What’s Most Important to Children’s Education? Parents.

November 2nd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Effective, active parenting makes all the difference in children’s academic performance.  After decades of research, that’s not exactly news, but several new studies on parenting styles and children’s academic results add important details to the growing body of information.  This article summarizes some of the new findings (New America Foundation, 10/24/12).

With one important exception, it’s a good article that all parents should read.  Here it is in full:

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study published earlier this month by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend. Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter — a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families. But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents — a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three — more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking. Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference earlier this year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago — knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world — how big or small or round or sharp objects are — predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization” — setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job). Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.

Again, this is not particularly strange or new, but it’s good to be reminded of what matters to children’s education.

Children of Single Parents at a Disadvantage

But the writer left out an important thing – the time parents have to spend with children.  If all the talking, checking homework, showing the connection between effort and results, etc. are to be done, someone has to do it, and that someone has to have the time.  That means the children of single parents are at a decided disadvantage compared with those of two parents.  It’s easy enough to see that two parents have more time and energy than does just one.  So a great deal of what the article discusses is more a matter of family structure than parenting style.

While the overall national average for births to single mothers is about 42%, for college educated mothers, it’s about 8%.  Stated another way, educated, affluent women aren’t buying into the claptrap peddled by the anti-father, anti-marriage, anti-family crowd.  They know better.  What the article refers to as the “laissez-faire” parenting style of working class parents may actually be that of a tired single mom who’s worked all day and has little energy for the type of creative parenting that’s so important to kids’ education.

As with so much else about kids’ welfare, if we were really serious, we’d be preaching day and night about the value of intact families and the importance of both a mother and a father to children’s development and well-being.  We’d start early in a child’s life teaching him/her about an array of things that are anathema to us now – things like not having children until you’re emotionally, psychologically and financially ready.  We’d teach kids the importance of two biological parents to children.  We’d teach girls that it’s morally wrong and bad for the child to keep its father away from it, either by paternity fraud, refusal of visitation, adoption without his consent, or the like.  We’d teach boys to be responsible for their own fertility; if you’re not ready to be a father, wear a condom.  And we’d teach boys that if they do father a child, it’s not acceptable to turn over parenting to its mother.

Those are all sensible ways to encourage people to be responsible about children and families.  We’d all be a lot better off if we dispensed with the obviously false notion that kids do fine without fathers, raised by teenagers, etc.  As I’ve said before, the political will in this country to do those things is nowhere to be seen, and so we’ll go on as we have.  As someone once said, “the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.”  The studies cited urge us to do just that.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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