Kids will never tell us what’s happening at school

Humans do an incredible amount of growing outside the womb. Many animals are born able to walk, feed themselves, find a place to sleep. Human babies are helpless.

Which explains why kids have an amazing way of normalizing any situation their parents put them in. This behavior makes sense because kids are dependent on an adult to take care of them, and they want to believe they are being taken care of. The highest risk factor for borderline personality disorder is when a child is not actually being taken care of, because they still make their brain believe that really, they are being taken care of, so they start losing touch with reality.

So kids naturally make their care-taking situation feel fine. Another example: When there is a parent who is a crack addict or physically abusive, or both, the kid still wants to be connected to the parent. Child services has a very difficult time convincing kids they are better off without their parents. Staying with a caretaker, and normalizing whatever they do, is hard-wired into a child’s brain.

Which brings me to school. At school, the teacher is your child’s caretaker. The teacher spends more hours a day with you child than you do. There is so little chance that the child will tell you that the teacher is doing something wrong. Not because the child is intentionally hiding something. But because you have told the child the teacher is a good person, with good intentions, and the child must listen to the teacher.

This is why normal children do not speak up when the school is doing something terrible for the kids. Last week parents discovered that kids in an Oregon school had to pay to go to the bathroom. The parents would not have even known about this practice except that one girl wet her pants because she didn’t want to use her money to go to the bathroom.

It would not occur to the kids to tell someone what the school is doing is wrong. It’s a survival mechanism for the kids to tell themselves what the school is doing is normal, responsible, and fine. That’s how kids are wired.

And please note this is not a poor-kid mentality or a bad-school mentality, this is all kids whose parents are outsourcing the raising of them to teachers. So I’m including photos of gorgeous Swedish schools in this post.

Sweden built gorgeous schools to accommodate round-the-clock school, and suicide rates skyrocketed. Because good schools don’t solve the problem endemic to all schools: there is no substitute for parenting.

In general, kids being wired to think any caretaker is a good caretaker works well. Throughout human history, kids spent most of their childhood with their family and their family had a vested interest in raising the kids to the best of their ability.

School is different. School has a lot of competing interests that do not involve the kids. School is about test scores and funding and allowing parents to have jobs they like, and while taking care of kids is on the list, it’s not nearly as high a priority as parents expect. We have examples all the time of crazy things that go on at school. But it’s usually from a solitary, outspoken kid, or a brave kid furtively video taping.

There is no path in our society for kids to defend themselves against adults. Kids are hardwired to normalize adult behavior. Which makes the idea of school all the more scary, because parents never know what’s really going on. When you tell your kid they have a new caretaker for the majority of their day, your kid immediately starts to normalize their behavior – whatever it is.

42 replies
  1. Lisa B. Sharp
    Lisa B. Sharp says:

    This is probably one of your best posts! I was definitely one of those kids who would not tell my mom about the “real” situation at school. Thankfully nothing horrible happened but there were times when I knew what the teacher was doing was not right. I’ve seen this with my own kids when they were in school. Sometimes the damage comes from the little things that some teachers do – the snarky comments, the subtle preferential treatment of girls or boys, etc. This kind of stuff flies under the radar of kids and parents.

    • Cade
      Cade says:

      I’m Cade and I’m 11 years old and I agree a few days ago I came up to my teacher and said there were kids bullying me at the table I sit at. I talk a lot so she said “I hear a lot of laughing at that table so your probably not getting bullied” that proves they never really care

  2. Jeanice
    Jeanice says:

    So true. I went to a public school in the ’80’s. One thing I remember was our 3rd grade teacher *allowing* us to massage her back – if we’d been good. I was never good enough to get the privilege, but I remember being envious of the *good kids* she favored. My two (of three) started at the same public school as well, although it is top ranked today and a million times better than 30 years ago. Still, I’ve pulled my son this year, and will pull my daughter next, because I know I can do better. People always say to me “I could never homeschool my kids” and to that I say “You don’t realize it, but you already are.” See I have come to believe that the greatest learning comes from, and within a good home. It’s the meaningful conversations at the dinner table, it’s the discover in the forest on weekend walks, it’s the books read before bed. School is babysitting. I always ask the kids of friends and family what they are doing in school and it always sounds like they are just doing some contrived projects that try to mimic real-life experience, while filling time. No thanks – we get the real deal all day long at home, while out in our community and while having adventures through travel.

