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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

Teachers beset by unruly parents

Demanding 'claimers' want kids coddled

Staff writer

When the 27-year-old rookie elementary school teacher in Kanagawa Prefecture began receiving phone calls from the mother of one of his students demanding an apology from the parents of their child's alleged "bullies," he thought it was just a misunderstanding by an overprotective parent.

News photo
Highly motivated: Students attend class at a public elementary school in Tokyo in November. KYODO PHOTO

The teacher, who declined to be named, didn't see any bullying among his first-graders, and the child in question seemed to be doing fine, enjoying school life.

But after three months and hundreds of phone calls later, he couldn't take it any longer. Tired and feeling slightly paranoid, he persuaded the bewildered and annoyed parents of the "bullies" to gather for a formal apology. "It was strange. The children had no idea what was going on," the teacher said.

Monster parents, or "claimers," the term experts use for those who make incessant claims against people, have gotten constant and considerable media play.

"Monster Parent" was even the title of a recent Fuji TV drama series starring Ryoko Yonekura as a lawyer who is asked by a city board of education to help deal with harassing parents.

"Everybody wants their children to be given special treatment," said Yukiko Yamawaki, a psychologist who deals with children at the Tokyo Metropolitan Child Guidance Center. "But with the worsening economy and a general sense of insecurity in society, the desire for their offspring's well-being seems to be growing," sometimes to an obsessive extent, she said, adding she first began hearing the term monster parent two or three years ago.

Yukie Ushijima, a mother of two and a former member of the PTA at the public elementary school her daughter attends in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, said she has seen a noticeable increase in the unreasonable demands from parents.

"During a recent parent-teacher discussion, one mother asked the school to give her child more homework, while another wanted less because her child was attending cram school."

She said she was alarmed by their inability to understand that individual requests like these are extremely difficult to grant.

In June, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government board of education surveyed more than 2,400 public kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high schools in the capital.

About 10 percent of the schools said they had experienced claimer-related problems last year that were "difficult to solve by the school alone."

The cases typically involve verbal abuse, either by phone or in face-to-face meetings with teachers or school officials.

Some could not tolerate their children being warned for bad behavior in class, while others exploded after discovering the school had reported them to authorities for child abuse.

"Teachers don't know where to go for advice," said Yamawaki, author of "Unmasking the Monster Parent" and a veteran counselor who has dealt firsthand with problematic parents.

Yamawaki explained that many teachers are perplexed by the repetitive rants and endless phone calls from claimers and find that no amount of sincerity improves the situation.

"Claimers will typically threaten to sue the school or take the issue to the media. Or maybe hint that they know politicians. Most of the time they are just bluffing, but you know, it just gets exhausting after a while," she said.

Ushijima, the former PTA mother, said she thinks a lack of confidence on the part of the teachers may be one factor encouraging claimers to make their over-the-top demands.

"Teachers are cowering at the feet of such parents. They're scared," she said.

Norio Eguchi, a psychology professor at Aichi Gakuin University and a school counselor, voiced similar thoughts.

"I think part of it has to do with the influence of the mass media," he said. "Whenever there are school-related scandals — suicides, bullying — the media slam the educational institutions involved, putting them on the defensive."

At the same time, government statistics show that the number of public school teachers is declining steadily.

"The number of people who want to be teachers is decreasing," child psychologist Yamawaki said. "Many use up so much of their energy dealing with parents that they get sick, and opt to quit. It's seriously hurting their motivation."

In response, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced in November plans to set up a new department this year specializing in claimers and their irrational demands.

A first-time project by the city tentatively titled the School Problem-Solving Support Center, will attempt to develop troubleshooting knowhow by consulting experts in several fields who can provide useful information to municipalities and in serious cases act as intermediaries between schools and parents.

Eguchi, the psychology professor, said many claimers are suffering from a personal trauma that triggered their metamorphosis into "monsters."

"One needs to probe the parent's past and search for the experience that served as the catalyst for such behavior," he said.

"Many of them are hurt and doubt their parenting skills. The ideal response would be to comfort them, assure them of their parental performance and encourage them to reflect on themselves, and gently lead them into realizing how unreasonable their demands are," Eguchi said, although he acknowledged that most teachers would probably collapse from stress if they attempted this process.

Yamawaki, who is often asked by schools to lecture on how to respond to persistent claimers, stressed that to avoid trouble, teachers must stand firm and refuse to yield to irrational demands.

Some of Yamawaki's advice includes: Never meet claimers one on one. Report the incident in the early stages to a superior and respond as an organization. Respond quickly and emphasize that you are not responsible for any wrongdoing.

Yamawaki said that ideally, every school should have a risk-management specialist, although this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

She predicts that the phenomenon will get worse, and that sometime in the near future these monster parents will extend their behavior to the corporate world.

"The phenomenon can already be seen among parents of college students. I don't think we're that far from having parents of corporate employees complaining about low wages and working environments. Companies had better start thinking about ways to respond," she said.

In the case of the Kanagawa elementary school teacher, negotiating the apology didn't conclude his encounter with the monster parents. The student was gone from his classroom the following semester. His parents had arranged a transfer.

"It was obviously not his decision," the teacher said with a sigh.

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