We Don’t Need Better Parents. We Need Better Systems.

Increased parental involvement is crucial for children’s learning. To improve it, work on the challenges parents face in raising their kids.

As part of the United States’ dire need for better education outcomes for our children, Thomas Friedman pointed out this weekend that research shows we may also need, as he puts it, better parents. A recent study shows, “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 [a global exam] than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all… Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”

Dana Goldstein follows up on this, defending him from the “collective ‘duh,’ followed by ’so what?’” as she puts it. Because what can schools and governments really do to change parents’ behavior? But as she points out, there are school reformers who have decided that there actually are steps they can take to change parenting. They just have to put in the time and resources.

I completely agree that parenting is a crucial aspect — one of the most crucial, the research is now showing — of educating children. And parents can therefore use more support, outreach, and guidance. This is a worthy use of our resources. But what they really need is someone to address the systemic challenges they face in raising their children.

I found Goldstein’s example of a school reformer getting involved with parenting telling. She describes Mike Feinberg, KIPP charter school founder, going to the home of one of his students who never did her homework to speak with her mother, who says she can’t pry her daughter from the TV. He then tells the mother, “I don’t want to do this, but you give me the TV, or your daughter is not in KIPP anymore.” She relents, and Feinberg takes the TV away from his crying student, telling her she can earn it back by doing her homework. She earns it back.

I haven’t read much about Feinberg, and I’m not out to impugn his character. I am sure that he had the very best intentions for his student in doing this. But rather than reach out to his student’s mother to find out her needs, get her more involved, even give her parenting advice, he simply decides to do the parenting for her. This is the risk run by saying that we need “better parents.” What we’re saying is that schools and governments know how to parent better than parents do. Parental negligence does exist and compel the state to intervene. But letting your daughter watch TV instead of doing her homework doesn’t qualify, no matter how I might disagree with that decision.

To paint with a broad brush, when we talk about parenting we’re mostly talking about mothers. On an average day, women spend over an hour providing care to their children; men spend 26 minutes. Not to mention that a quarter of American households are headed by women. And when we talk about low-income families, which is where school reformers like KIPP are usually focused, we are often talking about communities of color. In 2009, over a quarter of Latino and African-American families lived below the poverty line, compared to 9.4 percent of white families.

And there has been an uptick recently in criminalizing mothers of color, as well documented by Julianne Hing in Colorlines. Take the case of Raquel Nelson, who was blamed for letting her son run into the road when he was hit by a drunk driver. There has been newly ruthless prosecution of using tiny amounts of drugs during pregnancy. And just last week, news broke that a Mississippi mother was given a three-year prison sentence for lying on her food stamp applications in order to feed her children.

Mothers are even being demonized for — get this — trying to ensure a better education for their children. Kelley Williams-Bolar was charged in January with falsifying records when she used her father’s home address to get her daughters into a better school; Tanya McDowell was prosecuted for a similar crime in April.

Pointing the finger at parents also avoids talking about the larger problems. Goldstein pointed out in an earlier blog post that in fact when women of color refuse to marry, they’re often making a sound economic choice because of high levels of unemployment and incarceration in their communities. As she says, “If we want to get to the root causes of the ‘family values’ issues in poor neighborhoods, we need to think not only about culture, but take a broad approach to social and economic policy-making.” Those are the root problems, not whether or not parents are letting children watch TV (or eat junk food or date early or whatever else we’re worried about). Women of color don’t parent in isolation. They’re trying to cope with systems that are working against them. You want better parents? Fix those systems.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.


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