Parent-Teacher Conferences

Today was parent-teacher conference day with #1’s homeroom teacher. I’ve been to 15 of these now for #1 (and another 9 for #2). And although I have tried always to be involved in his school—I frequently help out or have chaperoned field trips or talked to the class about what I do—I still make a point of of attending parent-teacher conferences. On the one hand, parent-teacher conferences help me understand the school’s broader curricular goals and how he is progressing toward those goals: what he is learning; how he is learning; what challenges he might be confronting. On the other hand, parent-teacher conferences give me a glimpse of a #1 that I don’t see: what he’s like around his peers and in other social settings; how he behaves in public. There’s another reason I attend parent-teacher conferences, a reason that seems to get lost in the shuffle (or, for so many parents and teachers trying to carve out a few minutes from an otherwise frenetic dash through the day): I go to parent-teacher conferences because it means a lot #1.

Yesterday I mentioned to #1 that I was looking forward the parent-teacher conference. My comment was a sort of warning—our conference was before school, so we would have to be efficient in the morning and leave earlier than normal. He looked up and asked hopefully: “Is mom going?” He seemed to deflate when I said, “No. She has to go to work.”

—“Why doesn’t she go to my teacher conferences?”
—“She trusts you and me. You’re a good kid and good student. I don’t think she feels a need to check in on you.”
—“But she never goes to mine. I wish she would.”[1]

His lament reminded me how important it is to kids that parents show a real interest in their education, in what they do every day, i.e., in what we make them do every day. Parent-teacher conferences are about more than just establishing lines of communication or building working relationships between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher conferences also bolster relationships between parents and children.

Parent-teacher conferences are stressful a lot of work for everybody. Parents have to adjust schedules, often have to find childcare for a younger sibling, and have to make special trips to school, where they hope won’t be kept waiting while other conferences run long. And then there’s the worry that they’ll find out darling Tobias or little Beatrix is a terror or failing or …. Teachers have to prepare for conferences, adding to their otherwise already full day’s work, and then have to take time that they could be prepping for class, helping students who need a little extra, or grading. And then there’s the concern that some parent is going to erupt because their perfect child couldn’t possibly be failing, or be disruptive, or be an unrepentant pain in the ass. For different reasons, parents and teachers can be anxious about these conferences.

Parents who want to improve the experience can find useful advice. Grete DeAngelo offers some nice tips for parents (reposted at Huff Post (because isn’t everything these days reposted at Huff Post?) and Topical Teaching). Lisa Heffernan at the WaPo compiled her own list for parents: Learn from my mistakes. Beth Van Amburgh offers some general tips that are handy for both teachers and parents.

With all this focus on parents and teachers, on classroom performance and behavior, it is easy to lose sight of the people standing at the center of this educational, social, and by middle school hormonal maelstrom. It is easy to forget that for kids, school is incredibly important and daunting and at times disorienting. They are not experts at negotiating the dynamic and shifting relationships. Nor are they as jaded as we often think. They are kids who still look to their parents for guidance, affirmation, and approval. They want to see that we care.

This morning #1 and I walked into school. As he led me to his class, he pointed out various things hanging in the halls—art work, projects, assignments—and shared comments about some of the other classrooms and teacher. Then he returned to the cafeteria while we met with his teacher.[2] When I left, #1 walked me to my car and peppered me with questions: How did it go? Did I like his teacher? Did I see the class turtle? Did I see the fish? Did we talk about their science project? Did the teacher show me the poster they made? Did …? Did …? Did …?

The next chance you (especially you dads, since mothers typically bear the burden of school-related events) get, go to a parent-teacher conference. It‘s an easy way to show your child that you care.


  1. Two points here. First, The Mother has attended #1’s parent-teacher conferences, though not as frequently as I have. Second, part of the issue is the fact that The Mother more frequently attends #2’s parent-teacher conferences.  ↩

  2. Yes, we. I encouraged The Mother to attend the conference because it would mean a lot to #1. She met me there so she could go directly to work afterward.  ↩

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What is a father?

A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is recorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club.

Michael Chabon, “The Loser’s Club.”

Whatever successes we might enjoy, or rehearse ad naseum to those forced to hear them over and over again, we fail every day, often in ways we don’t recognize for years. But I can accept that. What distinguishes a father from simply a successfully reproductive male is how he uses those failures, what he learns from them, and how they change him.

A lifetime ago, in those pre-parental years when my greatest failures occurred in sporting events, a friend comforted me by saying: “Winners lose more than losers do.” At first I didn’t really understand what she meant, but after countless additional loses, I slowly began to realize the truth in what she had said.

