Do rich and poor parenting styles matter?

Jay Mathews
Columnist November 28, 2012

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 for more life choices? It is a ticklish question, 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.”

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The varying parental styles Petrilli describes may be enriching our country with creative differences. We can pick the methods that work best for each of us. Or some of those approaches may deny some of our 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, the research shows. If you are a middle-class, college-educated parent of any ethnicity you are likely to be like me: Overscheduling your children’s free time but preferring innovative instruction and informal discipline when they are at school.

According to the research Petrilli cites, 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 they 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 and didn’t worry so much about scores on the state tests.

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. Go to my blog at www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle and tell me what you think.

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