The child-rearing mission

Middle-class parents make nurturing and educating their children a sacred mission, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal. By contrast, many working-class and poor parents believe in “natural growth.”

Natural-growth believers are fatalists; they do not see their role as shaping the environment so that Little Princes or Princesses will develop their minds and talents, because they assume that these will unfold as they will. As long as a parent provides love, food, and safety, she is doing her job.

. . . Talking or reading to a young child or taking him to the zoo are simply not cultural requirements.

Some low-income parents “locate community centers or church groups with after-school activities. More important, they organize the household around school activities and homework.”

DePaul University professor William A. Sampson sent trained observers into the homes of a number of poor black families in Evanston, Illinois—some with high-achieving children, some with low-achieving. Though the field workers didn’t go in knowing which children were which, they quickly found that the high achievers had parents who intuitively understood the Mission.

These parents, usually married couples, imposed routines that reinforced the message that school came first, before distractions like television, friends, or video games. In the homes of low achievers, mothers came home from work and either didn’t mention homework or quickly became distracted from the subject. Sampson’s book only describes school-age children, so we don’t know how these families differed when their children were infants or toddlers, but it’s a good bet that the parents of high achievers did not start showing an interest in learning only the day their kids started kindergarten. In the ways that matter for children, these are “middle-class, lower-class families,” Sampson explains in Black Student Achievement. “The neighborhood is not responsible for the difference. Neither is race. Neither is income.” No, only the parents.

I talked to a boy at Downtown College Prep who told me that his mother had found out that a youth center was opening, and had sent him there on the first day it opened to sign up for whatever there was to sign up for. He ended up in a leadership club, which he enjoyed, and on a soccer team, which he loved. Many of his old friends joined gangs and quit school. He made new friends on the soccer team and then at the charter high school; he was headed for college.

About Joanne


  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    There is definitely some wisdom in that article, but the author is a bit too uncritical about the value of “missionary” parenting. When overdone, as it so often is, it produces spoiled brats who aren’t nearly as capable as they think they are. I watched plenty of them fall on their faces when I taught college. Parents can give growing kids plenty of intellectual stimulation without falling into the soccer-mom trap in which the universe revolves around little Johnny and his obsessively over-organized activities.

  2. I tell my son to go out and play. A lot.

    And this summer we’re driving to Canada. Last summer we went to Gettysburg and DC. The year before that we went to Las Vegas (still a lot of kid stuff there). Before that we went camping on the beach in Baja. The summer before that we stayed with a friend in Orlando.

    Getting out of Sacramento and seeing different places (and different countries) is a valuable education in itself, but I certainly don’t “market” it my son as education. Over-organized activities? I teach some of those students, and they’re teenagers. I just want my son to have plenty of varied experiences in his childhood, not plenty of activities each day.

  3. I think there’s a happy medium between coddling and feral-izing.

    My mom and dad read to my brother and me every day. Trips to the library were a regular part of the week. We ate meals together and talked at meals. We went out to restaurants (and not just fast-food; in fact, not mostly fast-food) together. Most of the family vacations were somewhat educational, to National Parks and such.

    But we were also sent outside to play. We were encouraged to find our own solutions to schoolyard problems. And if we misbehaved enough for our teachers to call our parents, by golly, there was no “my little angel would NEVER do that,” rather there was an “I see. I’ll take care of it. It won’t happen again.”

    My brother took soccer and I took drama (and, for six ill-fated weeks, field hockey) but other than that we were not heavily scheduled. And we grew up to be pretty resilient and successful people.

  4. I read the posting by Ricki and all I can say is ditto. I was lucky in that my parents were interested in what we were doing but they were also interested in our getting out there with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. We had a mixed age group of kids at almost every year in the neighborhood. We also had parents who checked on what we were doing without interfering. They were there if needed and not there otherwise. The town also hired college kids to run youth centers in all the local parks and we had crafts, games, swimming, etc supervised by these college kids. It was almost an idyllic childhood compared to what I see in my current neighborhood where there are no yards to play in and the local park is all asphalt, no grass. I was really lucky. I just wish some of the kids in my current neighborhood had as much luck as I did. Two weeks in a Fresh Air camp is not an even replacement for what a small town childhood can give you.