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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/10/2009

THE GROUP: When Do You Tell on Another Child?

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet’s group of moms (and sometimes dads) discusses what to do when you have learned something disturbing about another child. Please carry on the conversation in the comments section. Email The Sheet with issues you’d like us to take up. And let us know if you want to join The Group.

This Week’s Members:
Peg Willingham works for a non-profit health research organization and she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.

Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor, who lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is in fifth grade in a Maryland private school.

Jamie Shor founded and operates the PR Collaborative in the District. She lives in Montgomery County, where her son is in elementary school and her daughter is in middle school.

Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.

The issue (from a reader of The Answer Sheet):

Your child comes home and tells you that a friend at school has been doing something they shouldn’t. Sexting. Drinking. Cheating on tests. Forging a parent’s name on school papers. At what point do you feel it is your responsibility to call the parents? What if you don’t know the parents? Who do you call? Your school principal? Are there rules about this sort of things?

In a way this question is much more difficult for me to answer as a parent than it is in my professional roles as school counselor at Landon [in Bethesda] and psychologist. In those instances, there are set rules on confidentiality and the exceptions to non-disclosure.

In a case where I am just a fellow parent, I think this would depend on my relationship. Ironically, I am often more comfortable where I do not know the parent than I am with parents where I know about their hopes and dreams for their child.

I have encountered situations where everyone knows about a child’s situation except the parents. I wonder if other parents knew about the situation and could have intervened constructively. I think we would all rather know than not know if our children were on the verge of catastrophe and something could have been done.

In instances where I have said something to parent, I try to be straightforward, fact specific and compassionate.

You can even say that you are not sure if the information is accurate but that it is of such a serious nature that you felt you must speak. Offer support and resources if you know of them. Most of all, I think we should listen and be non judgmental. There but the grace of God go our children.

Well said, Linda. We may think we always have a handle on what our kids are doing, but we don’t.

This is a tough question. Even when you think you live in the same world as other parents, you can find quickly that you have very different sensibilities about things you think are pretty basic.

When one of my kids was in third grade, a classmate of hers was watching “The Sopranos.” I didn’t quite believe it until I started hearing some sexual details that the boy had been telling the other kids. Several parents, not me, found a way to let the parents know, but the child kept watching.

I once heard some kids talking about a few classmates sniffing glue and wasn’t sure what to do. I asked another mom whose child supposedly knew about it to see what she could find out. When the stories matched, I went to the school principal, not knowing most of the parents involved. I did go to the mother of the one child with whom I had a friendly relationship. The mom was grateful.

But another mother I expected to help out with a bad fight between our girls did nothing. I was really surprised because the kids needed adult help to work their way through it.

I understand when you say it is easier to tell someone you don’t know some bad news rather than a friend. Still, I tell my friends that I would rather know than not know.

And I tell my kids that they should remember that I may not know everything they are doing that they don’t want me to know--but they won’t know when I will find out something. The lesson: Think before you do something stupid.

This has not been an issue for us, yet although I am sure it is coming. I am a stickler on safety issues. I feel that when a kid crosses a line that could ultimately endanger him/her or anyone else then there is a responsibility to act.

I personally would find it very difficult to call a parent I did not know to report cheating. It might be more beneficial in my family as a teachable moment. I hope my kids would learn just how fast stories about cheaters spread and how damaging they are to the individual regardless of whether the parents find out.

What to do does depend on what you hear another child is doing. I wouldn’t tell another parent that I had heard their child was cheating either. Or that their daughter was going into the bathroom and changing into an outfit they obviously couldn’t put on at home or else they would have. The issue has to be really important to get involved.

At a previous school, I once tried to talk to a mother about her son’s bullying and hitting and she rebuffed me. I was a bit taken aback but I approached the principal about the behavior. It felt good that I at least tried to talk to mother prior to going to the school.

