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School is a normal rite of passage, and it is often the first time when children make decisions on their own.baona/The Globe and Mail/iStock

Kristin Phillips is the author of For the Love of Learning: A Year in the Life of a School Principal.

The first day of school is just around the corner, and many parents are sending their children off for the first time. The school building is clean, the floors unmarred and there is no sweaty odour emanating from the locker rooms.

Kids are excited to see their friends and discover who their teacher will be. Teachers, rookies and veterans, eagerly anticipate the new relationships they will forge. And parents are nervous. After all, it is not easy to hand your child over to a stranger, even a nice and smiling one, and be assured that all will be well.

And so begins the complicated relationship between school and home. Parents, educators and students are all working within an ecosystem that requires trust – trust that has yet to be earned.

Each player brings past experiences and expectations to the table. New teachers are relying on hopes and dreams garnered from recently completed courses, while returning ones are leaning on pressing reset; parents look back to their own school memories, good or bad; kindergarten students are excited and scared in equal measure, while older ones already have past years that will influence their feelings on the first day.

School is a normal rite of passage. It is often the first time when young children make decisions on their own without their parent or caregiver’s direction. Can I eat my dessert first for lunch? Is this a good kid to be friends with? Is it time to go to the bathroom? How am I going to get my mittens on?

It is also a form of initiation for parents, as they entrust their child to an institution that is both familiar and unfamiliar to them. Familiar because everyone went to school and has certain understandings about how it will go – bells will ring, students will do schoolwork, teachers will be in charge. But unfamiliar in the details that will matter. And that is where a parent needs to trust that all will go well, often before trust is established. No easy task. For parents, sending a child to school is about both being involved and letting go.

In order for the experience to work, there needs to be reciprocal trust between the parents and the school, and between the students and the school. In both relationships, time will help to build that trust, but it can be more difficult for parents who often have an arm’s-length relationship with the school.

It’s easy to see how that happens: The only communication is newsletters, websites, meet-the-teacher nights and the occasional phone call or interview. And the daily “What did you do at school today?” is met with a shrug from many kids. While students build trust with their teacher over the daily intimate interactions of the classroom, the parent-school relationship is trickier to forge.

Yet a student’s success can hinge on the trust they feel their parent or caregiver has with the school. Parents hear all sorts of stories from their children – who misbehaved, what a teacher said, what happened at recess – and it is a challenge to always assume best intentions and not react in shock. But children are not always reliable narrators. Many times, a parent and I have shared a laugh over a perceived problem that was not one at all. (A child complains at home about getting kicked at recess, but neglects to mention that it was during a soccer game, and was an accident!)

Parents who listen but do not judge before checking with a teacher or principal are staying involved and letting go. But parents who disparage the school in front of their child, promise they will fix things, or show their disapproval and anger – they erode that important trust between their child and the school.

Students whose parents are involved do better at school. But the over-involvement of helicopter parents can be damaging. They hamper their child’s ability to grow and learn to live outside of the family dynamic. Children will make friends with kids parents don’t approve of, they will lose their snow pants, and they will eat their dessert for lunch and leave the rest!

But when helicopter parents swoop in and insist that the school intervene, without allowing the child to first solve small problems on their own, they demonstrate that they don’t trust either their child or the school. How does a student feel safe enough to take risks if they know their parents don’t approve of the environment?

Schools, too, have a role to play in the development of the trusting relationship with parents and cannot rely entirely on their institutional reputation. Communication that is continuous, timely and open is key.

Because parents are usually left with the indifferent shrug when they ask their child about their day, it is the school’s responsibility to inform parents about what is happening. Often primary schools and teachers do this best, believing that older students are better able to communicate with their parents. But anyone who has ever had a teenager knows this is not always the case!

As in any relationship, there will be conflict. There are times when a parent should and must step in: when there are academic or behavioural concerns, if there is a suspicion of bullying, if the relationship with the teacher is not positive. The school owes it to the relationship to take the concern seriously. I always told parents that they know their child better than we ever would. I have never met a parent who didn’t love their child.

While schools have expertise and knowledge, parents and schools must work to resolve issues in the best interest of the child, in ways that help that child to grow. Parents can always call the school to discuss concerns and should feel heard. When parents feel there is an empathetic response to their concerns, they will trust the school, and in turn their child will feel safe, knowing that the adults in their life are working together.

Trust requires both sides to assume best intentions, to listen and to be open to an alternative point of view. It is a delicate balance for parents to stay involved and let go, but an important one. Like teaching your child to ride a bike, the moment you let go is both terrifying and exhilarating. Sending your child to school is just another such moment in the parenthood journey.

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