by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.Sandra A. Powers and Eddie Martinez have started something dynamic – parents and teenagers communicating with each other about difficult topics. No small feat!

Ms. Powers is the parent-teacher-community liaison for Cummings Middle School in Brownsville, Texas. At the time, Mr. Martinez was a science teacher who also served as the teacher coordinator for the campus’ Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program – a cross-age tutoring program created by IDRA in which students who are in at-risk situations are placed as tutors to younger students.

Need to Communicate

As educators committed to making a difference in the lives of their students and their families, Ms. Powers said that she and Mr. Martinez kept noticing the generation gap:

    The kids at the middle school have a lot of peer pressure, a lot of high emotions going on during this time, and we wanted the kids to hear what the parents are going through also. It is not only a hard time for them [the teenagers] but it’s a hard time for parents.

They wanted the students and the parents to understand the difficulties of communicating with each other and to hear each other’s point of view.

Parents need to hear from young people “what they’re going through” and how they feel about discipline and what works best. Teenagers need to let adults know how it feels to be “bombarded with questions” and with other interactions. Teenagers need to empathize with the parents’ dilemmas of hard work, not having work or not being able to find work. Both sides need to be aware when they are misconstruing things that are being said.

Space for Communication

To close the gap, Ms. Powers and Mr. Martinez proposed parent-student dialogues because “the need of the middle school is a little different from the elementary level.” The principal at the time, Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, agreed to create a space to “get both sides on a common ground and hear each other out.” Ms. Powers already ran an effective parent center at the middle school, which is unusual because parent centers are typically found at elementary schools.

The group decided that the tutors in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program would be the student participants. To propose topics and presentations for monthly meetings, they invited parents from the Brownsville school district parent education center. They compiled a list of the tutors’ parents and added it to the list of parents who were already being regularly invited to center events.

Fliers written in English and in Spanish were sent home with students two days before the meeting. The notices invited the parents to meetings with their children and other students to discuss the particular topic selected for that meeting. Parent volunteers also called each home with a reminder. Some meetings were solely for the parents of the tutors in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, and other meetings were open to anyone.

Ideas for topics came from several sources. Javier Perez, who works with the parent education center, offered to facilitate themes. The school district trains parents to present on a variety of topics. The parents learn to perform skits or pose questions as catalysts for dialogues in parent meetings. Mr. Martinez recalled that the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program had originally held Saturday events in which students and parents came together for meetings where parents and students presented to each other and developed role reversal skits, with the parents acting like the teenagers and the teenagers taking on parent roles.

Parents and Teens in Discussion Sessions

The meetings began with a sign-in and refreshments. Sessions opened with each student and parent stating why they were there. All meetings were in English as well as Spanish and were conducted so that parents with limited literacy skills could actively participate.

Parents and students introduced themselves to the group. It was understood that each person participating had equal rights and responsibilities for carrying on the dialogue. No one’s opinion was laughed at or dismissed. Some sessions began with a formal presentation, others began with questions. Sometimes participants would sing a song or draw a picture story about themselves or whatever the topic was about. Parents and students felt that they had an opportunity to share what they were feeling during the presentation. The students were encouraged to ask questions and speak up on issues important to them. Teenagers whose parents were in the session tended to be more quiet and would not be as outspoken as they were when their parents were not there.

Participants evaluated each session and made further suggestions on topics. This is important because students are rarely asked to evaluate their classes or what topics they want to discuss in school. For the parents this was an important activity because many of them had limited formal education and were not normally in a position to evaluate educational experiences. The evaluations provided ideas for future sessions and also validated the importance of the meetings.

Last year, the sessions were held from October to May with full support from the new principal, Mr. Castillo. The topics for the 1995-96 school year included

  • How to read your child’s assessment results,
  • The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test,
  • Rights and responsibilities of parents,
  • The importance of attendance,
  • How to discipline with love,
  • Communicating with your child, and
  • Drug abuse.

At the last meeting, there was a summation of the accomplishments of the year along with a celebration. All participants expressed a desire to repeat the experiences the next year. There were tears of farewell from adults and teenagers, just as there had been tears from feelings that came up in some of the dialogues.

This year, the sessions began in November with a new teacher coordinator for the tutors and continued support from the principal.

