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Life's Not Fair, Whether I Help My Teens or Not

Life’s Not Fair, Whether I Help My Teens or Not

By Mir Kamin

Life isn’t fair. As the saying goes: Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something. I know this. My kids know this. Everyone knows this, right? We deal with life’s unfairnesses as best we can.

When it comes to school, though, and the business of teaching our kids to advocate for themselves, unfairness can become its own beast. And it can be really hard to know when to step in and when to step back. (At least for me, that’s true. You may be more highly evolved and better at this stuff. If you are, please teach me, Obi Wan!)

Little kids are easier, in this respect. If there’s an unfairness that simply is, and wouldn’t benefit from parental intervention, you take it as a learning experience. You talk about it at home. You brainstorm solutions, or—if there are no real solutions—you talk about how to cope. This would include things like exclusion on the playground or not getting an award. Sometimes… things are just crummy, and that’s how it is. We all have to learn to soldier through. And if there’s an unfairness that can be rectified, well, no one faults a parent for stepping in. If your elementary schooler comes home with a terrible grade on a well-written opinion paper simply because the teacher holds a differing opinion, it’s fine to ask for a conference and talk it through.

Self-advocacy is a fraught topic in our family, because in addition to the standard “you’re growing up and need to be able to speak up for yourself” stuff, both of my kids have the additional issues of needing to decide how and when to disclose their special needs, plus they have to deal with the challenges those needs bring to the table whether they choose to disclose or not. Emotional regulation is not a strong suit for either of my teens (though both have come a long way over the years, and are improving all the time), so the minefield of advocacy is that much more dangerous because it’s hard to be taken seriously if you can’t stay calm. Right now I have a senior and a junior; in a few months, my oldest will have to navigate this stuff on her own at college (though she won’t be alone, she will have to utilize Disability Services if needed), and my youngest will be a senior. One of my teens (I’ll give you three guesses as to which one, and I only have two kids) has an especially difficult time communicating effectively when there is a perception of having been wronged.

You know where I’m going with this, right? I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. And although my kids do have special needs, and sometimes stepping in is just logical, I almost always feel bad about it. I’m worried if I intervene that I’m not letting them solve it themselves; I worry if I don’t intervene that I’m not supporting them properly. And always—always—I worry that when I take a teacher to task, I am perceived as someone who believes my special snowflakes deserve the world handed to them on a silver platter. I know that’s never my intention, and I only step in when I feel confident that reason is on our side, but that’s the truth: I worry I’m being judged, and that the kids are being judged, by extension.

So, the kid I mentioned who isn’t a good communicator? Said kid has been a total rock star about self-advocacy this year. Truly. I’m seeing progress I hadn’t dared to hope for, and it’s glorious. But recently we’ve bumped up against a situation where I feel compelled to step in (because progress isn’t being made without me), and all those old feelings of being a pain in the rear and being judged are flooding back.

Let me be clear here, too, that I know most teachers work really, really hard for their students. Being in a position where I feel like I’m standing up and saying, “This teacher is not doing their job and my child is suffering because of it” is hard and disappointing and makes me feel like a jerk even when it’s true and needs to be said. After some reconnaissance, it’s become clear that my kid isn’t the only one struggling with this particular teacher. We’re finding out that this has nothing to do with special needs and everything to do with… well, just not a great situation. And the end result is that you have a whole group of kids who used to love a subject but sort of dread it, now, because of the way things are going in this particular class. Several of us parents are speaking up. It’s not just me. And it’s a situation that must be rectified.

But. But. I still worry I should be making my child do their own advocacy (even though I know they have tried, and failed, through no fault of their own). I still worry that I’m perceived as a helicopter parent. I still worry that my complaints will be heard as grade-grubbing (“I want my snowflake to have a higher grade”) rather than the overarching concern it truly is (“When you tell me my kid is your best student and said kid gets the highest grade on this test and that grade is around 50% and you refuse to curve the test, I am left wondering both why everyone failed and what you think is accomplished by failing the entire class”). I worry about what happens when situations like this crop up in college or beyond—and they will; maybe not in exam form, but they will—and I can no longer help.

I worry. I worry because life isn’t fair and at the end of the day, that’s always going to be true.

So I tell my kids, “We do the best we can. We accept that sometimes we cannot change even the most unfair things. And we keep trying.” I hope that—despite my discomfort with it—the interventions I do now are demonstrating that, to them.

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About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Lisa R

    March 22, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    That’s so hard. I’m not there yet with my kids, but I remember being in that position myself. There were several classes on my college campus that kind of expected everyone to fail all the tests (they did curve it, so some people still passed the class), but it left me wondering exactly the same thing: what’s even the point?

    Sigh* I guess life is just more unfair at times than others…

    • Mir Kamin

      March 22, 2016 at 5:05 pm

      And that’s just it, right? Because there are classes like that in college, and I certainly can’t call up and complain, then. The reality of under-18 schooling, though, is that sometimes teachers/administration will listen to a parent when they won’t listen to a student. So I step in, but I try to be very transparent about the process and point out that if a similar situation arises at college, here’s how they should probably try to deal with it.

