Over the summer, a flood of stories about entitled white women turned “Karens” into a type and a meme. The term “Karen” emerged partially from African-American communities as a way to discuss how white women can perpetuate racism, use it as a shield and a weapon, and benefit from racist power structures while simultaneously claiming to be unaware of their privilege. Karens are defined as middle class, middle-aged, white women, usually mothers, who are aware of their privilege and weaponize it to use it against people of color. But more broadly, it denotes any time when privileged white women use their power against service workers or anyone else they perceive as having lower social status. Karens are known for being entitled, expecting special privileges or services, and for demanding to speak to the manager or for calling the police if someone they perceive as being lower-status denies them what they believe they are entitled to. Karens stereotypically use false victimhood as a weapon, pulling out their Karen tears around authority figures and either exaggerating or lying about how they were abused or treated inappropriately. When held accountable for their behavior, Karens will often claim to be the real victims and will accuse their victims of being the aggressors.
As a “Suzie,” (or “Susan” variant), it turns out that my name is shorthand for a type of super-Karen or Karen mentor. I am also a middle-aged, middle class, white woman. Even though I somewhat fit the type myself, it hit me that, as a teacher — and particularly as a teacher who has often worked in affluent, white communities — I’ve been dealing with Karen parents throughout my career. Karen parents certainly can also be men (sometimes called “Kens”), although our culture’s expectations around child-rearing mean that teachers more often deal with Karen mothers. In this post I’m referring to both male and female Karen parents.
Even white teachers frequently need to deal with Karens. Teachers’ low pay, perceived lower status, and 30 years of media attacks against the teaching profession guarantee that many people perceive us as service workers or as “the help.” This makes us perfect Karen targets. Although all teachers get targeted by Karen parents, female teachers tend to get targeted more than male teachers, teachers of color get targeted more than white teachers, and female teachers of color are likely to get targeted the most.
Karens we’ve seen on social media in parks and Starbucks stores have nothing on a Karen in “mama bear” mode — whether this is birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheeses, or at a Little League game, or when they’re meeting with their child’s algebra teacher. The parental instinct to protect one’s offspring, the desire to ensure what’s best for one’s children, memories of one’s own childhood experiences, anxieties about ensuring their children are successful in an increasingly competitive economy, and the spread of our consumerist “the customer is always right” culture into our schools have created a volatile mix. Karens in schools also have a ready-made justification for acting like Karens. The Karens, onlookers, and even teachers and administrators might be more likely to rationalize or excuse any behavior that the Karens can claim was “for the good of their children.”
There are times when a few of the behaviors described below might be reasonable actions for parents. As a “Susan,” I’ll allow that maybe some of us have “Karened” at some point in our lives, and if so we might have had our reasons at the time. Sometimes parents might feel they have to “Karen” to get their children’s legitimate needs met. But there is a difference between doing this to resolve a one-time, specific problem after other strategies that don’t involve lawnmowing or helicoptering haven’t worked versus making Karening a pattern of behavior that becomes a parent’s go-to strategy for forcing other people to meet her every whim.
As a reminder, teachers WANT to hear from parents and students, help students who are struggling, and discuss grades and other concerns. Many of us have even encountered students or parents who were reluctant to discuss valid issues because they didn’t want to be perceived as being Karens. This is not a post targeted toward the parent or student who has a specific, valid concern that they approach appropriately and respectfully.
What “Karening” Looks Like To Teachers
A lot of Karen parenting is really about lawnmower parenting (sometimes also known as snowplow parenting). It’s combined with the entitlement to expect their “right” to create a clear path for their children and to have recourse to higher authorities who will “correct the problem” if their expectations aren’t met. Many Karens are Nice White Parents who knowingly (and perhaps sometimes unknowingly) exploit their political power. Karens/lawnmower parents aggressively mow down all obstacles, hardships, or perceived adversity that could affect their children’s success, educational opportunities, or self-esteem. They are so set on plowing a pathway to success for their own children that they are oblivious to the wake of crud that they leave for other children to dig through before they can compete on a level playing field with the Karens’ children. Karen parents typically don’t care if the privileges they demand for their own children can’t be provided for all children. In fact, advantaging their own children over other students is often the point.