What Teenagers Learned

Students testified to a better understanding of their parents, the decisions they made and child rearing approaches. They learned about the power of expressing themselves more openly and honestly with their parents. They experienced the effect of restating how much they cared about each other. Students realized the importance of setting goals to have a more economically secure life than their parents did. They learned the importance of planning for the future.

Some adolescents had new understandings about parents. For example, parents do not want to be mean, but often set rules because of severe financial problems or difficult work schedules. A few students were stunned by the realization that if they regularly lied to a parent, it became very difficult to be believed when they told the truth.

Some parents have a lot of pressure getting and keeping a job and putting food on the table. Consequently, sometimes they wish their children would just do their schoolwork and not have any additional problems. Parents want their children to have a better life. For some families, the economic situation has been hard, and parents do not want their children to suffer the same way they did.

What Parents Learned

The parents learned from the young people that their silence at home does not mean that they are up to no good. Young people want their own set of friends and have a need to belong. Young people need their space. Yelling does not work anymore, and spanking is outdated and counterproductive. One student said, “If you hit me, you can’t expect me to listen to you. It doesn’t work like that.”

Parents were reminded that their teenagers still need them but in different ways than when they were younger. Adolescents need parents more because they have many choices to make. Parents found that they had not understood the depth of their teenagers’ confusion. Parents were reminded that their children still had one foot in childhood and another in emerging adulthood. The elementary to middle school shift is a difficult adjustment for students where they have six teachers instead of one. Parents listened to their children say that sometimes when a student comes home and complains about a teacher, they need to be believed – “they’re not making it up.”

What the Campus Learned

Dialogue and communication are important. Few educators have been trained to facilitate a dialogue, whether among students about issues critical to teenagers, or across generations between teenagers and adults. The adults and adolescents that participated in these discussions are not people who would typically experience this type of interaction in a meeting, club or organization. The skills needed to be a mentor and advocate both for students who are experiencing problems and for the parents of those young people, are not normally taught in teacher preparation courses.

It is ironic that the information that emerged from the dialogues is not very striking – it is not surprising news that people need to communicate more, or that young people and their parents are experiencing widening gaps. What was learned could be easily read in any number of books or pamphlets, and in fact it is often put into material that is distributed at parent meetings.

The greatest impact is in the experience, the listening and the dialogue. That interaction has to be re-experienced to be meaningful. And so it is the practice of communication – honest speaking and empathetic, unevaluative listening – that must continue.


Students felt they were treated like adults and had something important to contribute to an adult conversation. Parents felt equally validated, and they felt that they were not going through this alone. They discovered that other parents had similar or worse problems. Students became more aware of the problems their peers were having. Serious home problems were confronted and discussed. Some painful stories were shared and listened to with compassion and understanding.

The students reported that these sessions were clearly different from anything they had experienced before. They felt important. They could understand their parents better. They were appreciative of the parents who took the time to converse with them and who listened to them. They enjoyed it and expressed a desire to meet again.

The dialogues improved communication and increased compassion and respect between parents and young people. They resulted in a greater understanding of the pressures affecting both the child and the parent. Participants will never forget the emotional moments in the sessions. The adults who participated gained new insights into the pain of breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend or of being excluded from a school activity.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has had impressive results on this campus and elsewhere. The students who participate gain a new sense of self-worth. The parent center at this middle school has provided a wonderful opportunity for acknowledging the inherent value and worth of all parents. Bringing together two efforts that value the participants enhances the effects of both programs. Cummings Middle School provides an excellent model. Young people and parents need and deserve to be heard.

Seventh and Eight Graders Give Feedback on the Parent-Student Dialogues

“Meeting with the parents was a very good idea. We got to talk to them, and they gave us advice that really helped us mostly in getting along with the teachers and parents.”
– Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor
“[This] has been a very nice idea because all the topics we talked about were very interesting and educational.”
– Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor
“They really gave us good advice, to stay away from drugs, to get along with your parents and get along with your teachers and pass our classes and do our work. We talked about behavior and making good friends.”
– Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor
“[This] helped me with my parents. The parents also gave us their point of view about many things that have helped me a lot.”
– Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor
“[The dialogues] helped me a lot in school and at home. It helped me [improve] my grades and [learning]… how I can get along with everybody without causing more problems.”
– Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor

Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed., is the lead trainer in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at Jennifer Golden, IDRA materials dissemination specialist, contributed to this article by conducting an interview with Sandra A. Powers.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]