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When parents and teachers meet

Which situation is most likely to cause dry mouth, a hollow feeling in the stomach, and a terrible sense of inadequacy: A) asking for a raise, B) giving a presentation, C) attending a parent-teacher conference?

For many parents, the answer, hands down, is "C." The meetings, usually held in early fall and again mid spring, are often deceptively casual. But the polite banter can mask deeper issues, explains Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her new book, "The Essential Conversation" (see interview).

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Parents and teachers come to the table with emotional baggage from their own school experiences. Each party fears being misunderstood, and parents worry about coming across as either too meddling or too passive.

I have been there. Although my son is only entering first grade, his adjustment to preschool, and then kindergarten, required a number of meetings with teachers. Even in the friendliest atmospheres, I still feel such meetings are a referendum on my parenting skills. I'm always seeking that fine line between advocating for my child and agreeing with everything the teacher says.

Conferences are tough because they take place on the teacher's turf. There we are, my husband and I, sitting on those kid-size chairs, powerless and inhibited, with me wanting to please the teacher more than I ever did in grade school. I try to absorb the subtext: Does she disapprove of moms who work full time? Does she think I'm too lenient a parent?

The book concludes that the most successful communication happens when parents stay focused on the child. My husband reminds me not to let my insecurities block the teacher's message.

I'd rather ask for a raise any day.