On modern parenting & educational attainment

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence this morning, I participated in a discussion about modern parenting. It is not a subject in which I speak with any great authority, though as a parent of two young kids and a primary school vice principal, I do have my own experiences to bring to such a discussion.

Part of the focus of the discussion was on the issue of smacking, which has come back into the news after the Seanad voted to remove the defence of “reasonable chastisement” if a parent is charged with hitting their child. This relates to the Children First Bill 2014 which was being discussed at the Seanad in the past week. The Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon, welcomed the move, as have the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC). 28 member states of the Council of Europe have already banned corporal punishment in all settings.

Parenting is the most difficult and most important job that any of us can and will undertake. We have basic qualifications that are set to ensure people are qualified to apply for almost every occupation except for that life-defining job of being a parent.

I don’t believe that the overwhelming majority of parents who have occasionally resorted to smacking their children did so for any other reason than a belief that it was a harsh but ultimately appropriate means of disciplining their children in order to punish bad behaviour with the hope that it would discourage repeat offending in the future.

It goes without saying that the fact smacking is now deemed socially inappropriate is a good thing.

As I see it, parents have two main objectives with which they approach the daunting job of raising a child. One relates to shaping a child’s worldview, instilling values, a sense of right and wrong, what constitutes proper conduct in a social setting, an awareness of and responsibilities for our community and environment.

The second is about providing an upbringing which prepares children for life as adults in terms of skills and qualifications, providing kids with opportunities to nurture and develop talents and realise their full potential.

Implicit in that is an assumption that not only are what might be deemed the right values shared and fully appreciated by all parents, but also that all parents possess the skills and temperament to fulfil their parenting obligations.

This is where the state and society through laws, conventions and a society-wide sense of what is acceptable play a crucial role in both holding parents to account and helping equip parents with the skills through advice, guidance and direct interventions with the best interests of the child at heart.

For example, with regard to the smacking debate, the ISPCC has called for increased support via a hotline for parents who, at the end of their tether, might be inclined to use smacking as a means of enforcing discipline. Other ideas would include parent courses to support and guide parents.

Some would suggest such measures should not be necessary. Experience says otherwise.

In my experience of working in education over the past fifteen years, I have found the overwhelming majority of parents to be passionate about meeting their parental duties, supportive of advice from teachers/ school about working with children.

But even with that being the case, the extent to which a child has been provided with opportunities and training to nurture talents, the level of expectation that exists and the exposure to an expansive vocabulary all play a part in determining the differing outcomes in terms of educational attainment even when the parenting can not be reasonably faulted.

The American sociologist, Annette Lareau, has studied parenting approaches and has identified two distinctive parenting strategies which she has labelled ‘concerted cultivation’ and ‘the accomplishment of natural growth.’ For Lareau, the former characterises a broadly middle-class parenting approach whilst the latter is more commonly associated with how working-class parents approach parenting.

Here’s how Laura McKenna of The Atlantic describes the distinctive approaches:

Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

The results, according to Lareau, are that middle-class children emerge with a greater sense of entitlement and with the self-confidence and enhanced levels of expectation that shape their engagements with professionals and inevitably graduation into the ranks of professionals, with all that entails for securing a place in the middle-class income bracket as adults.

Continuing to look at parenting from an educational perspective, another study which makes a profound statement is “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

Their research findings led them to conclude that many children from the most affluent households by the age of three have been exposed to up to 30 million more words than children born into the most socio-economically deprived families. The consequences that flow from such a deficit are hugely important in terms of explaining why children from less affluent households continue to be significantly more likely to underachieve in an educational sense. Those kids exposed to more words regularly have a greater appreciation of the world around them; can make learning connections; are capable of articulating thoughts in context; are emotionally literate; have an early and advanced ability to comprehend and will stand apart from their peers in a manner that will develop their stature and confidence from the moment they enter a formal classroom setting.

Parenting might be the most important job an adult can undertake, but it remains one we approach with extremely limited training. In effect, the greatest influence upon a parent’s conduct as parent will be their experience of how their own parents conducted themselves in that capacity in their youth. All of which makes it more difficult to effect changes in terms of parenting culture over time, not least for those from an educational perspective who are most interested in ensuring that all children have the same opportunities and prospects for realising their dreams.

This is not a reason for despair, nor an excuse for inaction. The job of modern school leaders is to set the bar high in terms of expectation, be innovative in terms of exploring ways to positively effect parenting culture and to find ways of countering the negative influences that can be obstacles to children realising their full potential.

It is my experience that, when parents are provided with opportunities and advice which they believe will enhance their ability to perform their role as parents and benefit their children, the overwhelming response from parents of all income backgrounds is resoundingly positive.

Life’s playing field will never be a completely level terrain for children. But actively supporting – as opposed to simply judging- parents as they navigate their way through the uncharted waters of parenting offers our best hope for closing the gaps.