In a system with finite resources, Karens’ demands for additional resources for their children mean that other people’s children might get less. If there is one teacher for 20–30 students (depending on grade level and school funding) demanding more of the teacher’s time and energy means that the teacher may have less to spend on children who may also deserve their help and attention, or it may mean that the teacher may have less time to do other aspects of her job. Or she may end up working unpaid overtime to meet the increasing demands. This creates a Tragedy of the Commons situation in which the teachers are the commons and that commons is knowingly exploited, overused, and even destroyed by Karen parents.
The following are common behaviors most teachers have probably seen from Karen parents:
- Expecting additional time from teachers or other school staff
- Expecting additional resources for their children
- Expecting additional attention from the teacher or other school staff
- Demanding preferential treatment for their children
- Demanding preferential placement with whatever teachers, programs, or schools they perceive to be best or easiest for their children.
- Demanding placement into A.P. or advanced courses even if test scores and teachers’ recommendations don’t support this placement — then later complaining to the principal if their child has a low grade or can’t handle all the homework.
- Expectations that their children will be the exception to every rule and policy. Instead of allowing schools or teachers to hold their children accountable for their behavior, Karen parents will demand that their children’s “special circumstances” be considered.
- Insisting that their child would NEVER lie and can’t possibly have done anything wrong.
- Blowing off any accommodations the teacher makes and then expecting additional accommodations.
- Blaming teachers or other school staff any time their child receives a less-than-optimal grade, consequence, placement, or other result.
- Using guilt and shame to manipulate teachers by accusing them of not being caring or competent if they have the audacity to set a boundary or to say no.
- Personally attacking teachers if they don’t feel the teachers sufficiently met their expectations.
- Insisting on “speaking to the manager” by insisting on involving the Principal, Superintendent, or other parties if their demands aren’t met. Some may also turn to social media or hire (or threaten to hire) lawyers.
Here are specific examples of how these behaviors might manifest in teachers’ classrooms:
- My first year of teaching (back in 1999–2000), I was surprised by how many parents called ready to go nine rounds with me about something their 8th grader had said that I’d said or did. I appreciated the parents who took the time to call, ask questions, and ask for my side of what had happened, and then to work with me as a partner to find the best resolution for their child/my student. But I was surprised by how many parents did the opposite.
- Arguing with teachers who take away their child’s cell phone (“That’s his personal property!”). Then telling teachers that maybe they should find a way to be more engaging than apps like Candy Crush and Snapchat, which are literally engineered to be addictive by teams of people with a much larger budget than teachers and schools will ever see. Many then blame the teacher for their child’s low grade and ask why the teacher didn’t “do their job” and make sure their child paid attention and completed work during class.
- Enabling their child’s late or incomplete work by letting their child stay home to do assignments that are due that day, calling or writing notes to ask for due date extensions (often for frivolous reasons such as, “my son had soccer practice”), or fudging documents like reading logs.
- Disputing grades or demanding that the teacher either change the grade or provide test re-takes, assignment “revisions,” make up assignments, extra credit, etc. I had one meeting with Karen parents where their first question was, “Why does our son have an ‘F’ in your class? I said “That’s a good question,” then looked at their son and asked “Why do you have an ‘F’ in this class?” They said, “We didn’t ask him, we asked you.” Their son told outright lies, such as that I had taken his paper away and hadn’t let him write it, and that he had the whole paper written and I wouldn’t accept it (I had never seen more than two lines of any paper even after weeks of asking every day). He sat there smugly while his parents made these accusations and insisted that he would never lie.
- Blaming the teacher for low grades by complaining that the teacher’s directions weren’t clear, weren’t provided in an accessible format (even when assignments had been provided in several formats), or that the teacher didn’t explain it clearly enough, or provide enough assistance. I’ve even had parents or students use one typo or a spacing error generated by the course management system to claim that the whole assignment was incomprehensible and that this is why I need to explain it to them again and let them re-do it.
- Gaming their children’s weighted grades (from A.P., IB or dual-credit courses) by shopping for the classes and teachers that provide the easiest weighted grades and demanding their children get placed in those classes. For example, when I taught an advanced course, some parents would demand that their child get placed with the teacher who taught the other section because he was perceived as being easier.