      • Alyssa

        March 24, 2016 at 9:21 am

        Funny — my mother-in-law retired early from her job as a tenured professor at a public university because it turns out that nowadays parents DO call up and complain.

        • Mir Kamin

          March 24, 2016 at 9:28 am

          That’s horrifying. Seriously. (And my husband is also a professor and has had blessedly few such run-ins, but there have been a few!) I’ve been telling my kids for years that once they get to college they’re on their own with this stuff; they can call me to talk it through, but I cannot (and more importantly, will not) contact the university on their behalf.

  • Jodie

    March 22, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. We’re years behind you but advocation is something I think about a lot.

    Would you ever consider writing a series on navigating IEPs and Special Ed in general? I think you do a wonderful job striking a balance between cooperative member of the team and child’s advocate. I’d (selfishly) love to see your thoughts on the process from beginning to a child exiting high school.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 22, 2016 at 5:06 pm

      Let me think on that. I know a lot about navigating when it comes to ASD/ADHD, but of course there are plenty of other special needs I don’t know anything about, so I’m not sure I’m best-suited to a general piece. But maybe something focusing on our experience….

      • Jodie

        March 22, 2016 at 8:46 pm

        That makes sense. I think what I meant was less disorder/diagnosis specific and more IEP process generalized. For example – not the accommodations you ask for, but how you might go about asking for them. How you personally began IEPs at the various stages of your kids school careers, etc.

        Though (again selfishly) I wouldn’t mind the specifics of yours since my oldest has ADHD 🙂

  • Liz

    March 22, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    No curving on a test where the highest score was a fifty? THAT’S RIDICULOUS.

    I’ve had plenty of teachers who’ve said, “I don’t expect anyone to get full points on this test, what I’m looking for is, do you understand how to set up the problem? Do you understand the steps to take to get the answer?” and then they grade on a curve.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 23, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Right, and that’s my issue—it’s not about the grade (though the grade is ridiculous), it’s about having an entire class of kids spectacularly bomb a test and just shrugging. If the whole class fails, sorry, I believe there’s something wrong with the teaching. (In this case, I’m told the test was full of material never taught.) If you’re looking for a baseline or even just have some sort of “oops” mismatch between prep and exam, that’s fine, it’s happens, but then you grade on a curve to compensate. Obviously no one understands the material. And whose fault is that??

  • Shelly

    March 23, 2016 at 12:20 am


    This is actually a reflection about your thoughts and concerns re assisting vs practising independence. Repeated thoughts, so it’s obviously a key concern for you. Have you looked into the Myers Briggs personality profiles? I’ve been getting a great deal of insight into my personality type of INTJ from the podcasts produced by . It could just be a part of your personality to feel worry about these sorts of situations.
    Good luck with feeling out the balance here, and we’re all cheering for your daughter heading off to college.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 23, 2016 at 9:37 am

      Oh, it is definitely part of my personality. 😉 I’ll check out the podcast, thanks!

  • […] hell to freeze over and my bathroom to be finished, you can head over to Alpha Mom to read about a different sort of unfairness, if you like. Hey, it’s good to have a bathroom distraction, I […]

  • Monica

    March 23, 2016 at 11:03 am

    I would love it if you might write post about navigating the college admission process with an IEP. My son is only in 10th grade, but I gather that he can choose whether to reveal the IEP situation in his application, but this is all very unclear to me. For instance, can you wait and tell them AFTER you are admitted and still receive services??????

    • Mir Kamin

      March 23, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      That’s one question that’s easy to answer: there is absolutely NO obligation to reveal IEP/504/etc. status via college application, and all you need to receive services once you arrive on campus is your paperwork from your school/doc (which the student must then take to Disability Services to determine what accommodations are reasonable in a college setting). Recently in a special needs group I belong to, someone asked about revealing special needs via application, and I pointed to a few recent opinion pieces about learning disabilities and other special needs being a plus during the process in terms of diversity (e.g., this one), and a member of the group who is an admissions counselor (and special needs parent!) basically told me I couldn’t be more wrong and you should never, ever disclose. It was… a lively debate.

      So: Do you have to? No. I personally believe that if you are applying to a school which is a good fit, disclosing is a good idea for multiple reasons—it shows you are comfortable with who you are, it may smooth over any obvious “quirks” by admitting up front that you’re not neurotypical, it makes your successes that much more impressive, and many schools WILL see it as a diversity plus. But know this is simply my opinion, and I’ve been told I’m wrong. (Also know that both of my kids have, independently, chosen to disclose on their college applications. My oldest is about to attend her choice school on a merit scholarship, and my youngest is currently awaiting his dual enrollment admission for his senior year.)

      • Monica

        March 24, 2016 at 8:15 am

        Thank you for such a thoughtful response – I knew it would be complicated and fortunately a bit of time to think about it – will have to investigate deeply!

