Easing Your Child’s Burden Through Talk

Whether they think about it before or after they take the position, most superintendents soon realize the job can affect their children. by Kate Beem

It can be painful to watch, as Brett Gayer found out.

As superintendent and principal of the Montmorency School District, a K-8 district with 300 students in northwestern Illinois, Gayer handed down detention for a boy who had violated a school rule. The next day, as two of Gayer’s children—a kindergartener and a 4 th grader—sat in their school bus seat, another bus pulled parallel. Through the windows, the Gayer children saw the boy who had received detention. He mouthed, “I hate your dad.”

Gayer was furious but not really surprised. It comes with the territory when you’re the boss, he says. And he’s talked with his four children, who range from kindergarten to 6 th grade, about dealing with unkind and hateful remarks.

“You have to talk about things,” Gayer says. “If the communication is not good before something happens, it’s not going to be good after something happens.”

Extra Criticism

The key to easing life for the children of superintendents or any other public figure is for parents to talk about potentially hurtful situations before they occur, authorities say. Parents must acknowledge that in some ways, their children could have a tougher go of it than others—reaping extra criticism for doing poorly in school, never receiving full credit for an accomplishment without an intimation of parental influence and undue teasing whenever the superintendent makes an unpopular decision.

Keeping the parent-child relationship at the forefront of any discussion is important, says Charles Figley, a psychologist who has studied the children of celebrities. Sooner or later, children grow up and leave home. The parent might change careers. But the family unit will always be there.

Figley recommends parents and their children develop a crisis management plan. That way, if the children hear negative things about the parent, they will feel comfortable approaching him or her themselves rather than relying on rumors to fuel their understanding of the situation. And if things really get hot, Figley says, parents should have a plan for removing their children from the scene for a while by taking a vacation, for example.

“The parent always has to do whatever he or she can to protect their child,” says Figley, founder and director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute.

Unrealistic Expectations

Often children of public figures come to believe their job is to stay out of the limelight, and they adopt unhealthy behaviors to accomplish that, according to Tim Sanford, a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colo., who works with children of ministers. Children find it difficult to trust people and set up unrealistic expectations of themselves that invariably lead to failure.

Having another adult at school who recognizes the difficulty of being the superintendent’s child is invaluable, said Becky Blaesing, the oldest daughter of Ted Blaesing, superintendent in White Bear Lake, Minn. In her case, that person was a junior high principal, who modeled to the teaching staff how best to interact with the superintendent’s child.

For Sarah and Leah Boniface, their champion came in the form of a guidance counselor who herself was the daughter of a superintendent.

Their mother, Rose Marie Boniface, superintendent of the Marlborough, Mass., School District, discussed again and again with her daughters the isolation they were experiencing because of her job. She also talked about her daughter’s feelings whenever she could with their teachers and other staff members.

Boniface sometimes would gently persuade the girls that some slights and embarrassments had to be overlooked.

“I would ask, ‘Is it something you should just let go?’” Boniface says. “They had to be willing to.”