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PARENTS' MEETINGS

Getting used to accentuating the negative

by Alice Gordenker

Whatever you do, don’t say anything nice about your child at parents’ meetings

The last hogoshakai (parents’ meeting) of the school year is marked on my calendar in black. I dread these gatherings, when the parents of one class of students meet with the classroom teacher. I’m not the only one; my Japanese friends all sigh when the subject of hogoshakai comes up.

My first hogoshakai was a shock. It was shortly after we arrived in Japan, when my older son had just started attending Japanese school as a third-grader.

I didn’t then understand that I am a hogosha (guardian). I had never heard that word before. I thought I was an okasan (mother) or an oya (parent). Hogosha, it turns out, is the politically correct term because it covers everyone who might be responsible for a child, including grandparents and foster parents.

Since I didn’t know I was a hogosha, I missed the notice for the first hogoshakai of the school year. But I happened to be in the park adjoining the school that afternoon, and someone spotted me. A teacher came to fetch me. I was thrust, totally unprepared, into my first parents’ meeting in Japan.

All the other mothers were already sitting at their children’s desks. I was late. They were dressed up in skirts and high heels and matching handbags. I was wearing jeans and sneakers. I found my son’s desk and folded myself into the little chair.

My son’s teacher was talking. I couldn’t catch everything, but I did understand when she said it was time for jikoshokai (self-introductions).

The teacher asked a mother on the other side of the room to go first. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard how she introduced herself.

“I am Kaori Ando’s mother. I’m worried because my daughter is so fat. She weighs almost 50 kg and eats all the time. I try to get her to exercise, but she just keeps gaining. Please, sensei, don’t let her eat seconds at lunchtime.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I looked around, expecting to see general outrage at what Ando had said.

No outrage. All the other mothers nodded sympathetically, and the teacher asked the next woman to introduce herself.

“I am Gen Takeyama’s mother. My son is really active and can’t settle down. I don’t know how he’ll ever learn anything because he’s always talking. I’m sure he disturbs your children all the time when they are trying to study.”

Again, everyone nodded sympathetically, and the teacher motioned to the next woman. “I am Ai Sugiyama’s mother. Ai is really bossy and doesn’t get along well with others . . . “

To me, it was shocking that the women did not use their own names when introducing themselves. It seemed that the only part of their identities that mattered was their role as mothers. Excuse me, hogosha. And the way they criticized their own children!

My friend Akiko explained that saying anything positive would seem like boasting. Plus, it might make the other parents feel bad about their own children. To be polite, everyone says something negative. And no one feels bad.

“What happens at parents’ meetings in America?” Akiko asked. “Does everybody say nice things about their own kids?”

We don’t have anything like hogoshakai at American schools. Instead, parents go to school one evening at the beginning of the school year. The teacher explains what the children will do in the year ahead, but parents usually don’t talk or introduce themselves. If we want to talk to another parent, we just say hello. When we do, we use our own names, like this: “I’m Alice Gordenker. I’m Miles’ mother.” If I said negative things about my kid, everyone would think I was a bad parent.

At our school here in Japan, there are three hogoshakai per year, once every semester. They are held on weekday afternoons, which is inconvenient for working parents. It’s almost always the mother who attends, although occasionally you see a father, particularly if the family has more than one child in the school.

There are two meeting times — one for grades 1-3 and another for grades 4-6. This accommodates some parents with more than one child in the school. But it doesn’t help parents with a first-grader and a third-grader, for example, or parents who have three kids in the school. These parents end up running from one classroom to the next to attend as much as possible of these simultaneous meetings.

Students are expected to stay home, even if there is no one there to look after them. It’s OK, however, to bring children younger than 6 years old. They make a lot of noise, but everyone (except me) seems to be able to ignore them.

I go to every hogoshakai because I’m new to Japan and have so much to learn. But I can’t say I enjoy them. It depends on the teacher, of course, but most of the time the meetings are awkward and dull.

Hogoshakai are supposed to be an opportunity for parents to talk about issues that affect the class. But it’s rare that parents manage to have a good discussion. Sometimes one parent talks too long about something no one else is interested in. More often, no one is willing to speak up. If there are too many uncomfortable silences, the teacher may pose a question such as, “How do you feel your child is doing in school?” Everyone answers in turn, but there’s no spontaneous discussion.

Akiko says a lot of mothers stop going to hogoshakai after the first year. It’s true that fewer than half of the parents in my fourth-grader’s class turn up.

So, what did I say, back at my very first hogoshakai, when it was my turn to introduce myself? Heart pounding, I stood up and said, “I’m Miles Gordenker’s mother. We just arrived in Japan a few weeks ago, and my son doesn’t know a word of Japanese. He must be causing a lot of trouble for the teacher and your children, but with their help I hope he’ll learn eventually. And I have no idea what I’m supposed to do as a parent, so I’m afraid I’ll insult everyone by mistake.”

Everyone nodded sympathetically. I did it! I had pulled off my debut as a hogosha!