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Very sad; but so true. I mostly had a positive school experience when I was in school, but I never told my parents what was going on-EVER! It wasn’t that I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them, it was more like you said, just some sort of hardwired behavior that makes sense now that you spell it out so easily. I wish more kids felt brave enough to stand up against complacency from their teachers and administrators like those students in the videos.

    It makes me mad that the principal told the girl to erase the video and that they would “investigate”… how can you investigate when the evidence has been destroyed? Devious.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “School has a lot of competing interests that do not involve the kids.”

    I definitely agree. And that’s a topic for more than another post … more like another book!

  5. karelys
    karelys says:

    I wish the comment section was kind of like Kinja so that we knew when people commented under our comment or people gave starts (equivalent of an internet high 5).

  6. Karen
    Karen says:

    My son was in public school for 3 years before I pulled him out. We had the exact same conversation every single day on the walk home after I picked him up.
    Mom: How was school today?
    Son: Fine.
    What did you do?
    Son: Not much.
    He never told me when he had a bad day in class and the only info he would ever volunteer was what he and his friends got up to at recess. I knew something was wrong because I watched him slowly change over time. My happy, confidant and outgoing kid became, sad, overly emotional and withdrawn over the course of those three years. Thanks for figuring out why he wouldn’t talk about it to me. That makes a ton of sense.

  7. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Two more reasons kids don’t tell parents what goes on in school: 1). Who would believe the kids are telling the truth? 2). Kids know even if they tell someone, nothing is going to change anyway.

  8. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    It never occurred to me when I was a kid in the 80s to tell my folks. I just thought teachers were supposed to be mean – and I was wrong when I wrote or drew weird stuff and I deserved to be ridiculed by my teacher for not following the rules correctly.

  9. Dave J
    Dave J says:

    I work as a therapist with teens and see this all the time. But the interesting thing to me is the reason why they normalize adult behavior. In trauma resolution they talk about it a lot, even with young children. If you’re primary caregiver is hurting you, you basically have two interpretations available to you, 1) The pain is their fault, and completely out of your control; therefore you learn that the world is inherently chaotic and you are inherently powerless. 2) The pain is your fault; therefore you learn that there is something wrong with you but that’s ok because at least you have some control over that. If you can just figure out why you are flawed in some way, you can change it.

    Lot’s of people choose the second because being in control is better than not, especially when there is abuse and neglect involved. You need a way out and being in control is the only way, even if it means accepting that you are worthless and unlovable.

    By the time they’re teens and they meet me in my clinic they have figured out it’s not their fault, and indeed the fault of others but that just leaves them angry. Angry at all the people who should have taken care of them but didn’t. They get labeled with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD, but really it’s just a pretty reasonable reaction to trauma and insecurity in earlier stages of development.

    • carrie
      carrie says:

      wow. im finding this topic fascinating. the state and adult controls over children are scary. one thing though, as someone with genuine ADHD (brain scan diagnosis as well as DSM stuff) it is frustrating when people tell me its not a real condition. I started taking ritalin at 40 and it has changed my life for the better. Just sayin ;)

  10. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    Interesting, maybe, but a little scare-tacticy-y, perhaps. Most kids do fine. I purposely chose to not leave my child in anyone’s care til she could speak articulately about her experience, which for us meant small periods of time at about 2.5, building up to the normal, American school day by age 6. She is in fact very articulate and shares with me about her day. This is something parents have to work toward developing, though. You can’t just ask…”What did you do today?” Really? That’s all the effort you’re going to put into it before deciding to pull them out of school wholesale? I’d say if your kid doesn’t talk to you, it’s your own failing.

    • Kirsten H
      Kirsten H says:

      Hold on there. An introverted kid can be so exhausted by the end of the day there’s no energy left to get into details. Plus, don’t miss the broader point that most kids come to expect boredom, for instance, as a given within the school day. You can’t really expect kids to challenge the status quo.

      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        Right. So a parent of an introverted child has to adjust their dealings with them to the child’s personality. Just like a special needs kid, an autistic, kids, etc. There are many different kinds of children. Many developmentally normal children thrive in school. This is not the same as putting an infant in daycare. Infants are not developmentally ready to be aware from their parents all day. Six year olds arguably are ready to be in a good school environment for 5-6 hours a day. It’s not that people aren’t entitled to their opinions or entitled to raise their children the way they wish, it’s how someone cherry picks links from the internet and then speaks with this grand authority. I don’t view school as childcare. It’s school. Elementary school teachers are not babysitters. I know there’s very little dissent on this side of this blog and most just echo Penelope’s validation of their choice to homeschool, so never mind…

        • Kim
          Kim says:

