ann Dimond’s Facebook wall for more parenting hacks. I’m in a panic.
Now that my sons are in Middle School, can someone please tell me what my job is?
Ironically, I go to work every day and I’m surrounded by even more Middle School boys. 105 total. Luckily, I work with a team of people who make the parent in me feel less panicked. Each morning I pull into the Middle School parking lot by 7:15 am with all four boys in tow. My fellow staff is settling in for the day. We unload our belongings, grab our laptops, and land a spot on the benches for what my coworker deems her favorite part of the day. We fill one another in on our families and our weekends. We voice our concerns. We share laughter. We celebrate birthdays. We listen to wedding plans. We sit in companionable silence. Trust is built on those benches. Friendships are cemented on those benches. The conversation inevitably turns to our boys. All 105 of them. Your sons.
What are our boys going through on any given day and how can we best support them?
Our boys are growing up and away from us. They are creating identities separate from us. They are beginning to take risks. They are trying on different behaviors to see how they fit. Language is the easiest and most convenient place for them to begin experimenting. So they curse in the hallways. Especially the 6th graders. We hear it. Provided it is not malicious or egregious, we often pretend we don’t hear it. Because it is low level. And we are giving them the space they need to stretch and grow. Sometimes they take liberties, and the cursing happens in front of us. In which case they receive a Behavioral Notice. Because it’s important for them to understand that the risks they take when speaking with their peers are not the same risks they take when speaking with adults. When we write those slips, we don’t judge you. Because your son’s behavior is not a reflection of your parenting. And we don’t hold a grudge against the boys when they make poor decisions. They need the freedom to mess up, the grace to face the consequences, and comfort in the knowledge that we—the adults in their lives—accept and are here to support them. No matter what.
My husband and I firmly believe that the teachers are the experts of our children in the classroom. We may not always agree with what we hear from our sons about what transpires in the classroom. But we trust and respect the teachers’ commitment to our sons. We have an agreement: never write to a teacher while we’re angry. Sleep on it first. Early this year, our youngest son came home with the Lower School version of a Behavioral Notice. From the way he framed it, he had gotten in trouble for something that wasn’t his fault. And I broke our rule. I felt completely justified. I believed I was advocating for my son. So I wrote to a teacher while angry. I didn’t send an email, I wrote on the back of the Behavioral Notice. In purple pen. With my youngest son as my audience. I waited until the next day to tell my husband. He was appropriately mortified. “You WHAT? Oh no! You wrote it WHERE? OH NO!” I broke our rule. I showed my crazy. The worst part was that I did it in a manner in which my son, whose behavior was in question, was able to discern that I disagreed with his teacher. She is with him more daylight hours than I am, and I undermined her in front of my child.
I made a mistake. I made it with the best intentions and with a heart full of the fiercest kind of love. But I made a mistake.
I know better.
I know better because I’m surrounded by people who are doing their best for our boys—your sons—every single day. Middle School is a tough age. We acknowledge that, we have a front row seat for it, yet we choose your boys. We want each of them to succeed. We expect that they’ll mess up because that’s often what a middle school boy is inclined to do. When they fall short of a goal, we make every effort to equip them with the skills to get up and try harder. To forgive themselves and work smarter. To respect themselves, one another, and the adults in their lives.
I am one of you—a parent of two Middle School boys. There’s a restlessness that comes with parenting kids this age. It’s an awkward dance, a tug-of-war. They push us away, we grasp for them in a panicked attempt to keep them close. They shut themselves off to us emotionally and leave us both frustrated at their flippant tones and desperate to connect with them. We catch glimpses of their vulnerability, but typically after 10 pm when we are at our most physically and mentally drained. They are on a trajectory that is taking them away from us. They are exactly where they belong, and as natural as it is, it still stings. It leaves us wondering where we fit into their ever-morphing adolescent lives.
Each of us is making an enormous investment in our kids’ educations. In return, our sons get exposure—to the arts, to sports, to technology, to robotics and engineering, to language, to music, to trips some of us can only dream of having gone on at their age. They spend their days in the presence of adults who have passion for the subjects they teach. Our boys have access to their teachers. Before school, at recess, during Extra Help, after school, via email in the evenings. The class sizes are small, so the teachers know our boys very well. They know who your son is friends with, who he studies productively with, if he does better when he works independently, that he can be trusted when he sits in the back row.
One of my least favorite parts of the day is when it’s time to tell our oldest son to close his laptop and remove himself from his phone for the night. Every single time we’re met with resistance. He goes to bed mad at us; we go to bed frustrated with him. He knows what he wants, we know what he needs, and rarely the two ever meet. His job is to be a student, and he can’t be a successful one with unlimited access to screens at home and insufficient sleep. Our job is to be the parent, which means making the hard decisions and being on the receiving end of his teenage wrath. No part of it is fun, but I have a funny feeling we’ll both survive.
Please reach out. Reach out with purpose. If there is a problem at home, we are here to support your sons. Several years ago, when my family endured an especially rough year, one of my first phone calls was to the school psychologist. The next calls were to my sons’ teachers. We were in it together. If your son is trying a new medication, please reach out. If there is an illness or a death that impacts your family, please reach out. Having this information is so important for us to be able to support your son appropriately on any given day in his Middle School experience. We are are in it together.
After having spent an entire school year with this compassionate, capable, thoughtful group of teachers, as a fellow parent I encourage you instead to heed Ann Dimond’s invaluable advice.
How can you best support your son?
Make sure he gets enough sleep. Reach out with purpose. Otherwise, cocoa.