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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

Monster parents make matters worse for their children and teachers


Special to The Japan Times

In the West they hover and swoop. In Japan they stalk and are known to strike. We all have them and some of us have been them. And in recent years the media, both social and antisocial, have put them under the magnifying glass of criticism.

They — or we — are parents. To be specific, helicopter parents in the English-speaking world; monsutā pearento, or monster parents, to the Japanese. These are the mothers and fathers of CWKs (Closely Watched Kids). The Chinese call them monster parents too. Leave it to them to have their own website: monsterparent.com. In Korea the situation is so bad that some parents don't know the difference between a diploma and a diaper.

In this day and age of technological surveillance, perhaps the term Drone Parents would be more appropriate. They monitor not only the movements and behavior of their children but also the treatment given them by teachers.

Monster parents are those overprotective beings who see the careers of their children as a possible qualification for sainthood for themselves ... or, if not exactly sainthood, then a life of luxury in old age subsidized by their overachieving children.

Even though their prototype in the form of the "education mama" appeared many decades, if not centuries, ago simultaneously in East Asia and the regions of Europe and the United States where Jewish mothers, with a not-so-subtle combination of cajoling and passive-aggressive extortion, pushed their children up the high cliffs of careerism, the phenomenon of the parent as monster only surfaced about two decades ago.

Some of their tactics are right out of the Mossad manual.

They have been known to phone teachers at ungodly hours, threatening them; they put psychological pressure on teachers and principals, claiming unfair treatment to their little ones; they try to ostracize other children who they consider a bad influence on them; they heap abuse on teachers for giving their children a lower grade than they "naturally deserve" or for not choosing them to star in the school play.

Educational expert and leader of the Grand Design for Japanese Higher Education project Motohisa Kaneko revealed in his 2006 book "Gakuryoku Mondai to Gakko" ("The Question of Scholastic Ability and Schools") that nearly 80 percent of primary and middle school principals surveyed said they are either greatly or somewhat swayed in their judgment by the selfish demands of parents and guardians.

In the old days, parents met with teachers at the school. Now they have all forms of digital intervention at their disposal. According to journalist Hirotsugu Shimoda, author of "Gakkoura Saito" ("Site Back of the School"), some parents are sending messages to teachers' phones or using the Internet to disgrace them. "This is no different," says Shimoda, "from the bullying we see among children."

What are teachers or principals to do when parents refuse to pay for school lunches because little Emiko doesn't find them "yummy"; or worse, when a parent demands that a particular teacher be fired.

One teacher in Saitama Prefecture took action. She sued the parents.

In January of last year, a teacher in a Saitama primary school took the parents of one of her students to court, claiming compensation of ¥5 million for the mental anguish, causing insomnia, that she felt due to "excessive complaining."

The complaining began in September of the previous year and was apparently unrelenting. The parents had equipped their child with an IC recorder that recorded the teacher shouting at their daughter.

"It's a weird teacher who hollers straight at her students," claimed the parents.

"It's weird parents who stick an IC recorder on their child," retorted the teacher.

As one unnamed school principal sympathetic to the teacher said, "Education is a two-way street. ... The parent may see the child as separate from the group, but the teacher sees that child as part of a group. There's a divergence in the two viewpoints. ... If one side or the other sees it only as a one-way street, there's no way out of the dilemma."

I spoke with some teachers in Kyoto on a visit there in June.

"I have the children to look after for seven hours a day," one teacher told me, "while the parents also look after them for about seven hours of waking time. We should consider the child's welfare as something we care about in common."

Before the Japanese economy took a dive in the early '90s and the education system seemed to be working harmoniously in the interests of society and the nation, the teaching profession itself enjoyed more prestige than it does now, and parents were reluctant to come between their children and their teachers.

The practice of the katei hōmon, or home visit, demonstrated the joint commitment to the welfare of the child. My wife and I brought up four children in the Japanese educational system, and we looked very positively on the visiting teachers, who were taking so much time to report information about our children in school.

In a 1988 manga in the "Chibi Marukochan" series by Momoko Sakura, the mother is as tense as a high wire before the teacher's visit. She goes as far as to change the tatami mats and repaper the shoji, or papered sliding doors. And Marukochan gripes, "Every time after the teacher leaves on these visits mummy gets cross with me." In other words, the parent takes the teacher's side over that of her daughter.

While the katei hōmon is still extant as an institution, most teachers don't go into the house, but rather stand in the entryway for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with the parent. As one mother commented, "That's good, because it's such a pain to have to make tea for them."

Needless to say, some parents may have justified grievances against a teacher or a school, and being a monster in those cases might be the only way to air them. But there are a number of reasons why monster parenthood has reared its ferocious head in recent years.

Families with children who grow up in high-rise apartment blocks don't have the connection with the community or with grandparents living apart from them that they used to have. If parents could talk with other parents, they might realize that the teacher was not picking on their child.

In addition, with the widening gap between those on the escalator of success and others who never set foot on it, competition is necessarily heightened. Pushiness of one sort of another may give your child an advantage. Japanese teachers and principals prefer to avoid confrontation, and they may just buckle under the right kind of pressure.

Finally, the partial breakdown of social harmony that has occurred in the past 20 years in Japan has seen people giving precedence to personal freedom over group cooperation. While this has had its plus side, it has meant that many parents simply won't listen to the advice of their children's teachers. They know better, or so they believe.

The obvious way for things to improve is for parents to stop micromanaging their kids and for teachers and school administrators to give consideration to the natural differences in temperament and ability of their students ... and to lend an ear to the valid complaints of parents.

The teacher in Kyoto had the right idea.

The child's welfare is all that counts; and it counts in equal measure to parents and teachers.



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