          I think it’s funny how you make certain assumptions, Gretchen. How do you know that a child is “ready for 5-6 hours” of schooling a day? How many 6 year old’s have you asked about this? I think the statistics show that most kids don’t “do fine” whatever your definition of that is.
          The point of this article was not whether or not one believe that kids are “ready” or that “most kids do fine”, but if they have been conditioned to cope with these ideas even if it MAY not be true.
          I’m not sure how much research you’ve done on the subject but you seem to not realize that there are many problems within the school system (read the news, sometime).
          Apparently, your situation isn’t so. However, with the abuse that takes place in school (physical or mental) why don’t most kids speak up?
          Your argument begs the question. Why would a child who’s been forced to attend school by a parent who encourages the institution, speak against it. It would be speaking against his own parent and her choices. Why would you tell someone something you know they would get upset about?
          I wonder if your child would neglect to tell you the negative aspects of school or even her desire to not be there, if she knew you would give her the same argument you did in this post?

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            My kid proclaims that she loves school…and I’m not a big “oh the school is so wonderful” person. I complain about the school when it’s appropriate. Here’s an example: I tell my child when they say the pledge she doesn’t have to say “one nation under god” (we don’t believe in god) and I explain to her there are some things the dominant culture does that we don’t do and its her choice to do them or not. You can’t sequester a school-age child from the world all their lives, you may as well engage them and teach them to stand for themselves in it. I guess we have different ideas about what “coping” is versus learning to be. Life is not a free for all where we are never bored and never have to do things when we’d rather be doing other things. The sweet spot is learning to navigate that and find balance. I guess some people’s 6 year olds may not be ready for that, but mine is.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            This is a comment to Gretchen. I see your view and I get it, totally. I have neighbors that both work mid level jobs, walk their daughters to school every morning an are home by 530 everyday. The girls are at school and after school care. While this is an outsider view, their kids are bright articulate engaging and very very kind. They see grandparents on weekends and lead a simple life. They are a nice family. The mom knows the school environment is what it is but that’s it. She doesn’t seem to overstress about the current state of life for 90% of Americans out there (random made up stat btw). Loads of my friends were immigrants growing up and were ecstatic to be receiving a usa education. Even recent friends who had kids in other countries say this is leaps and bounds better than their previous situation and this is high earning 200k + families.

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            Thanks…I think. I can’t tell if you’re writing me off as hopelessly middle-class and middling, like I’m just grateful to have ANY school for my kid (?) or if it’s meant to be “nice”…

  11. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    My parents used to call me Ms. CIA b/c I didn’t talk about ANYTHING that went on in school. Case in point:

    In 1st/2nd grade, I went to a private school that was very challenging academically but was a good fit for me. The school was in a bad neighborhood and getting worse. We were moving in a few months to a safer neighborhood but it wasn’t soon enough for my mom so she put me in public school in a less troubled neighborhood for the first half of 3rd grade until we moved.

    Within three weeks, my teacher assessed that I was reading @ a 6th grade level and solving 5th grade math problems. They wanted me to skip a grade and start 4th grade. They told me they were sending a letter to my house for my parents to read regarding the grade level change.

    I didn’t want to skip a grade. I knew that it was the lower curriculum the school was teaching to these kids that made it seem like I was smarter and the cruel politics of grade/high school would dictate that the 3rd grade kids would shun me b/c I made them feel dumb and the 4th grade kids wouldn’t become friends with me because no one likes a smart kid that shows off by skipping a grade.

    Luckily, I was home alone from 3pm to 4:30pm every day and I’d get the mail so when the letter came, I threw it in the trash. I didn’t mention it to my parents until many years later.

    My teacher asked a few times if my parents got the letter and I stated I don’t know and the issue was dropped when they found out I was moving. I never skipped a grade.

    Once we moved, I was put in private school again and performing @ a B level, again and I was happy.

    Now, that I think back on it, If I told my parents about the letter @ the time and told them that I didn’t want to skip a grade, I don’t think they would’ve pushed me to skip and respected my decision to stay in my grade but I guess I didn’t want to take that chance back then.

    Like Penelope said, its a survival mechanism, keeping things normal and same comforts children and that’s more important than anything else in that child’s life. Eating out the same cereal bowl every morning, reading the same bedtime story every night, taking a bath right after dinner every night….all repetitive, rote behavior that children love.

    If I really was that smart and deserved to move up a grade, I still wouldn’t do it, for the exact same reason….

