But, Will He Have Friends?
Once upon a time, many mothers of school-age children were available to volunteer at the school, attend every concert and athletic event, and arrange a robust social schedule for the family. In a shifting scenario, more mothers work outside the home and valiantly juggle family with an upwardly mobile career. Independent schools are seeing the changing needs of parents as a result.
I have just completed the research phase of a study exploring anxiety in parents in the independent school admissions process. After speaking with 19 admissions professionals in 17 schools across the US, in Canada and Belgium, themes have emerged. One of the issues that cause anxiety in working parents is the social components of a school. Parents of very young children want assurance that their child will have friends. Parents want to see where their children will spend their long days at school. Children of working parents can be at school from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, and parents have as many questions about the before and after-care as they do the academic program.
Some of my interviewees and I conclude that working parents experience anxiety around the social aspect of their children’s lives. They cannot be there to curate their child’s social schedule and supervise connections. So, by choosing an independent school with a mission, vision, and philosophy that meshes with theirs, parents hope that the school is attracting other like-minded parents whose children will be a good social fit for their children. Working parents are essentially outsourcing their child’s social life to the school.
Schools need to understand the significance of this weighty assignment. Author and consultant, Daisy Wademan Dowling has researched working parents, their particular challenges, and shared her findings in her article for Harvard Business Review titled A Working Parent's Survival Guide. Wademan Dowling outlined the situation:
The problem is real and pervasive, and for moms and dads coping with it every day, it can seem overwhelming. Working parenthood requires you to handle an endless stream of to-do's, problems, and awkward situations. There's no playbook or clear benchmarks for success, and candid discussion with managers can feel taboo; you might worry about being labeled as unfocused, whiny, or worse. Moreover, the problem persists for 18 years or more, without ever getting much easier.
In her article, the author offered solutions to help parents address the balance between success at work and success at home. But, how can schools support parents now that we know that this is an area of great concern and produces anxiety for them? Here are suggestions for school administrators to consider based on my research:
Increase Communication. Be proactive in sharing about the child’s day. Work with teachers and after school care providers to make sure that every parent hears about their child at least once a week.
Parent Education. Help parents learn what is developmentally appropriate at each age. The parent who is anxious about their 3-year-old not having friends in a new school year might benefit from learning more about parallel play.
Staff Dedicated to the Parent Experience. Parents trust the admissions professionals at the school they ultimately choose for their child. After the child is enrolled, there can be a breakdown in communication. Parents might feel anxious as they make the trust leap to their child's teacher or division head. Help parents feel settled and ready to be part of the community by creating a position within the admissions department dedicated to the enrolled parent experience.
Volunteer Sensitivity. The activities that were once supported and driven by parents may no longer be relevant. Working parents will use their limited time volunteer time during the day to do something that is directly connected to their child. They will rarely choose volunteer activities with other parents.
With insight to this rapidly shifting landscape, schools can better meet the needs of parents by creating opportunities for them to create community through social connection and tailored volunteerism. At the same time, schools can harness the power of working parents by allaying fears through excellent communications and by following through on the promises made in the admissions process.