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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : 'Selling' a Child Could Get Tricky

October 19, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When children enter grade school, education begins--for parents who want to learn what one mother calls "tricks of the trade."

Their goal is to achieve an edge for their children in the sometimes bewildering world of public schools, where classes are large and diverse, the quality of teachers varies and personality often plays a role in success. They're afraid their shy children might disappear into the woodwork, their bright children won't get challenged, their slow children won't get the time and understanding they need. How to proceed?

In the comedy movie "Serial Mom," the solution was to bump off the offending teacher.

Real-life solutions are more benign, but parents should be warned that the competition starts early and can be quite shrewd.

"Something has to make your child's need stand out," one mother says.

Some parents become their children's agent, trying to "sell" shy kids to busy or cold teachers. Others become school career managers, trying to customize their children's education with requests for specific teachers or gifted programs.

While many volunteer in the classroom or give money and supplies with only altruistic motives, others do so to keep an eye on the teacher. Parents who want something in return must be "flagrant and subtle at the same time," says one mother. "Flagrant in what you do for them and subtle in what you want in return.

"It is an extremely delicate relationship and an extremely delicate negotiation."

On the other hand, a few parents are shameless in offering presents or bribes. "I've seen some hire their kid's teacher as a tutor," she says.

It starts in kindergarten. In affluent neighborhoods, as many as 40% of all boys are "redshirted," or delayed in entering kindergarten by parents hoping to gain a maturity edge, says Annette Lareau, associate professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "But when they all try to do it, they lose the advantage."

The most common goal is to get a specific teacher, although some acknowledge that a teacher who was wonderful for one child might not be for another. The best approach, says California PTA board member Sheila Benecke, is never to mention a specific teacher's name, but rather to ask the current teacher in the spring semester conference to request one for the fall based on mutually agreed upon strengths and weaknesses of the child.

Veteran grade-school parents say power plays are a mixed bag. One mother says her biggest mistake was to tell the teacher that if she didn't lighten the homework load, she would tell the principal. The teacher agreed to a compromise solution, homework in advance, but later punished the child with a reduced grade, the mother says.

Another mother says she wore herself out pleading with a teacher to move her son to a more challenging class. Then, she says, "I wrote a letter to the principal. I said I want my child moved. I didn't give a reason. I said I know my rights. He got moved." Now she says she always writes letters with copies to board members.

One mother says she tried to humanize her shy daughter to a teacher who "clearly had favorites that did not include my daughter." When that didn't work, she says she made up stories to her daughter about how the teacher had praised her work and effort in class. "She started to sparkle to the teacher and the teacher responded." By the end of the year, her daughter had earned a reputation as the teacher's pet. "I had to laugh," the mother says.

When parents' and teachers' personalities clash, sometimes it's best to simply lie low. "My son had one teacher I could not abide," one woman recalls. "I really avoided any meetings, I was not sure I could keep the edge out of my voice. I told him he was on his own with this one."

In general, Lareau says, children of highly motivated parents do well in school anyway. Those who would benefit more from parental involvement are those who get it the least.

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