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.