News & Views - Jun,
1997 Issue #46
THE PARENT PROGRAM
AT THE DESISTO SCHOOL
by: A. Michael DeSisto, Ex. Dir.
An important thing to know about The DeSisto School is that it began as a
traditional third-rate boarding school and evolved over time into what it is now. We had no model; our School was never meant to be
what it has become. We looked for answers to what we recognized as problems within our program, and one of the most important solutions
we came up with is a very strong parent program. Though other schools also have parent programs, we believe ours to be unique from
several different perspectives.
Participation in our Parent Program is both required and essential and provides
an opportunity for parents to work and grow in a positive peer group atmosphere, to learn how the School works experientially, and
to become familiar with the philosophy which informs our approach. We came to the realization that the only reason children get terminated
from institutions is that they, the children, make the institution feel impotent. One of the more serious crimes a child can commit
is to cause adults to feel impotent. If school administrators felt comfortable dealing with troublesome student behavior, then they
would do so and move on; however, the typical response is: “We can’t let you get away with that because all the other kids will do
the same thing.” Of course, it wouldn’t matter if the administration knew how to handle the situation; however, because they don’t,
their only recourse is to get rid of the misbehaving child, an act tantamount to capital punishment.
We believe it is absolutely necessary that the School be a place where the
child can experience his/her own internal discomfort and unhappiness without having a means of escape. Once the kids realize that
acting out against the School will not get them expelled, they quickly decide that perhaps their only chance to get out of the Program
is by manipulating their parents into withdrawing them. Most of our students are here precisely because they have become very good
at conning and manipulating; therefore, it is essential for us to: a) train the parents to be stronger with their kids, and, b) help
them acquire a clear and complete intellectual and experiential understanding of how the School works so that the child’s manipulation
will not be as effective.
We seek to develop a firm working partnership with all of our families. We
currently have ten regional parent support groups across the United States, and all parents are required to attend monthly meetings
in their local area. Each group has a chairperson, elected by consensus in the spring for the following fall. Chairpersons meet during
the summer for a training weekend at DeSisto School. Each group is also supervised by a liaison who facilitates the transferential
relationship between the chairperson and the group. It’s not unusual for group members, especially at first, to act out against the
Chairperson’s “have to” authority (you have to attend the meetings, you have to be on time), and it’s the job of the liaison to help
improve the dynamics within the group. In a very real sense, the parents go through a process parallel to the one their children are
undergoing on campus.
We also have a program in place for parents who do not live near an area
which has an established support group. These “Space Parents” participate in regularly scheduled conference calls, are required to
be at the School four times a year, and attend meetings with their chairperson and liaison during special events on campus. To remain
in the Program, all parents must ask their group for a vote of confidence every year at re-enrollment; similarly, a family can be
terminated from the Program only by consensus of their parent group.
When we stop expelling students, we diminish their power to manipulate us.
When we start educating and supporting parents, we lessen the children’s power to manipulate them. Children and parents, despite strains
in their relationships, are inextricably bound. Our goal, among many others, is to help families strengthen these bonds in healthy
and productive ways. When children realize that there is no way out of the Program, they become frightened. By giving parents the
strength to help their children accept that the only way out is through graduation, that the only way to improve their lives is to
change their actions and reactions, we are taking positive steps toward helping the entire family.
If a student is to carry the progress s/he has made at the School into his/her
post-DeSisto life, it is essential that the family dynamics change. No matter how well a student does here, if s/he returns home to
conditions identical to those that existed (and resulted in problems) previously, further conflict is inevitable. The only alternative
would be for the child to separate from the family, and that would certainly be a sad and undesirable outcome. At The DeSisto School
we believe the best way to help the child is to involve the family in a mutual quest for self-understanding, growth, and emotional
Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced
without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)