- Insisting that their son should not receive an “F” for an obviously-plagiarized paper when the Karen says that she told him to use some other sources, and had told him to change a few words, and he had said he had done this, so now the paper (with 7 words changed) should qualify as his own work. That parent also kept me on the phone for over an hour, complaining about multiple other issues about my teaching that she had never mentioned before, until 5 pm, when I said I had to get home. She kept talking, so after multiple reminders that I really, really needed to leave, I hung up. That parent then complained to the Principal that I had hung up on her.
- Claiming that a short story that is a description of playing a video game is a valid fictional story because their child played the game, which is like writing the story.
- Swoop in and “resolve” any disciplinary issues so their children don’t have to face consequences. This can include hiring lawyers, making threats to teachers or the school, or trying to circumvent school systems. For example, in the book Teacher Misery, Jane Morris describes a case where she caught two high school students stripped down to their socks, having sex in a hallway, while ditching class. Their parents argued that their innocent darlings should not be suspended because the school didn’t have a specific rule saying that students could not have sex in the hallways. The school caved and did not suspend them.
- Once a parent of a girl who had ditched two months of a course she needed to take to graduate demanded that the school (i.e. me) allow her to make up all the work she had missed so she could still graduate on time. It took me over an hour to assemble a make-up packet compiling the previous two months of work. I spent another hour meeting with the girl because she said she didn’t understand the work packet. I never got any make-up work from the student, even though I asked about her progress several times. The Karen parent then complained to the administrators that the failing grade wasn’t fair and that her child needed additional chances to make up the work.
- A Ken father insisted I should send work packets home every day for a summer school class because his son didn’t like having to come to my class. When I refused, he threatened, “I will come after you.”
- Another Karen parent explained away the fact that her daughter was using my stolen hall pass by saying, “Well, my daughter doesn’t like your class.” She then made the entire meeting about her daughter’s willful use of a stolen item into a referendum about the quality of my teaching, conveniently steering the conversation away from her daughter’s behavior. She knew that my mom had passed away about six weeks before, and still chose to go this route in a meeting with an administrator.
- The parent who felt that the standard classroom warning system was too traumatic for her son and demanded that all his teachers use a special finger sign to give him a warning.
- Some Karen parents will go through teachers’ syllabi and instructional materials to find any loopholes they can exploit. For example, my first year of teaching I had a parent (who was an administrator at another school) dig through her son’s binder and find an extra-credit reading choice menu that the school had required me to provide as an extra challenge to “gifted” students. Then she noted that there were no requirements on who could do the assignment or how many points they could earn (rookie errors on my part). Then she demanded that I allow her son to do several book projects to bring up his grade. After I agreed to follow my written documentation and allow him to do this, she got annoyed with me for not providing sufficient instruction on how to do the choices. I explained that it had been meant as an additional challenge for “gifted” students and therefore it was for students who had the self-direction to do those assignments; I also showed that I had provided step-by-step guidance in class for the assignments her son had been present for but refused to do. Then she insisted that I needed to provide instruction or adaptation to meet her son’s needs. So I volunteered to work with him after school. She still complained that I was not providing enough help or guidance for her son.
- The Karen who insisted that her daughter was far too gifted to be placed in the regular class and HAD to be in the advanced class. But she then used the 504 form her daughter had because they had paid for a private diagnosis of learning disabilities to demand endless accommodations. She demanded that her daughter have fewer assignments, with clear instructions for how to do each step of the assignment, and with more time to do each step. I explained that this was basically what we did in the regular class, but the parent insisted that the regular class would not be challenging enough for her exceptionally gifted daughter (I’m sure the weighted grade had nothing to do with it). She also demanded that her daughter have: extra time on tests and quizzes, more time to do assignments, verbal instructions for each part of each assignment because her daughter didn’t process written information well, written directions for each thing I said verbally because her daughter didn’t process verbal instructions well, and personalized help on each assignment. But her daughter was also absent most of the time. And her daughter was in so many extracurriculars that when she was at school she was trying to catch up with those and didn’t have time to come in and get help on make-up work or have extra time for quizzes. This Karen would also call me almost weekly if there was any part of these contradictory instructions that she perceived I didn’t do. For example, once she was upset that verbal clarifications I had made while explaining the assignment to the class hadn’t been written down, and another time was upset that I hadn’t successfully expanded time so her daughter would have extra time during class for her daughter to take a five-question fill-in-the-blank quiz (I’d offered to allow her daughter to come in at lunch or after school but her daughter already had activities at those times). There was no such thing as a short conversation with this Karen because if I apologized, addressed her concerns, and explained what I was going to do to resolve the issue, she would bring the issue up again and start over, saying, “I’m just concerned that . . .” I finally got a bit brusque with her on a day when she took up an hour of my time on a day when I’d had to use my other planning period to cover another teacher’s class. Then she went to the Principal and complained that I was rude and “unaccommodating” and demanded that her daughter be moved to another class.