  • Zeno

    “Life’s playing field will never be a completely level terrain for children.”

    You got that right. If your Parents have no education and no money ,the chances are you and your children will end up in the same boat. You can’t blame the Parents, they don’t know any better. You could introduce an exam that identifies bright kids from poor families that have potential. Maybe call it the 11 Plus………. oh wait.

  • earlrichards
  • Reader

    “The 30 million word gap” was written in 2003 and is now obsolete. Now that everyone has a smartphone, no-one is talking to their young children any more. Interacting with the shiny is much more fun.

  • Sharpie

    Only that it doesn’t (largely). It identifies kids who’s parents got them tutoring for an exam. An exam that lasts two Saturday mornings when you are 11 and which will determine your life.

  • Stephen Elliott

    Which  of Annette Laureu’s approaches; ‘concerted cultivation’ or ‘the accomplishment of natural growth.’  do you use
    with your parents Chris given that Holy Cross P.S. has about 78% of children on FSM and about half of P7 leavers go to grammar schools?

  • Zeno

    You can’t be saying only Kids who were tutored passed the 11 Plus? The 11 Plus was free unlike the entrance exams that have replaced it. Children are now doing 4 and 5 entrance exams at different schools. Poorer families can’t afford that. So abolishing the 11 Plus has put them at a disadvantage.

  • Stephen Elliott

    Perhaps you are confusing the AQE tests which I believe adhere to all the current international standards on testing and the GL Assessment test used by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium which casts childrens opportunity to gain a place in a grammar school through secret tests conducted on one day, over a period of four hours? There can be no equality between the tests.

  • Sharpie

    You mean the new exam set up has put them at further disadvantage. they were always at a disadvantage. Regarding the tutoring – if your kid didn’t need tutoring then great, if your kid was in the middle cohort of the 50% who could potentially pass (remember each year the pass mark moves so a high mark one year could be a low mark the next), it is those who understand this who strategise to maximise their potential success (i.e. they buy or organise extra tutoring).

    I’d imagine if you looked on Gumtree or in your local classified ads you’ll soon get a sense of the market – never name the “word of mouth recommendations” that do the parent bush telegraph.

    The latest phenomenon is that places in Protestant Grammars are now competitive because Catholic parents see them as offering a more pure academic education – as the Catholic Grammars are “all-ability” in all but name. That of course makes it harder for Protestant kids to get into the grammar system and accentuates the growing gap between Catholic and Protestant attainment.

  • Reader

    Well, according to Sharpie here, it’s private tuition that does it.

  • Zeno

    “You mean the new exam set up has put them at further disadvantage.”

    Yes obviously. People with money will always have an advantage over those that don’t and there is nothing that can be done to change that.

  • Brian O’Neill

    How curious. I heard methody is nearly 50/50 now.

  • Sharpie

    Is this an exception proving a rule? I did not mean to imply that every case is about tuition although it would be interesting to learn if extra after school tuition is provided at Holy Cross – I know it is in my own kids school for those who wish to avail of it.

    Some schools are above the average and they have amazing committed teachers who surround the children with a total support – and include the parents in that too.

  • Reader

    My own children are past that stage, and did the 11+ before the new regime came in. Observations:
    Back in the day, most primary schools did intensive tuition for the 11+, which distorted the Y7 curriculum, but made extra outside tuition effectively pointless.
    SF education ministers have threatened hellfire and brimstone for any primary school that coaches pupils for the new exams. I am sure Chris Donnelly would not tolerate any breach of the diktat in a school where he works – it must be something else. He provides pointers in his article.

  • Greenflag 2

    “They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.’

    Poor old Winston Churchill then – whose parents rarely spoke to him being more concerned with an active social life and political ambition . Churchill in later life recalled never having having more than a couple of conversations with his father before he was shunted off to boarding school .

    We can thank Nanny Everett then for Winston’s later accomplishment both in language and politics . So working class children need a nanny and preferably an educated one ?

    Maybe they need the TV switched off and the video game monitor unplugged and the attention deficit reducing span of subliminal advertising to overcome the instant gratifcation of minecraft etc ?

    Many of todays parents are not used to children . They may have grown up with one or none or at most two siblings . Working outside the home cuts into child care time . There was never a perfect parent anyway . It’s not going to become a university degree level subject is it ? I can see a BA and Graduate Studies in Parenthood on the horizon 😉

    Good posting btw

  • Greenflag 2

    ‘ it’s private tuition that does it.’

    Thats why the rich get the kids name down for Eton 5 seconds after birth has established the infant’s gender . In South Korea private tuition is a mega billion dollar industry as parents force their kids to be better than the competition . The phenomenon and stereotype of both the Chinese Tiger mom or the ambitious Jewish mother have already achieved stereotypical noteworthiness in the field of competitive education .