My wife and I are pretty aware of what’s going on in our son’s school, though this is largely because of his slow-to-develop socializing skills. Before his teacher told us about Felix’s trouble playing with his friends, we had no idea what was going on, and when it comes to what he’s learning in the classroom, or who he’s playing with at choice time, I still keep myself relatively out-of-the-loop. I’m not even on the class email list, only my wife is. And no, that isn’t because I’m a dad and dads don’t do this kind of stuff. My wife works, I’m actually the parent who has more time to deal with his schooling! It’s because I believe part of going to school is learning to become independent, something my son struggles with a lot, and so I try to keep out of his way as much as possible. That wasn’t an easy decision at first, but as I wrote here before, I figured that if he has something he wants to talk with me about, and that he needs help with, then he’ll let me know.
This attitude is, in a day and age when parents like to be informed, involved, and feel they have some influence on every aspect of their child’s development, unpopular. So I was happy to read a recent article on The Atlantic which reported that parents’ involvement in the nitty-gritty of our child’s education might not matter that much.
In “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework,” Dana Goldstein cites a new study, the largest yet undertaken, to measure how parental involvement helps student’s academic achievement. The short answer is, in most ways it doesn’t. In fact, getting too involved can even backfire and turn your child more against school. As the title suggests, helping your child with their homework, in particular after middle school, might lower their test scores. Goldstein goes on to say:
Similarly, students whose parents frequently meet with teachers and principals don’t seem to improve faster than academically comparable peers whose parents are less present at school. Other essentially useless parenting interventions: observing a kid’s class; helping a teenager choose high-school courses; and, especially, disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done. This kind of meddling could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school, Robinson [one of the study's authors] speculates.
The study did identify a few ways that parents can make a positive impact on their kid’s learning, such as reading aloud to young children and talking about college plans with teenagers. One interesting factor that seems to make little impact is how much you stress the value of education. Across the board, parents in the United States of all backgrounds discuss the importance of getting a good education with their children. The difference is that some parents go out of their way to make sure that their kids get an effective teacher, and though the study didn’t address this, Goldstein suggests that these parents probably also make sure their kids attend better-performing, high-functioning schools.
Goldstein and the study’s authors also postulate that in middle and upper class families kids can actually see the value of education, because they’re surrounded by successful people with college degrees who wax on about their college days, and this makes a positive impact on their opinion of school. I found this to be the case. My parents never went to college, but their friends who did — close family friends who studied art, and library sciences, and education — made a big impact on me. While I had a natural love of the humanities, I felt encouraged by their examples to pursue a degree in that area, specifically by studying literary theory and film studies, despite this course of studies lacking a good answer to my parent’s question “And what are you going to do with that, career-wise?” I had no idea, I just felt driven to pursue my passions, and determined that I’d make things work out for myself, somehow.
It seems that in school, as in many areas of our children’s lives, we don’t have as much control as we may think, or wish. The impact that we do have is harder to pin down. It’s more about our attitude toward life and learning, our passion to tackle new challenges, to set a high bar for ourselves and then strive to reach it. This is a good thing, I think. I have enough to worry about, without getting involved in the nuts and bolts of my son’s education! That’s for him to own. All I can do is encourage him, and set a strong standard, and trust that given time and the right conditions, he’ll hit it.