Our country prides itself on expanding opportunity. These days, any legal resident fluent in English and willing to work can get a college degree. More low-income and minority students are being welcomed into the most challenging high school courses. The number of minorities in positions of power has grown.
But are we raising our children in ways that best prepare them to reach their potential? It is a ticklish question that is difficult to discuss because it is so personal and so loaded with unexamined stereotypes. Education writers like me often leave it alone and become unsettled when the issue is directly confronted, as it is in education scholar Michael Petrilli’s new book, “The Diverse Schools Dilemma.”
The varying parental styles Petrilli describes may enrich our country with creative differences. We can pick methods that work best for each of us. Or some approaches may deny kids their best chances for satisfying lives. I am not sure, and I suspect many people share my uncertainty.
This is not a racial divide, research shows. A middle-class, college-educated parent of any ethnicity is likely to be like me: Overscheduling children’s free time but preferring innovative instruction and informal discipline at school.
The research Petrilli cites says working-class and poor parents of any race are more likely to let their children amuse themselves as they see fit once their homework is done but tend to prefer schools with traditional teaching styles and strong discipline.
He cites the work of University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. She and her team closely tracked 12 families of different racial and class backgrounds. They found the center of life in middle-class families was the calendar, with what Lareau said were “scheduled, paid, and organized activities for children . . . in the two-inch-square open spaces beneath each day of the month.” But despite the forced march to improvement that characterized their children’s free time, those parents tolerated a lot of back-talk and often negotiated with children about what they wanted to do. They preferred teachers who did not give orders but encouraged creativity..
Working-class and poor parents, researchers found, left their children on their own on weekends and summer days but were more likely to set strict behavior rules. Those parents tended to like teachers who were tough and structured.
As a nation, we have been arguing for many generations about the best parenting styles. Those of us who prefer lots of scheduled activities but not much discipline should remember that many members of the revered Greatest Generation who won World War II were raised the way many low-income children are brought up today.
Maybe we all muddle through, as I do, and don’t need to worry about what others are doing. I have never been that confident of my own parenting. I admire the way many of the poor and working-class parents I have written about have raised their kids. The Lareau study is a very small sample. Other research and my own reporting tend to support her categories, but only in a general way, with many exceptions. I know some low-income parents drawn to some charter schools because they have organized sports, dance and computer lessons after school and on weekends. Many middle-class parents tell me they wish their kids had less homework and more free time for play.
Do loose school lessons teach more than structured ones? Does regular weekend soccer practice do more for our children’s character than roaming around with their friends? I don’t know. The research doesn’t say.
If middle class and low-income parents have different methods with their kids and different expectations for their schools, how do principals and teachers serve both populations?