  12. Kim
    Kim says:

    I think this is the scariest thing in the back of the minds of parents who send their kids to school. The way children normalize bad behavior is frightening. This is why parents, like Gretchen, assume that children will be “fine” in school. Kids find various coping mechanisms to deal with chaos but chaos is still chaos.

    For example, no one raised their voice about a PE coach, in elementary school, who was getting too friendly with the girl students. It’s because you learned to cope for the sake of stability.

    Your child may be abused in school but all they may say is that there school day is “fine”. This is because their perception of reality is altered. When your parents force you to go to school and school forces you to conform, you’re going to cope in order to maintain your sanity.

    It’s probably only until you are out or are presented with different perspectives like homeschooling, that you realize the problem was the institution not your ability to cope with it.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Why do you assume schools are “chaos”? Why do you assume everyone has as wanting a relationship with their kids that the child would not speak out if someone was abusing them. I am fully confident that my child would because I teach her what’s appropriate. Post like this make mefeel sorry for people who have to live in fear and very grateful for my community.

      • Judy Sarden
        Judy Sarden says:

        Gretchen – I have an articulate, highly intelligent son who has been speaking in clear, complete sentences since he was 17 months old. Despite talking to him daily about what he did in Montessori school, including what work he did, who he played with, what happened in class and on the playground, etc., he didn’t tell me until 6 or 7 months into homeschooling that his teacher was terrorizing him and the other kids in class. Little things started coming out at random. I was mortified because I considered myself a good, involved parent. I talk to my kids at length every day. But the thing is, I didn’t find out what was really going on until my son learned that “school” could be totally different from what he had “learned” school was supposed to be. A year after I pulled him from the school (his personality had changed so much that I knew SOMETHING had to be going on) the teacher was fired. When I passed this information on to my 5 year old his response was a very stoic “Good, she should have been fired a long time ago.”

        This post totally struck home with me. My neighbor complained to me just last week that her 1st grader refuses to tell her what’s going on in school. She’s a room parent and very involved in the class. Another friend complains that her 4 year old is regressing since she took her out of the home and put her in preschool at the grandparents’ parents urging. She is planning on homeschooling next year. I could give you countless real world examples that support this article’s premise.

        I used to be like you, Gretchen, so I understand where you are coming from. I felt like people who’s kids had bad things happen to them at school were obviously not involved parents. I was also certain that my articulate chatterbox of a child would tell me if something bad was happening to him at school. But, at the end of the day, he did not. I would caution you against blowing these people off a ridiculous. I don’t agree with everyone on this blog but taking their experiences and perspective under advisement has helped me create a much better learning environment for my kids than I ever would have without this community.

  13. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


    You have a 6 year old. A 6 year old girl. A lot of us here have many kids, older kids, and boys. We all know that schools heavily favor girls.

    You can keep telling yourself and us how great your daughter’s school is. You can yell at us that your daughter tells you she loves her school. But you are seriously in denial if you think that your daughter is going to tell you everything when she gets to the pre-teen/teen years. And since she’s a ways off, you can’t make a logical argument by assuming she will and then predicating your advice on that, you come off looking like a newbie parent who “thinks” she knows everything but doesn’t. You are arguing *what will be* and we are arguing *what has already been*.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Of course she may not tell me everything as a teen or pre-teen…it’s developmentally normal for people that age to have a private life. I’m sure she’ll let me know if she is being abused or something else egregious is going on at school, though. Look, I get it that some schools are bad and some people have wild kids with developmental issues or people think their little out-of-the-box thinkers need special school…and that’s cool…but the broad brushing and scare tactics just look ridiculous.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        There presently exists a chasm where things ought to be, and how things actually are. In order to bridge this chasm, I think the current antiquated system needs to be dissolved; in order to dissolve the current system, more people need to opt out. Then we can rebuild it into what it ought to be.

        Our assumptions are different in this way. Based on our past conversations: I believe your daughter goes to a good school that she likes and you are happy with; I think this is actually an exception. You believe your daughter goes to a good school that she likes and you are happy with; you think this isn’t an exception.