So far we have been fairly lucky (or perhaps just living in blissful ignorance) when it comes to hearing about other kids’ misdeeds.

However, over the years there have been times when we have been on both the giving and receiving end of complaints about a child’s behavior, and it is always a very delicate/radioactive situation.

I never relished the prospect of calling another parent to say their child had done something mean to mine, but I couldn’t wimp out of it because my child kept asking me if I had made the call yet!

When the shoe was on the other foot, I did my best to listen non-defensively and to thank the other parent for telling me about the problem (never anything dire, but still mortifying). It’s always better to know than not know.

My real problem has been with other PARENTS who are a bad influence! I am only partly joking. My daughter was very impressed by a charismatic mother of one of her friends, and fell into the habit of quoting her pronouncements about politics, the war in Iraq, and immigration in a way that did not converge with the party line at our house.

I tried to tell myself that it’s good for children to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and to learn to make up their own minds about things, but what I really wanted to do (and, I admit, often did) was say “that is complete bunk and you are not allowed to have such vile thoughts.” I have now learned to telegraph my views via eyeball-rolling and grunting instead, however. Progress!

Annoying parents--now that’s an issue for another time soon!

Readers: Please continue this discussion. What would you do if you asked a school teacher or principal for help but he/she did nothing? Then what?..

By Valerie Strauss  | September 10, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  parenting  
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Great discussion. I know parents are worried that if they talk to other parents about something they've heard, it will come back to bite their own kid, which, in the social hothouse of school, can be pretty dreadful. This only adds one more layer of worry--can you trust the parent you want to talk to NOT to betray your confidence and thus your kid.

Posted by: exkidspost | September 10, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

This is a wonderful discussion on a very topical issue. I am away from home, and the Sheet, as always, is a balm for a weary soul.

Posted by: bethesda3 | September 10, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

I am in a middle to upper middle class school district in Nassau County, Long Island which has a reasonable reputation (many people buy a home here because they can't afford the neighboring districts with the top schools - home prices are from about 300K- 1.4 million, with the majority in the 500-600K range.

My son's elementary school operates with am inconsistent laissez faire policy and since my kid is Dennis the Menace reincarnate I often rely on other kids reporting to their parents what has gone on.

I've confronted the principal about this - that it's hard to be on the same page with my son when I don't know what's going on and her response is that it's her choice as to what she calls parents about.

A few years ago my kid got removed from a music class by the principal for a behavioral problem (which in my book is something I need to know about in a timely fashion to discuss with my child)but since she didn't think it was urgent to tell me she didn't. The problem in music class persisted and a few weeks later I get an irate phone call from the music teacher who assumes I knew about the problem all along, that my kid had to be removed by the principal. I pointed out to her that she must be assuming the principal would have told me about this and she went silent. I told her this was the first I was hearing about anything and thanked her for calling me and I asked that in the future the teacher to write me a note directly.

It's very frustrating. It's not consistent and it puts parents in an awkward spot - ratting out the principal. It's doubtful that any teacher wants to get in the middle of this sort of thing.

Not surprisingly I have developed a distrust for my son's principal. There have been many cases of poor judgment including not sending my son to the school nurse when another child accidently opened a folding chair onto his leg and ripped some skin off his knee. He yelled out in pain but the teacher in charge ignored him. That was OK with her. No apology.

The principal does not believe in home/school communication and this has created additional stress on our family (never knowing - thinking things are OK and then finding out there's an ongoing problem).

I spoke to the superintendent about it but he supported the principal's right to decide when to call a parent.

All this, despite my kid having a disability ADHD and an IEP - any book about which talks about ADHD talks about the importance of close home/school communication to help these kids succeed.
It's not meant to be for my son.

My child's success is thwarted by his principal. I can't control what this principal does and there is no accountability for what she does by any higher authority. Fortunately this is our last year in the school.

Posted by: fidiwitz | September 11, 2009 6:29 AM | Report abuse

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