Karens Know How to Work The System
Karens often aren’t content to just mow pathways to facilitate their children’s progress in specific classes. Many find ways to leverage their resources to game the educational system in their children’s favor. For example, Karens might:
- Invest in test preparation or tutoring that help raise their children’s test scores. This helps them essentially buy admission into A.P. programs and colleges.
- Pay to independently test their children and get them diagnosed with a learning disability, then use that to get a 504 Form and then wave that around to demand special services from the school or to get accommodations such as additional time on tests, which they feel will help provide an edge for their child.
- Advocate for having “giftedness” programs in schools — and then pay for testing and test coaching, or even or pull some strings in order to ensure their children are placed in those programs. This practice is so rampant among parents that in many schools, “gifted” programs have become a stand-in for preferential placement and treatment for affluent white students.
- Demand special programs or charter schools to cater to the perceived specific needs of their “gifted” or “advanced” children.
- Go to school board meetings and demand that school enrollment district lines get drawn so that their children go to newer schools or schools that they perceive to be better. Their district gerrymandering often has racial overtones and creates segregated schools that benefit their own children at the cost to students of color or students from lower socio-economic areas. In the district I used to work in, it was amazing how the white students from wealthier neighborhoods all ended up going to the new schools, leaving the older schools to the Hmong, Latino, and blue-collar students.
- Find ways to take advantage of tools meant to level the playing field for students from lower socio-economic brackets or people of color. For example, they may find ways to get their children admission via athletics teams they aren’t even on (the whole athletic admissions and scholarship system is also a way to advantage suburban white students). Or they may help their children qualify for scholarships that were meant to help students who are people of color, less wealthy, or first-generation college students. Or, like some parents in Chicago, even give up custody of their children so they can qualify for need-based financial aid meant for students who never received any parental support. Many find ways to leverage these tools to their advantage, and sometimes even weaponize them against them against the students the tools were designed to help.
The pandemic has further brought out the Karen in some parents. We have seen them:
- Insist that schools stay open for the convenience of their families.
- Insist that schools need to reopen so they can go to work (i.e. because they expect free babysitting during a pandemic).
- Insist that in-person instruction is a “better match” for their child, or that “it works better for my family and for my children.”
- Rationalize their views with pseudo-psychology about how isolation from peers impedes children’s social-emotional development. (Perhaps it does, but it is still not be worth risking people’s lives. Also, families were the primary unit of socialization for children for millenia and most of them survived.)
- Organize protests to demand that schools open or remain open.
- Resort to pearl-clutching “what about the children” arguments. Suddenly, these Karens are concerned about all those children who may be getting abused at home or may not be getting lunch if they aren’t attending school. They continue to make this argument even when more academically at-risk students and People of Color are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 from in-person instruction and are opting for distance learning.
- Refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing in other aspects of their lives.
- Solicit notes from doctors to get their children out of having to wear masks.
- Send children who have COVID-19 symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19 to school anyway.
- Refused to get their children tested for COVID-19 if a positive test would mean they can’t send their children to school.
- Hide COVID-19 test results so their children can continue to participate in sports.
- As part of the larger anti-vaxxer movement, COVID Karens are already discussing refusing to let their children get the COVID-19 vaccine.
- Seem curiously unconcerned about the health and safety of the teachers and school staff that would be required to keep schools open.