  14. J. S.
    J. S. says:

    Many of us have experience that supports Penelope’s argument. I agree because I know I didn’t tell my parents everything – like the time a stranger tried to get me into his car while I was walking home alone from school at the age of seven. That’s just one time. But here is a story that happened to my friends, one so mind-blowing that no one could believe it. Three families were all neighbors, each had two kids, all six kids ranged from 4-8yo. The families lived on a quiet street in an upper middle class neighborhood. I know my friends are all good, and they to this day feel that their friends are all good too – despite what happened. When the families used to get together, the parents would enjoy adult time in the family room, dinner, talk, and the kids would go off into a family room to play or watch a movie. Then one day, one of the moms walked in to see a four year old performing oral sex on the eight year old. The other four kids were simply watching this go on. You can imagine what unfolded after that. It was a long road for all three families but they worked through it, thankfully, with a lot of group counseling. There was a time when they weren’t sure their strong friendships would survive, but in the end they did. The kids got help for the ordeal, and new rules were set in place. But the one thing I remember troubling my friends so much was “How the hell did this go on and not one kid speak up? How were some of the kids pulled into this, some of them refused, but all of them kept quiet?” She never understood. None of us did, and yet today, Penelope has helped me better understand it. We all think we know the truths, until the truth changes and then we wonder how we could have been so naive.

    • J. S.
      J. S. says:

      I forgot to add that once in counseling, the families learned this behavior had been going on for months.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      I know this post isn’t about school…except that PT made it about school…but what does this comment have to do with school? Seems like one of the families probably had some issues. Where would a kid pick that up?

      • J. S.
        J. S. says:

        It doesn’t have to be just about school to support her argument that kids normalize chaos and won’t always share what’s going on with them. It’s all encompassing, but PT is talking about school here and in that, I think it makes sense too.

        Perhaps one family did have issues. The details were left to private counseling, but again, not the point. My point is: awful things can happen to good kids, and we won’t always hear about it. When awful things happen to good kids we often sit around scratching our heads wondering why they didn’t tell us.

        I always joke with my husband that we might not know what’s “going on in our kid’s heads today…but we’ll likely get the full story in about 10-20 years.” Until then, it’s my job to protect them from harm which means doors are always open in our house and electronics are always used in shared family space.

  15. redrock
    redrock says:

    I am always surprised at the absoluteness of the assumption that homeschooling is always always good – I think it can be great, but there are families which have very restrictive, sometimes abusive, sometimes just extreme social behavior which are cultivated within the family unit. Kids will learn this behavior and I have a hard time to see why this is better than school. Homeschooling or school-schooling is a very individual choice, and it can go either way depending on the situation. There are all kinds of ways to live, there is no single right way for everybody. Maybe we should accept and allow this diversity? And, even school allows for diversity – the kids do not all grow into little clones.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Yeah but you have to remember this isn’t a debate. It’s a blog. Titled homeschooling. Written online by a person that has a hard time juggling her life making bizarre choices and hoping she gets something right in the future. Which could be her children having singular stellar careers in interesting capacities or building up a huge business herself and one day… We’ll in not sure what her aim is at all really. Welcome to the us! that’s the thing about America. Everything
      is always changing and pt is a great example of someone trying to navigate their life in the us- make money, not just some but a lot, raise kids the best way possible at the given time, hope for a better future because the present is so hard…so on. I think moms here are just looking for a blueprint to live by. An example, a tribe. America lacks in the ‘support mothers’ and ‘support families’ arena all around. It also emphasizes independence so much when really it’s about interdependence. And I think the people thread this blog are the outliers looking for that interdependent support group you just can’t find day to day in real life.

      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        To me…everything is debate…it’s part of what makes life interesting.

        And that people are here looking for a blueprint for life is what concerns me… in a very internet-commenty way, that is.

  16. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Penelope said: Staying with a caretaker, and normalizing whatever they do, is hard-wired into a child’s brain.

    Why do you view this as hardwired instead of as this is all the child knows and does not know how to compare to what could be better? They only have this up front and personal experience to reference when evaluating alternatives. They evaluate that their parent is still with them, so they must love them (even when they experience injustices perpetrated by the parent). *Also, unless given the right standard by which to judge their parent, they won’t even necessarily know an injustice has been done against them*

    I remember being 7/8 (I’m 40 now) and home with my sister (who was 5) by ourselves after school until about 6pm. I would always make sure to watch Little House on the Prairie and while doing so, I was thinking about how I wish I was part of the Ingalls family. My mom spanked me and we were poor and I remember wanting something different even at that age.

    I don’t think normalizing is hard-wired. I think it might seem that way because children don’t know there can be alternatives to their situation and they don’t really even grasp what that could entail emotionally when presented with it; unless it is very concrete – like Little House on the Prairie was for me.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Yes, and if they’re sequestered at home with an oddball parent that may be all they know. Not that all homeschoolers are like that…but, not that all schools are like that either.

  17. DB
    DB says:

    I NEVER wanted my kids to go to school, but I’m so lazy they would only have learned how to ride horses and care for the dog if they’d stayed home.
    ( but actually that worked just fine for me).

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