Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe Why My Husband Won’t Send Our Son to Public School

A smiling boy wearing a backpack
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My husband and I are having some difficulty agreeing where to “send” our 5-year-old to school in the fall.

My husband comes from a small-minded family that wants to avoid Black people moving into the neighborhood, still refers to Black people by the N-word (never in front of our children), and generally acts as though people of other races/ethnicities/cultures are less than they are. My husband, unfortunately, absorbed some of these qualities, but I’ve been adamant that he be at least neutral towards BIPOC in front of our children and me, and he has been respectful of that so far. He went to private school from kindergarten until graduation.

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I was raised primarily by my mom and grandparents, and when I was 10 my mom and I moved to a town that was split 65 percent African American, 30 percent white, and 5 percent other races. While there was some gang activity, by and large I had a very successful outcome from the public school system.

Now it’s approaching time for our 5-year-old to begin school, and my husband and I are butting heads on whether he should attend the private or public school in our town. By and large I am in favor of the public school, just based on the facts that it’s free and they are better equipped to serve a special needs child (our son has ADHD). I’m not entirely opposed to the private school, but I want us to make an informed and educated decision. I also admit that I am prejudiced against the private school because I don’t think he’ll receive the same quality education, and I also think this particular private school exists mainly for white flight and further perpetuates the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement. My family supports the use of public schools.

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However, the same can’t be said for my husband, who is being largely influenced by his family. He is strongly against public school, and thinks our son will turn out to be a “thug”—his words verbatim. I feel like he’s refusing to acknowledge the struggles we’ve already faced by having our son in a day care affiliated with a private school: elitism, exclusion, and a lack of willingness to accommodate his mental health needs. His family really doesn’t want our son in public school, and are discouraging my husband from “letting me” send him there.

Can you weigh in on the pros and cons of both school systems and perhaps weigh in on your thoughts?

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If it matters, we are in a small town in South Carolina, about 45 minutes south of the state capital.

—At an Impasse

Dear At an Impasse,

Honestly? I doubt that your husband will be persuaded by a pros-and-cons argument of private versus public education. Your husband wants to send your son to a private school despite the increased cost, the lack of services for students with ADHD, the previous negative experiences you had with private preschool, and the fact that you yourself received an excellent education from public school. Why? Because he’s racist. That’s why he’s refusing to acknowledge the issues you’ve raised with private schooling; for him, the most important factor is keeping your son in a de facto segregated school. What could I possibly say to counteract that?

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Look, maybe you will convince your husband that public school is the right choice. But ask yourself: Will he continue to button up his racism for the next 13 years? If your son has a Black teacher, will your husband respect her? If your son makes Black friends, will your husband be kind and welcoming to them? Will your husband learn to acknowledge the humanity and worth of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color? I sincerely hope so, but it’s also possible the opposite will happen; he could start to behave like the rest of his family. Even if he continues to be “neutral” toward BIPOC, as you say, I find it hard to believe that your children will not eventually pick up on his true feelings. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for.

In saying this, I’m not trying to push you into the private school, honestly. I believe wholeheartedly in the mission and promise of public schools. Public education isn’t only about “what’s best for my kid”; it’s about what’s best for all of us. Our society is better off with strong public schools, and our public schools would be stronger if we all sent our kids to them, if we invested in them equitably, if we treated them like the cornerstone of democracy they are.

Unfortunately, I don’t think your disagreement over this issue will be limited to school. You and your husband need to have a heart-to-heart—perhaps with the help of a professional—about your values as individuals and as parents, about the kind of person you want your son to become, and the best way to prepare him for the future that awaits him. I will be thinking of you, Impasse.

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I have a 10-year-old daughter in fifth grade. She is in virtual school, and she has always struggled in math. She doesn’t stay focused and is just not interested—she can’t muster motivation, and she doesn’t care about her grades. Not in a defiant way, but just “eh.” I get email after email about her not paying attention, and I end up having to reteach her how to do her math at the end of the day. Sometimes I have to go back and watch the Zoom lesson to see how the teacher has taught it so I can show her their way. Previous teachers have also commented to me that she zones out and isn’t excelling. Last year it could take almost an hour for her to memorize 10 multiplication facts. Sometimes she would forget the easiest ones.