Pause for a moment to let this sink in: COVID Karens want schools to remain open, but don’t want their children to have to wear masks and won’t take precautions in the rest of their lives, refuse to get their children tested, insist on sending their children to school even when they have symptoms, and also don’t want their children to get vaccines. Some of us in education saw that allowing schools to reopen if they followed specific conditions would be famous last words, because it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to follow those conditions. But what strategies are left for schools to use when Karens don’t like any of the proposed strategies?
Administrators Often Support Karen Parents
In my experience, administrators tend to believe Karen parents. Perhaps administrators (who are also overburdened with increasing bureaucratic demands) may view placating the Karen parents as the most expedient option. Perhaps some are concerned about Karens’ threat to their own career progressions and throw their teachers under the Karen bus out of self-preservation and self-interest. Many are just as baffled and hampered by the Karens as teachers are, and their own hands may be tied by district policies shaped by decades-long trends of empowering Karen parents and students and disempowering schools and teachers. Also, some Karens distort the truth. Some tell outright lies. Many Karens believe their children’s lies and insist that whatever their child says the teacher did must be gospel truth. Or they invent issues to be outraged about. They are often so adamant that administrators reason that if this parent is THAT upset, the teacher must have said or done something.
Many administrators then blame the teachers, ordering for them to work to find a solution. Or they advise teachers to improve their communication skills, work harder to develop a better relationship with that student and parent, provide a better paper trail, have even more specific class policies, write assignments and rubrics that are more clear, be more considerate of the Karen’s child’s challenges and needs, schedule meetings or help sessions when the child or parent can attend (even if that is outside of the teachers’ contracted hours) give the student more formative feedback, or give them less formative feedback if the feedback makes them feel “scrutinized,” “singled out,” or “overwhelmed.” Or administrators fall back on the generic, “Can’t you just work with them?” and shoo everyone out the door, having “solved” the problem by delegating it back to the teacher.
By believing Karen parents and putting the labor of resolving the issue back on the teachers, administrators and school systems enable the Karens. Worse, they reward Karens’ behavior, which teaches many students and families that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and that Karening is an effective strategy for getting what they want and for helping their children “successfully” get through school and get into college. This creates a culture of Karening, making Karen parents and students a bigger part of teachers’ lives every year.
Karen Parents Are a Danger to Our Schools
One of the biggest dangers presented by Karen parents is that they train their children to become Karens. People who are entitled teach their children to be entitled, to fight for what they believe they deserve and to make sure they get it — regardless of the cost to others. Their habit of lawnmowing a pathway for their children ensures that their children reach adulthood terrified of failure and unprepared to deal with adversity because they have never encountered either. They teach their students to wheedle, manipulate, cry, argue, and make threats in order to achieve their objectives. I have even seen most of the “Karen” behaviors I described above even from some college students. Sadly, as long our increasingly consumerist school system and increasingly spineless administrators continue to enable this behavior, our schools will continue to spawn new generations of Karens.
But the most dangerous aspect of Karen parenting is its corrosive effect on teachers and on our schools. Empowering the Karens (and Karens’ children) creates a disempowering work environment for teachers. Learning that a middle school student’s word will be taken over the word of the teacher makes teachers feel like they aren’t trusted to do their jobs. When teachers go over and above to help students and parents, only to have that effort be ignored or to later be gaslit and told they never provided any additional assistance — and then be told they need to do still more — makes teachers feel like nothing they do is enough. Trying to meet the continuing and ever-increasing demands of the Karen parents creates a hamster wheel in which teachers’ workloads increase until the job is no longer viable. Karens can drive out good teachers, which decreases the quality of our schools for all of our students.
While Karen parents are certainly not the only reason why 50% of teachers leave within their first five years of entering the profession, they are a contributing factor. As Jane Morris wrote in her book Teacher Misery, teachers quit because of the absurdity. A lot of the absurdity teachers have to deal with comes from the Karen parents. Teachers with the resilience and tenacity to handle the low pay, long hours, endless additions to our workloads, extra duties, lack of resources, media attacks, and general thanklessness of the profession might finally decide to look into other career options when dealing with Karen parents becomes too much.
Teachers: What “Karen” stories do you have to share? Please comment!