  • Lucinda

    March 23, 2016 at 11:32 am

    Sometimes, even as adults, we seek help in advocating for ourselves.  That is also a fact of life. We seek the advice of our friends.  We ask for help from our superiors when appropriate.  We call in favors.  Your kid is simply calling in a favor and you are there to help.  That is also a reality of self-advocacy.  Recognizing when you can’t do it on your own.

    Also, this teacher is judging all the parents.  Not just you.  Because this teacher clearly doesn’t understand that when the entire class fails, that is a reflection on the teacher’s ability far more than the students.

  • Carmen

    March 23, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    We are dealing with this EXACT same situation in 6th grade, with multiple teachers. If two teachers are experiencing the reality that 80% of the class fails a test – it’s maybe not the fault of the kids, but maybe the teachers who aren’t teaching correctly. It’s a super frustrating dichotomy and one that makes me rage. 

    • Mir Kamin

      March 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm

      Yeah, it seems this is not terribly uncommon, and in the current “oh but my special baby can’t fail” climate, it can be hard to be heard as being concerned about learning vs. being concerned about grades.

    • Jodie

      March 23, 2016 at 4:36 pm

      When I was a teacher I was shocked how many of my colleagues were *proud* that a very significant portion of their classes not only failed certain tests, but the whole class.  And we’re talking high school too – where that failed class had a huge impact on a student’s eligibility for graduation and college.  They never once thought it was a reflection on themselves.

  • KIm

    March 23, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Oh, that is maddening.  As a teacher, assessment works both ways.  I need to know what the kids have learned, and where I need to beef up the instruction so they will learn. A full class failure rate is not acceptable, at any level, not even in college. (Gah, with the tuition prices they charge now?  NOPE.) No teacher worth their salt sets their students up to fail.  Challenge, yes, absolutely.  But if everyone in the class fails, that includes the teacher.  GRRRRRR.
    In this situation, I say forget how you think they might see you. The situation needs to be addressed.

  • Shannon

    March 23, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    I have failed almost entire classes of students in my college classes. It always comes down to this – my syllabus and assignments CLEARLY state that you must read your book. There is simply not enough time to cover all of the necessary material in class. My exam questions that pull from the book material are always the easier questions on my exam. Inevitability the students choose not to read the book and miss these questions . When they are not fulfilling their course obligations, I see nl need to curve an exam for them. They are adults and it is their responsibility to make sure their tasks are done. (Additionally, there are always students who read the assigments and pass with flying colors)

    That being said, your child is in high school. Not college. I would never expect high school students to teach parts of the material themselves (like I do with college students). In high school I would expect the teacher to make sure that their students would pass their exams. A high failure rate would be unacceptable.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 24, 2016 at 8:04 am

      I appreciate your perspective. And I think it’s the “almost” that’s key there—if someone can pass, or several someones, then clearly it’s not impossible. We’re talking about an entire class bombing. (And, FWIW, there were no missed assignments. The material was simply never covered in either class or homework.) Sigh.

  • Aska

    March 24, 2016 at 12:32 am

    I think that by getting involved, you’re giving him an example of constructive ways to solve a problem. Kids don’t just learn by doing, but by observing how we do. So when something seemed impossible to solve, and you manage to find a constructive way to do it, the kid can see it can be done, and how.

    I know you know all this but just trying to assuage your guilt, pretty pretty Mir. 🙂

  • Chris

    March 25, 2016 at 11:05 am

    I would definitely advocating you stepping in.  This is a broad issue and it has been my experience sometimes the principals/higher ups need the parental complaints to make a difference.

    That is not anything against your kids or self advocating – it is a reality that sometimes it take multiple people and multiple angles to solve a problem

    My DD has 2 other kids in her super advanced college level math course.  When she got a 75 on the final, other child got a 65 and third child a 50 – it end up being an A, B and B-.  The teacher acknowledgef that he was pushing them and didn’t have good high school parallels when developing tests.

  • Rachel

    April 3, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    When I was teaching in Maryland they were rolling out new curriculum, and sometimes (yes roll your eyes) they would send us a TEST with material on it that had we had never been expected to teach, and we were REQUIRED to give these tests to students.  The only thing we could do (and we could not do it in every case) was to add easy stuff onto the required test to bring up their grades.  This is probably not the case with this teacher, but you could bring up this anecdote to ask if there is something going on you don’t know about.  I’ve also seen AP teachers give really crazy difficult tests (esp chemistry) to “get them ready” for what they should expect on the AP, and treating it like a College class rather than a high school class.  This is more likely a mistake for new teachers… (Just trying to help with the teacher perspective…Its still worth trying to change it) 
    Also,  you could write something about ASD/ADHD dealing with IEPS and stuff rather than a general article- there’s plenty of us dealing with that! I think I’m like most people- we don’t ‘even know what accommodations are possible and the school certainly doesn’t want to tell us or have the imagination to figure it out.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 5, 2016 at 9:47 am

      Still mulling on some of this, but the most helpful source for us in terms of figuring out what accommodations were reasonable/useful was my son’s therapist. Even now (with high school almost over!) she’s still encouraging him to advocate for himself and figure out which accommodations he maybe no longer needs. Having an expert 3rd party like that is so useful.