Now, I think something similar could be said about fathers: “Fathers fail more than other people do.” What makes fathers special is what they do with those failures. Welcome to the club.

We Could All Use a Compliment

Yesterday’s post was about compliments. I suggested that we parents should be more generous in giving compliments and that, pace the fathers-offended-by-compliments movement, we fathers should be more gracious in accepting them. Today, I want to reinforce that suggestion, drawing on a couple Pew Research reports, “Modern Parenthood” and “After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers.”

Despite recent increases in stay-at-home dads, moms still make up the majority of stay-at-home parents: 6% of fathers stay-at-home compared to 29% of mothers. And since 1999, the share of stay-at-home moms has been increasing. Mothers still vastly outnumber the fathers as stay-at-home parents.

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Fathers have begun taking on more housework[1] and childcare tasks.[2] Nonetheless, mothers still shoulder the bulk of childcare and housework. And despite the increases in the amount of time fathers spend on childcare, mothers spend more now than they did 50 years ago. Today, mothers still spend nearly twice as much time as fathers do on housework and childcare.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Let’s recognize and praise all the work mothers do. Too much of their labor remains invisible to our society, not because we can’t see it but because we have chosen to dismiss it as unimportant because a woman does it. An honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean regularly—is the least we can do. Let’s also continue to recognize the efforts today’s fathers are making to be more involved parents.[3] Not because their labor is more important or any more praiseworthy, it isn’t, but because an honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean now and then, let’s not get carried away—is the least we can do.

Next time you see a parent being a good parent, smile and say something nice. And the next time somebody compliments your efforts, smile and say thank you.


  1. We might worry about the category “housework.” Pew seems to adopt the categories used by the American Time Use Survey, which seems to exclude certain exterior activities from “housework.” Is mowing the lawn “housework?” Is raking leaves? I’ve wondered about this in my Pew Study on Parental Labor  ↩

  2. The numbers don’t actually show that fathers are taking on more housework and childcare tasks. They simply indicate that fathers are spending more time at these two activities. Perhaps fathers are really slow at cleaning and cooking and bathing the progeny and so are not doing any more, just taking longer to do the same set of tasks.  ↩

  3. We fathers need to be careful here lest we sound like the 1980s’ dad who wanted praise for taking out the garbage or replacing the empty toilet paper roll. We risk sound like little kids jumping up and down wanting praise and affirmation for the least little thing. Oh, look at me, I take care of my kid. Aren’t I special? No, I mean, I am special.  ↩

How To Earn “Major Dad Points”

On the way to school this morning, #2 and I stopped to pick up breakfast. We parked, tumbled out of the car, locked hands, and skipped into the shop, hoping to chase down a couple bagels. We held the door for a young woman who, leaving, smiled at me, and said:

That was great. You get major dad points for that.

Thank you. I appreciate the compliment and the endorsement of my skipping despite, no doubt, the fact that I must have looked like a lanky, spasmodic gorilla.[1] Her compliment underscores how easy it is for dads to get compliments. Organize the class party, receive praise. Skip into the bagel shop, get points. Fathers can get credit simply by not injuring their progeny.

These compliments irk a number of fathers because they presume some Y-chromosome-linked deficiency or some cultural vestige from our neanderthal past both of which prevent men from being competent dads.[2] Fathers who are upset by such compliments urge people to stop making them. The act of complimenting a father for relatively insignificant or quotidian parenting reinforces the cultural stereotype of the failing father. Previously I seemed to come to a similar conclusion.

My real point in that previous post was ambiguous. I want to clarify my thoughts here. Rather than ask people to stop complimenting fathers when they are engaged, caring parents, let’s recognize and compliment mothers for being engaged, caring parents.

Being a parent is tough. None of us are parents because we want compliments. Still, we all could use a little recognition and a kind word now and then (or daily, for that matter). Let’s be generous with our praise and in our acceptance of others’. Let‘s strive to repay the compliments we receive by passing them on to other parents who, like each of us, is struggling to do right by our children.

So, to the young woman who was kind and generous to me: Thank you for noticing. Thank you for saying something. I, in turn, will compliment a parent I see tomorrow. Hell, I’ll live on the edge and compliment two parents.


  1. Let me clear, I am not graceful. And at well north of 6 feet, I am hard to miss, arms and legs akimbo. The shocked looks of the people sitting just inside the shop were totally justified.  ↩

  2. I wonder if fathers are equally upset when such compliments come from women or from men, from mothers or from fathers. What is the source of this unease?  ↩

Birth, From the Father’s Perspective

What if fathers told birth stories? What does birth look like from a father’s perspective? What words and metaphors would fathers use to describe the experience, or would they say process or ordeal or miracle? Would those stories resemble this imagined story?[1] Or would they sound more like Joel’s “A Dad’s Birth Story” or my own “I Didn’t Expect That?” Or would they be something entirely different?

