Defamation Dialogue and the Lonely, Essential Job of Parenting

Dr. Timothy M. Johnson
Head of School
Pingree School

Dear Pingree Families,

I encourage you to ask your children how they voted in the Defamation Experience assembly yesterday; more importantly, ask them about their thinking and how they arrived at their decision. I am proud of how students engaged in meaningful dialogue about a complex, well-acted civil defamation case that involved class, race, gender, religion, inference, bias, and its influence on the law. Students were captivated through all three parts: the Play, the Deliberation, and the Discussion, and participated respectfully in an open discussion of preference, prejudice, and the "it depends" gray in between. The two hours spent together yesterday morning were meaningful and important to our mission-driven work to think critically and reflectively.

On Tuesday, artist and retired FDNY Captain Brenda Berkman spoke to students in morning meeting about her career as one of the first female firefighters in New York City, her experience as a first responder on September 11, and her lithograph print exhibition "Thirty-six Perspectives on One World Trade Center" in our gallery. In 1996-97, Capt. Berkman served as a White House Fellow, the first professional firefighter to be awarded this prestigious leadership development fellowship in the history of the program. She has led both local and national women firefighters' organizations, and since retirement from the FDNY, Capt. Berkman's passions have shifted to printmaking and volunteer work, including serving as a walking tour guide at the 9-11 Memorial, honoring her friends and colleagues who were lost that day.

In the words of Peter Ustinov, "Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth." As we turn our calendars to November and set our clocks back this weekend, I am sending my annual fall call for home-school solidarity on behalf of our advisors and teachers in the spirit of support and care. I received a few emails this week about weekend activity and the social landscape.

We all share a responsibility to keep our children safe, trusting that the overwhelming majority of their decisions — made as free-thinking, curious, and funny teenagers — will make us proud. They depend upon us to do the same. In the land of hypotheticals, how would you respond to the following questions: "I'm going to be in college in, like, less than three months, so why can't I (fill in the blank)?" Or, "There's a party at (enter name) tonight, but don't worry, his parents are home. Can I go?" Or, "You're the ONLY parent who calls other parents, Mom. Don't embarrass me!" You get the idea; the variations are limitless. Adolescence is blurry by definition, so adult structure and expectation setting is vital. Bask in the fact that parenting can be a lonely, thankless job.

As our resolve is tested, let us harness our collective strength and remind ourselves of a few facts. We know that our children are well trained in making persuasive arguments. It's their job. As teachers, we pride ourselves on having taught effective, critical skills in thinking and communication. But while our teenagers, with their developing frontal lobes, deploy the art of argumentation, they are not always right, nor are we always getting the whole truth. Not even our seniors are emotionally ready — nor legally entitled — to accept responsibility for many of their own decisions. While expanding the circle of trust, we must also remain the loving and vigilant chaperones who set boundaries when teens' feelings of invincibility and autonomy become palpably unyielding.

As teachers, deans, advisors, and administrators, we all play important roles in keeping your children safe. We are here to support you. In the meantime, I offer a list of time-tested parental recommendations:

  • Be clear about, and reinforce, your expectations and non-negotiables. Empathize when possible.
  • Initiate dialogue in advance about decision-making and exit strategies.
  • Ensure parental supervision at all gatherings and parties. Call ahead.
  • Ask your child to check in by phone when they are out. Be present but don't hover.
  • Enforce consequences when lines are crossed. Mean what you say.
  • Communicate with other parents regularly. Make the call, send the text, or even email.
  • Be a role model, leading by example rather than employing "do as I say, not as I do." (Did I mention that parenting can be thankless and lonely at times?)

We will continue to call you if we hear information of potential concern at school. Keen attention and general presence in their lives is the finest gesture of your love and concern, and it's one of the greatest gifts we offer as a close-knit school. They will thank you... someday. For now, stay strong, keep talking, and hold humor close!