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I started to wonder if maybe she has ADHD and I was missing something. She’s been doing OK this year, but I’m definitely picking up the slack for her, helping her at home. Because of COVID, she’s had three different teachers for math this year. The third teacher, who she has now, is a miracle worker. I don’t know what she’s done or how, but all the sudden my daughter is remembering what she learned from her math lesson on Zoom. My daughter can show me how to do the problems, and she can recite the little tricks here and there to solve the problems. It’s like the electricity went on. She’s so excited she’s getting it, and I am too!! Is it possible that this whole time it’s been the way her previous teachers taught math and that this particular teacher understands how to reach my daughter? I’m curious for your thoughts.

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—What’s Changed?

Dear What’s Changed,

Years ago, a student came to my classroom with a reputation of being poorly behaved and disrespectful. I had heard stories about her for years. But miraculously, I never had a problem with her, and we remain friends to this day. Halfway through the school year, I asked her how she managed to turn her life around.

She said, “On the first day of school, you told me I was starting with a clean slate. You didn’t care about anything I had done before, and I was perfect in your eyes, so I decided to be perfect. I wanted to keep my slate clean.”

I have no recollection of saying those words. I’m sure I did, but as teachers, we often empty our toolboxes trying to help a student, and it’s often impossible to know what tool actually worked or what tool we even used.

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I tell you this story because it’s hard to say why a student suddenly changes with the introduction of a new teacher or a new setting, but it happens all the time. As was the case with my student, a student who struggled the previous year with learning or behavior can suddenly become a model student under new circumstances.

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This teacher’s style of instruction might mesh well with your daughter’s style of learning. Or maybe this teacher has connected with your child on a personal level and has inspired her to work hard. Your daughter may have also matured to the point that she sees learning as more valuable than she once did, or maybe she has befriended a student in class who is doing well and supporting your daughter.

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My suggestion is to ask your daughter, and because she is a child and perhaps not as reflective as an adult, ask her the question in several ways. Questions like:

1. What do you think of your new math teacher?
2. What does she do to help you learn?
3. How do you connect differently with this new math teacher compared with your other math teachers?
4. How does your new math teacher teach math differently than your old math teachers?
5. Do you feel different about math now than you did at the beginning of the year?
6. On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel about yourself as a math student?

You might want to ask these questions over a period of days. Asking them all in a row may frustrate your daughter, increase her anxiety, or raise concerns. It will also give you a broader view of her feelings rather than looking at how she is feeling in a particular moment.

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The goal, of course, is to identify those things that are helping her to learn and ensuring that those things continue this year and beyond.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My first grader has struggled all year with virtual school. His (fun! patient! wonderful!) teacher says he’s engaged during synchronous instruction, and his tests came back in the 99th percentile, so on paper everything is fine. Backstage, however, it’s more complicated.

At first he was overwhelmed by being on camera and would run away periodically to have a meltdown under the bed. We worked up his tolerance, but he was still falling apart, and any mistake could set him off.

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He finally hit his stride, and we had a few weeks of peace. Until he started getting angry that he had to do the work he didn’t like, stopped asking for or accepting help, ever, and generally got stuck in a place of anger and defiance. No reasonable negative consequences could budge him, either.

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I was a high school teacher until this year, and this situation felt so familiar to me that I said to hell with it and told him it was time to learn what high school kids know: No grown-up can ever trick or force people into learning or doing schoolwork. I told him he needed his own plan for staying motivated and doing things he didn’t like. I explained that all grown-ups need to do some yucky work in able to work on amazing projects too.

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So far this has been a miracle cure. He thought about it, decided on a plan, and adjusted as needed. Eighty percent of the time he’s doing it all himself. He’s now almost cheerful even when he’s fighting through work he doesn’t enjoy, like he’s embracing the suck and proud of himself for being so tough. Life is good, at least for now, and if he were 12 I’d feel like this is 1,000 percent a valuable lesson. But he’s 7. And now I’m full of worries about it because my family and friends think I’m turning him into a future nightmare child.