Because fathers don’t really get to talk about their birth experiences and because I think those experiences are worth sharing, I want to assemble a collection of essays in which fathers get to describe the birth of their child from their perspective.

If you want to know more or are interested in contributing (or know somebody who might be interested), please let me know.


  1. While I find Scary Mommy’s imagined story vaguely off-putting (people who are the object of humor tend to find that humor off-putting), I recognize that caricature combines notes of reality with exaggeration. And I fear those notes of reality are too loud in many parts of the U.S. For a pointed criticism of the the post, see Papa Does Preach. As with the original story, I don’t agree with all of Papa Does Preach’s criticism, but recognize in it important issues.  ↩

Inspire Their Minds

Verizon has a great new commercial, “Inspire Her Mind,” that reminds parents to consider how their commonplaces discourage girls from studying the science.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

We see a girl at various moments exploring the natural world and hear parental voices stifling that exploration. The commercial concludes with Sam looking at a science fair poster, putting on lipgloss, and turning away with her two friends.[1] A voiceover reminds us:

Our words can have a huge impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too? Encourage her love of science and technology, and inspire her to change the world.

Constant diligence is required to root out the many ways we discourage women from pursuing sciences.

But why do we only worry about inspiring girls (and children more broadly) to study science? Why don’t we also try to inspire them to study literature or philosophy or history? There is nothing special about “science” or the “huge impact” our words have in steering girls away from or toward certain subjects. We should expend equal effort to guard against the ways we track girls into or out of all pursuits.

Let’s stop trying to inspire girls to study science and try, instead, to encourage and embolden girls to study anything and everything that inspires them.


  1. A quick nitpick: Why does the commercial end by contrasting lipgloss with science? Is there something that prevents women from applying lipgloss and studying science? What stereotype of science and scientist is reinforced here? Why should people who care about their appearance not also care about science? And, as My Brighter Career points out, there’s lots of science in lipgloss.  ↩

Hyper-Parenting and Warring Anecdotes

Parenting, whether hyper-, helicopter-, or absentee-, is something about which every parent, whether first-time, experienced, grand-, or vicarious, will offer advice, usually unsolicited, trenchant, and censorious. Each parent adopts the authoritative mantel of experience, or expertise, or science, or hard-won wisdom. Motivated by the desire to help other parents improve their parenting, their advice promises a “cure” for some problem. Nothing ensures an argument more than unsolicited, critical guidance about deeply personal issues.

Such advice is often trite, little more than veiled rules of thumb. Yet, in the competitive realm of parenting, even those rules of thumb are ignored.[1] For example, see Pamela Druckerman’s “A Cure for Hyper-Parenting” and the comments on her piece. Druckerman promises a cure for some parenting disease, “hyper-parenting.” She grounds her cure in “research” and “science.” As with any cure, she presents hers as normative, healthful, and good. In the end, her advice distills down to:

  • Respect your children.
  • Don’t sacrifice yourself on the altar of parenting.
  • Plan for an ideal future, but don’t fall apart when those plans do.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Nobody’s perfect; nor is your parenting.
  • Teach you children (especially your daughters) to respect and like themselves.
  • Show your children how to treat others with respect.

Nothing terribly new or controversial there, despite its disguise. The more than 300 comments, however, attack Druckerman, her advice, her praise of French parenting. They defend their own particular parenting styles. They diagnose the problem for which Druckerman was offering a cure, and then offer their own cure (or resign themselves to the martyrdom of parenting). They celebrate their own successful parenting techniques, implicitly holding themselves up as models. They condemn the practices of other parents. Like Druckerman’s advice, theirs is little more than commonsense informed by anecdotes.

Despite our best efforts and vehement rhetoric, that’s all parenting is: a series of one-off experiences, i.e., anecdotes, that rarely apply unproblematically to another experience, since no two are all that similar. Anecdotes are not a good foundation for advice. So let’s stop berating each other for parenting and recognize that we can’t help but scar our children in ways we can’t even imagine. To paraphrase Druckerman’s closing thought:

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong or celebrating what you think you are doing right. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of parenting can change that.


  1. Or so disguised as to be unrecognizable. But in most cases, any discussion between such parents rarely seeks to find areas of parenting consonance. Instead, as the comments on Pamela Druckerman’s recent op-ed indicate, parenting experts (because they are all self-styled experts) speak past each other from their own little soapboxes of righteousness.  ↩