Q&A: parents sticking up for child

Eric writes:

"I am not a parent yet, but will probably become one soon. I have an question about raising children that I was hoping you could open for debate. I was fascinated by the debate over the peanut allergies on the playground, and this in a similar vein.

I regularly read Wil Wheaton's blog, and he recently had an entry called The Butterfly Tree (http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2007/04/the_butterfly_t.html). This entry describes one of his memories, where he and his family went to a Parent's Night, where parents would come to see sort of a "school day lite". And during this, through no fault of his own, Wil gets the equivalent of his name written on the board. I hope you read the entry in full, because I'm doing a bad job of summarizing it concisely, but essentially it's about the fact that his parents didn't stick up for him when he was punished (warned or cited really) through clearly no fault of his own.

This story made me think of what I would do with my own kid, if the situation presented itself. And I have no doubt that it will. One the one hand, we can tell that this unfair incident traumatized the kid (not severely, but still), and he was unfairly punished (quote-unquote punished). If I was a kid and that happened to me, I would be very upset not only that I was a victim of an unreasonable accusation, but also that my parents didn't support me, especially when they were there to witness it. Silence gives consent. So doing nothing, you're left with the sense that your parents either approve, or are too lazy to do anything about it, that they don't care. That's nothing a parent should be known for, especially in an instance that seems to be resulting in inequitable treatment to my child. Fair's fair, and what kind of lesson am I teaching my kid by not coming to his defense when clearly he was falsely accused? I want to teach him that you should fight against things that are clearly wrong, and not just capitulate.

On the other hand, what good would a confrontation do? What would a parent say to her? What is going to be gained? We know that Mrs. Krocka is probably a witch. Either she'd argue back, or she'd acquiesce, but really, what would get done? And Wil wasn't really punished anyway. As he says, his name was right back to normal the day after (when the good teacher came back). When you're a little kid, these things that seem like a huge deal really aren't. The kid doesn't know that, but the parents do.

My wife's a teacher so I know how frustrated they get by constant barrages of ignorant parents who never think it's their fault their kid's eating crayons and not really learning anything. I would never want to aggravate a teacher in such a way because I know what they go through, and I know they're not trying to screw up my kid,they're just trying to do the best they can.

So that's the question. Should Wil's parents have gone back in and argued with the teacher, defending him against an unjust punishment, or write it off, consider it a lesson in life not always being fair. Or am I making too big a deal out of this? :)"

(He signed off with "long time reader, first time writer," which made me feel like either Mike or The Maddog. Awesome!)

It seems to me that there are a couple of elements of this situation that need to be considered separately. One is, obviously, whether the parents should have confronted Mrs. Krocka. But first, let's talk about the other element, which is how his parents acknowledged Wil's feelings. In the story they didn't. That, I feel, is the biggest mistake in this whole episode. The parents should have acknowledged Wil's feelings, even if they weren't able to stick up for him in front of Mrs. Krocka. As soon as they were out of the school building, they should have apologized for not being able to stick up for him, validated that he hadn't done anything wrong, and acknowledged that he was wronged in the situation.

It could have been a really valuable lesson to learn that sometimes you get the short end of the stick, but your parents are still there for you even when they can't change the outcome of the situation. Instead, he just felt abandoned and misunderstood. It takes so little to make kids feel understood, but it sounds like Wil's parents were just overwhelmed and didn't know how to do it.

Now, about confronting Mrs. Krocka. Technically, what should have happened is that one of the other parents should have stood up to Mrs. Krocka, pointed out that she was being really unreasonable and over-the-top, and smoothed over the situation. That way there wouldn't have been any awkwardness with Wil's parents sticking up for him, and it would have reinforced the social norm of not picking on innocent kids in the classroom. (Seriously. What was wrong with her?) We should all remember that in unfair situations the bystander has way more power to stop abuse of power than we think. Speak up if you can.

Now, should Wil's parents have spoken up for him to Mrs. Krocka? In my opinion, yes. It wasn't like he'd been doing something wrong and knew it and she just came down a little hard on him. He really did nothing and she humiliated him in front of a room full of people just because she could. The only lesson that taught him was that he couldn't count on his parents.

But I don't think we can really judge them, because it sounds like they were overwhelmed with their lives and were afraid of Mrs. Krocka. I really do think the other parents should have picked up the slack and stopped Mrs. Krocka from trampling Wil.

Opinions? Did Wil learn a valuable lesson, or was he left hanging by the adults in his life? How should his parents have handled things?