In a note from a child care center that enrolls military families, the director shared this with me:
Just today, one of our families informed a teacher that Dad has been out on a ship. The teacher said she had noticed a change in the child, but did not know this had happened. Perhaps now she will be better able to help the little girl.
What she didn’t write was, “Why didn’t the family tell us sooner?” – a legitimate question that I can identify with. I wish I could say that this was a rare occurrence but it’s not. In military families, and civilian families for that matter, it’s quite common for something significant to happen in the family that isn’t communicated to the child’s care provider or teacher. It’s not until the child’s behavior prompts us to ask pointed questions about events at home that we find out that a significant change has occurred in the family.
If you’re like me, your first response to the situation above might have been irritation – “Why on earth wouldn’t Mom tell me that Dad had been deployed? How can she not know it will come out in their child’s behavior?” But being irritated doesn’t serve anyone. In fact, it can make the situation worse, since the parent will probably sense your irritation and be even less likely to feel comfortable communicating with you.
A more useful approach is to:
- get curious and genuinely ask ourselves why a parent might not have shared information about changes at home, recognizing that there are several possibilities; and
- ask ourselves what we can do to improve communication in the future.
So what are some possible explanations? Here are a few:
Possibility #1: Mom honestly didn’t know that Dad’s absence might affect her daughter’s behavior at school. As caregivers, we can forget that most parents don’t have our level of knowledge of child development. Parents with little experience with young children are especially likely to underestimate young children’s awareness of what’s going on in the world around them and how they will respond to changes in their world. Parents may also be unaware that young children work out their understanding of and feeling about such events in their play, which is as likely to happen at school as it is at home. With young children, there simply isn’t the separation between public and private that we adults develop.
What you can do: Share with parents in a variety of ways that children are aware of the changes in their environment, especially those that affect the important relationships in their lives. Weave information about this aspect of children’s development into your parent orientation, regular parent communication (e.g., newsletters & meetings), and informal day-to-day communication. Don’t assume parents know! …or that if you tell them once, they’ll remember. Heaven knows they have plenty of other things on their minds!
Possibility #2: Mom can’t share information because of Operational Security. Certain information, such as troop location, must be kept secret to maintain the safety of the service members and their mission. Operational Security (OPSEC) is a process of keeping critical information about military operations out of the hands of those who wish harm. While it may be frustrating at times for child care providers to not have information that may be affecting the child, it’s important to remember that it’s also difficult for a military spouse or family member to not be able to talk about it.
What you can do: The most important thing you can do is clearly communicate to families that you understand that there is information that they can’t share about their military family member. Communicate respect for the intent of that limitation and a desire to work with them to keep their loved one safe, even if it means living with the unknown.
Possibility #3: Mom doesn’t trust that the caregiver will respond in a positive, helpful way. Maybe Mom thinks that her daughter’s teachers won’t do anything differently, so it doesn’t matter whether they know. Or perhaps she’s afraid that the teachers will respond in ways that will make her daughter even sadder. Or she may have overheard teachers talking about other families’ situations in ways that made her reluctant to share what to her is very personal information.
What you can do: It is your responsibility to earn parents’ trust, to develop a relationship with them that convinces them that you will treat any information that they share with respect and confidentiality, and that you will use it for the good of their child. Be sure that in policy and practice, confidentiality and respect are the hallmarks of private communications with parents. Offer a private space to discuss family matters so that parents aren’t forced to talk about them in the middle of a busy classroom. Ask permission before sharing any family news with others. And talk with parents about how to discuss or deal with it as the topic comes up during the day in conversation or play.
Possibility #4: Mom doesn’t think you want or need to know. Sometimes we professionals can come across as being the experts about children. In some ways, of course, that’s very true – we probably do know more than most parents about children in general and about learning, curriculum, etc. But sometimes we can come across as “know-it-alls”, which can be very intimidating, especially for a first-time parent. Parents can be reluctant to share information with us because they think we’ll take offense or because they think we’ve already got everything under control. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge, to ourselves and to parents, that it’s the parent that is the expert on any individual child. We, in fact, do need their input.
What you can do: It’s up to us to communicate to parents that we are partners together with them to create the best care for their child. Share the message that we each hold pieces of the puzzle that we must share in order to see the whole picture of the child. Let them know that when you ask questions about their family, it’s not just because you’re nosy! Let them know that you care about their family, that you share their desire to support and nurture their child, and that you regard their role as parent very highly. Be sure that parents’ knowledge about their children is regarded as an important element in every aspect of the program. Make sure that it’s clear to parents from the start that their input is a vital part of creating an environment in which their children can thrive. Make time to ask parents regularly about life at home and be warm and attentive as you listen. If parents experience your interest as the norm, then when significant events happen, sharing it with you will come naturally.
Possibility #5: Mom thinks she should be able to handle family situations herself. Whether because of cultural norms, family upbringing, or personal belief, many people hold self-sufficiency and independence as a strong value. Military culture often reinforces the belief that families keep their “business” private and handle it on their own. Talking to others about family matters, especially difficult situations, is considered whining and asking others for support or help is seen as weak.
What you can do: This barrier to communication is harder to influence than others because it lies deep within a personal value system. But it’s not impossible! One of the best things we can do to encourage more open communication is to help families develop a sense of belonging to a supportive, caring classroom/program community. Families that feel more connected to other families in the program are likely to be more transparent about themselves. Consider how you can facilitate relationships between families: 1) Create friendly spaces where parents are encouraged to linger for conversation during pick up and drop off; 2) plan family events where parents can get to know one another; 3) pair parents new to the program with “old-timers” who can act as mentors initially and perhaps become friends.
Even with a whole arsenal of strategies to enhance communication, there is no guarantee that parents will always share important family information with you. But anything that you can do to create a warm, inviting, trustworthy environment for parents will not only increase the openness of communication with parents but will be end up being an environment in which everyone – children and adults alike – can thrive.
Other resources on communicating with parents:
What tips would you suggest for creating better communication between parents and child care providers?