Parent Signatures: Teaching Kids we don’t Trust Them

Parent signatures deprive  children of essential life skills.

Parent signatures deprive children of essential life skills.

It’s still summer vacation in most parts of the U.S., but soon the dreaded Signatures will return. I’m talking about parent signatures on everything from school work to piano lessons.

It used to be that parents signed their names for two things: field trip permission slips and report cards.

Now instead of feeling like a parent supporting my child’s education, I feel like a jailer. Everything must be signed to prove the kid did it: reading lists, spelling lists, daily planner entries (record of what you did in school that day), music practice minutes. The consequence if a child doesn’t obtain parent signatures? Skipped recess.

This constant signing creates a disturbing culture of distrust. It tells the child: We don’t trust you. We don’t think you care about your own learning. We certainly don’t think you can take responsibility for your own learning.

Teachers tell me the purpose of asking for a parent signature is not really about the child. Instead it’s a method of making sure that parents are involved in the child’s school life. The signature step shows the teacher that parents see what the child is doing and might even ask questions about school. A parent-child communication tool? This is wishful thinking. In some households, the bridge between home and school will never be crossed. A signature line, signed or not, unfortunately cannot change that. In other homes, there is already strong support and interest in education. The signature line is an annoying inconvenience and casts the parent into the role of police officer.

Parent signatures bother me for several reasons:

It strips responsibility from the child. Any school work responsibilities should not be the parent’s job, it needs to rest firmly with the child. Requiring parent signatures on homework or other school tasks sets up an unhealthy relationship between parent-child. The signature mentality sends this message: “It’s my parents’ job to see I do my work.” This leads to the next bad habit: “I will only work when someone (teacher/parent/ boss) is watching.” or “I will only do my work when nagged.”

– It creates an aura of distrust and disrespect. Disrespect for family culture and relationships. Distrust and disrespect to children. The message comes loudly and clearly: “We do not trust you. Your word doesn’t matter.”  Of course, children’s versions of the truth are not always accurate, but neither are adults’. It is more important to me that children learn the importance placed on mutual trust and honesty.  This is partly learned by making mistakes. It is definitely learned by having a chance to practice.

– It reduces learning to minimum results. A child asked to get a signature for 15 minutes of music practice will toodle around on her instrument for the minimum time required. Quality of playing, genuine learning and internal motivation are out the window. The focus becomes: meet the minute guideline, get signature, be done.

Inappropriate punishment. Most consequences for not obtaining parent signatures are inappropriate. A typical example: “If you miss 3 parent signatures you don’t get recess.” This is penalizing the child for adult inaction. It is unrelated to the task. Depriving a child of recess for any reason is abusive.

Children should never be deprived of recess for any reason, academic or behavioral. This is the official stance of the American Academy of Pediatricians and many others.

A signature should not be a tool against our children. We can do better creating a culture of trust and responsibility.

What is your take on parent signatures? Do you face a constant stream of signature demands? How can we do better?

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8 Responses to Parent Signatures: Teaching Kids we don’t Trust Them

  1. Melya Long says:

    Thanks for the article Heather. I do not think Alberta Education has reached such a regulated level. I work with preschoolers and although the demands are not so extreme, sometimes I wonder if Child Care Licensing will reach that extreme. There are so many common sense practices that have become regulated and I hope signatures will not become one of them. One of my first jobs is to cultivate trust with the parents. Children learn from that too. One of the Covey’s wrote a great book on trust. Cultivating trust within families is so important. A new chapter needs to be added regarding the education system in the US.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Melya, So glad signatures are not part of your program’s day! As you say, cultivating trust is the first step. Everyone needs to feel safe before learning can take place, and that safe feeling starts with trust.

  2. deidra says:

    We treat our children with so little distrust in so many ways in the school system. Most schools don’t even let kids second grade and higher walk up to the classroom themselves before school starts. They have to wait in the cafeteria until the teacher comes up and escorts all the students at once up to their room. What does this say? I don’t trust that you are capable of walking up to the room by yourself to put your things away and find something to do (read, write in your journal, play with math blocks) until I am ready to start instruction. Will a child make a mistake? Of course they will. But then you talk about it and what is expect ed of them. Kids have so little power these days, we have to throw them a bone once and awhile. It means the world to them and teaches responsibility.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Hmm…I hadn’t heard of schools that don’t let kids walk to their own classrooms. Certainly shows lack of trust and stifling of independence, probably in the name of safety. I’m thinking of calling one of my new chapters “Safety Second.” Experiencing reasonable power is necessary at all ages.

  3. JR says:

    I agree that we are over-emphasizing parent signatures and that it has all of the negative effects you describe. However, it does one thing: insulate schools from the “you didn’t tell me” of helicopter parents who refuse to allow their children to fail, ore even to struggle. Some of these parents either do not understand or do not appreciate the value – nay, the necessity – of the struggle in learning. Unfortunately I think the hyper-signing is here to stay until helicoptering is under control.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Love it! Glad it has been working so well for you. Vicki Hoefle has a lot of wisdom, doesn’t she?

      Thanks so much for sharing what worked for your family. Year by year I tell teachers they won’t be seeing my signature on spelling lists and other logs. It gets harder as more teachers get involved.