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Is it too soon for this? Have I screwed his next school year? He was such a good citizen in kindergarten—I would hate to encourage power struggles in second grade. Am I doing that mean thing where I rush him through childhood so I can act like he’s “advanced”? He still believes in Santa, and I believe in Jesus half the time, so we’re not usually grim realists intent on destroying all illusions of security.

Any reassurance you can give will be appreciated!

—Too Young to Suck It Up?

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Dear TYtSIU,

The first thing I would recommend is to slow down and take a deep breath. You have not screwed up your child at all. In fact, I agree with you that the lesson you taught him was a very important one. Kids today have a tendency to expect things instantly. Many of my students his age get frustrated when they don’t master something on the first or second try. When this happens, I have a conversation with the student about grit.

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I honestly wish more parents would have these types of conversations with their child earlier. “Embracing the suck” is a life lesson in perseverance that should be taught as soon as possible. School can be really challenging, especially in the early grades. The fundamental concepts of math and reading are often taught in unengaging ways and require a large amount of repetition to master. Unfortunately, in some cases, there’s no more engaging or entertaining way to teach a concept; sometimes you’ve just got to complete the worksheet. It seems like your son has begun to grasp this concept, and I strongly believe he will be better off for it. You’ve done him a service, and it’s wonderful he’s taken to it all so well.

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

We have a very middle-class problem. Our 4-year-old son is in his first year of preschool. My son is fairly advanced for his age—he knows his upper- and lowercase letters, can legibly write his name, and is working on basic addition—but he is a little immature socially and emotionally. My husband and I made the decision to enroll him in preschool purely for the extra peer time. He does attend a day care all day as well, as we both work.

I’ve been surprised by his reaction to school. He seems bored, and I expressed this concern to his teacher at our conference in November. She reassured me that she would be breaking the class of 16 into groups to give some of the kids more of a challenge. This hasn’t happened, and when we had distance learning last week I had to force him to put effort into the assignments. When he started in person again this week, I wrote a little note saying that he was bored with the assignments and that I didn’t feel like he was putting in his best effort. I asked for advice and haven’t heard anything back. What should I do? Should I just let it go and continue to work on teaching him his phonics (thus compounding the being-ahead-academically problem)? Ask her for more challenging material? I don’t want to be that parent.

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—It’s Only Preschool for Pete’s Sake

Dear It’s Only Preschool,

To be honest, it looks like you’re viewing the problem from the wrong angle to me. If he’s ahead academically and you enrolled him in preschool in order to focus on his social skills, why are you worried about her providing more difficult work? It’s absolutely true that bored children can exhibit some bad behavior, so I can see that being a concern, but I don’t really see how the teacher providing him with academically challenging work (possibly different work from his peers) will help him learn social skills.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t continue to foster a love of learning. Go on and get ahead on those pre-academic skills! That’s all good. But does it help address your main reason for enrolling him in school? Not really. I know this year with COVID-19, a lot of good options are off the table (play dates, for instance), and I’m assuming that difficulties with COVID safety procedures have prevented his teacher from creating those groups. At my school, we weren’t able to start small-group instruction in classrooms until all the teachers rearranged their classrooms to create socially distanced spaces to do small group work, and even then, it’s groups of two children at most, which isn’t ideal for fostering social skills.

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As for the distance learning component of his learning (I assume he’s on some sort of hybrid schedule): I think a lot of kids struggle to do work for remote school. That has to do with different expectations of behavior between home and school—kids think of home as a place they relax after school, and school as the place where the working happens—so your son needing to be forced into work that he may do easily at school isn’t really concerning to me.

A better indicator of school being too easy for him is if he is unhappy or acting out on the days that he’s at in-person school, or if he is struggling to connect with his peers. At 4 years old, preschoolers aren’t expected to make significant academic growth. Most state standards for preschools focus on school readiness skills (walk in line, stay quiet when someone is reading you a story, etc.) or social skills (share, etc.). They’re also supposed to provide an enriched environment to foster language growth and pre-academic classroom concepts (counting skills, shapes, etc.). Whether or not he can read isn’t really something your preschool teacher is concerned with, and it will be addressed next year in kindergarten.

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As I said, I don’t mean to discourage you from promoting academics or academic learning in your child. Just that unless you’re seeing that boredom coupled with bad behavior, I don’t think you have much to worry about.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher)

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