What do parents want? It depends

Parenting styles vary by education and social class, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Does it matter? Mathews has been reading Michael Petrilli’s new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma, which cites the research.

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.

. . . 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.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau found “the center of life in middle-class families was the calendar” listing “scheduled, paid, and organized activities for children.”

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.

Middle-class parents think parenting is very important: It’s their job to cultivate their children’s “talents, opinions and skills,” Lareau writes. She contrasts “concerted cultivation” with “natural growth” parenting. Low-income and working-class parents think children develop naturally, if parents provide “comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”

Diverse schools face a challenge: If middle class and low-income parents have different expectations, what should principals and teachers do?

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  1. Lareau’s study followed just 12 families. While some of what she says makes intuitive sense to anyone whose experience crosses socio-economic boundaries, it is not fine-grained enough to tell the whole story. Some lower class families provide no rules at all. Some upper-class parents are run along very traditional lines. Most of all, there seems to be no awareness of the “permissive-authoritative-authoritarian” paradigm that identifies authoritative parenting as the most effective, no matter where in the economic spectrum it is found. It’s also important to note that the “curated” child is a relatively recent phenomenon; almost no-one over 30 had a highly scheduled childhood and it’s possible that the era of activity overload will end.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    “Diverse schools face a challenge: If middle class and low-income parents have different expectations, what should principals and teachers do?”

    They should stop trying to be all things to all people. Schools with differing philosophies should be organized, and parents via voucher/charter programs should choose schools that meet their individual needs. Stop worrying if schools are organized into idealized mixtures by race/ethnicity and socio-economics and allow individuals to determine what is in their family’s own best interests.

    If parents see racial and class diversity as a value in and of itself they will select schools that value it as well. Parents that don’t won’t. And, by the by, those that don’t will be primarily black and Hispanic while those that do will be white.

  3. Florida resident says: