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The Six Parental Mindsets in Education

Which One are You and Why it Matters

Over the last ten years, I’ve met thousands of parents in my work as an educational coach and have found that the Parental Mindset is, by far, the most critical factor influencing a child’s education. But what are these mindsets? Is there a way to categorize them and understand them?

The parent’s centrality is one of the great truths of life:

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. 

James Baldwin


Several years ago, I had a rare, enjoyable conversation with a stranger on a plane. His name was Eric Meade, and he’s a social science researcher, futurist, author, and all-around interesting guy. After several hours of conversation, Eric began to link what I was seeing in parents with social science research on the importance of an individual’s mindset. Since that time, I’ve been categorizing parents according to their behavior, responses to questions, and interactions with schools. Now I’d like to see what you think.

The Six Parental Mindsets

With that introduction, I’d like you to reflect on your parental role (or a parent you may know) as you read the following.

Level 6 — The Spectator at Home:

These parents are never seen on the field of play. Instead, they defer all educational decisions to the school or teacher. Educators can sometimes misinterpret this absence as “parents who don’t care.” But most do care — deeply. Like a fan watching the game at home, these parents cheer when things go well and are disappointed when things don’t. But whatever their reasons — some legitimate, some not — their leadership over their child’s education is absent. Their motto is:

“Whatever you say, school/teacher. I’m not in charge.”

Level 5 — The Spectator in the Stands

These parents are a bit closer to the field of play, but, like The Spectator at Home, Spectators in the Stands play a limited leadership role. Typically, they are rarely seen or heard. But when they perceive a violation, these parents may explode with outsized energy to address the conflict. This reaction is usually misguided as it teaches their children to disrespect educators while creating long-term relational barriers between the parent and school. Their motto is,

“I will only engage if I feel wronged.”

Level 4 — The Spectator on the Field (AKA: “Cheerleader”)

These parents are the school’s biggest “fans.” They wear the school jersey, attend games, and are proud to have attended the school as a child. But, for all of their support, they do little to improve the school’s effectiveness. In this way, they are similar to a Cheerleader who makes noise in support of the institution, but who does little to influence the outcome. (Sorry to all you cheerleaders out there, but you know it’s true.) The Spectator on the Field’s motto is,

“I love my child’s school, but don’t ask me to help improve it.”

Level 3 — The Assistant Coach Parent

These parents are on the sidelines of The Education Game. That’s good. However, they are not in charge. That’s bad. Whereas the Cheerleader is supportive of the school without helping, Assistant Coach Parents are actively working on behalf of the school. These parents work tirelessly to improve the school through PTA involvement, fundraising, or volunteering, and the school benefits greatly from their contribution. But here is the conflict. Schools wrongly view this as the highest level of parental engagement. The school wants — often desperately needs — this free labor, so they attempt to maximize it. Not only is there scant evidence that parental volunteering improves student performance, but parents with limited time find it challenging to engage in this manner. Those that do, spend time working to enhance the school at the expense of time spent improving their own child’s academic performance. The motto of the Assistant Coach Parent is,

“I love my school and work to help it improve. I just hope that doing so helps my child.”

Level 2 — The Finite-Thinking Head Coach (AKA: Grade-Grubbers):

These parents think that they are operating as a Head Coach but, because of their short-term mindset and controlling behavior, they are better described as “Grade Grubbers” or “micro-managers.” The distinction between these parents and an ideal Head Coach parent is significant. Short-term Head Coaches maintain a win-at-all-costs mindset and regularly intervene on their child’s behalf to achieve their narrow definition of success. Good grades are what matters to these parents, not the joy of learning, curiosity, or student autonomy. The “right” college is the ultimate prize, and these parents will overstep the teacher’s role or demand special accommodations for their child, even at the expense of other students. These parents behave as if the teacher works exclusively for them and their child does too. Their motto is:

“My child will beat yours—It doesn’t matter if they aren’t learning.”

Level 1 — The Infinite-Thinking Head Coach:

Finally, quietly patrolling the sidelines is a leader who focuses on long-term outcomes. Infinite-Thinking Head Coaches know that hard work on the field and off (i.e., at school and home) leads to high character and high achievement. As a result, they aim their energies at building the home habits necessary to assure long-term academic and social success. These parents view the child’s teacher as their most critical Assistant Coach and rely on the teacher’s expertise for insights into improvement. They thoughtfully delegate the instructor role to the teacher while maintaining overall responsibility for the child’s behavior and academic outcomes. No blaming of teachers with this group.

Infinite-Thinking Head Coaches do their part and rightfully expect that the teacher and school do theirs with similarly high standards. Importantly, by focusing on their Head Coach responsibilities, these parents assure that their child AND school improves by providing the consistent bottom-up pressure needed to keep a school strong. For example, these Head Coaches will not tolerate the placement of permanent substitutes in their child’s class. They will not tolerate excessive video watching or chronically slow academic progress. And they especially will not tolerate revolving door leadership.

Infinite-Thinking Head Coaches are fighting for the right reasons — the long-term success of their child — and, if necessary, they will even fight the school. Because of this, ineffective teachers and principals dread these parents because they hold the system to account. Simply put, these Head Coaches are leaders, and they will develop and organize a team that works to improve outcomes for their own child and others. The Infinite-Thinking Head Coach’s motto is:

“I am responsible for my child and will lead by example.”

What do you think?

Which one are you? What about your friends? Neighbors?

Over several years, I progressed through all of the levels. Then I got stuck in Level 2 (Grade Grubber). I felt that college was all that mattered. Thankfully the wisdom of other Head Coach Parents reminded me that there were things that I desired far more than a college degree for my kids. More than anything, I wanted my kids to be men and women of high character. And, as it turns out, a tight focus on character produces kids who are highly prepared for school and life. We focused on Character as our “Essential Intent” and everything else fell into place.

Still, I didn’t like becoming a Head Coach Parent. It has been difficult. But there are ways to make it easier. More on that later.

What’s Next?

If our kids are going to be educated in a way that meets the VOCA challenges of the 21st century, then we have no choice but to shift our parental mindset. That is the purpose of my work.

In the coming weeks, I will share more on how to diagnose these mindsets in yourself and others, their origins, and, most importantly, the strategies you can use to engage more productively in your child’s education. 

Feedback and Sharing

If you find this topic intriguing, then let me know, and I’ll go more in-depth.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more discussion about a different way forward for parents in education. And please share this with one parent who could use this information.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”

Jim Valvano
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