Parenting and the poverty gap

Poor kids are behind — way behind — on the first day of school, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor, at an Education Writers Association discussion on equity, poverty, and education. Seventy percent of the achievement gap at age 11 was there when lower-income children started kindergarten, she said.

Boston has launched a campaign called “The Boston Basics,” led by Ronald Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, to help parents nurture their children in the first three years of life.

There are five basics: maximize love and manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed, talked about improving children’s environment at home and at school.

When kids grow up in a calm, nurturing environment their brains send them signals to relax, and that encourages them to be curious and take risks, Tough explained. In contrast, kids who live in chaotic environments get brain signals that fire up “fight-or-flight” responses, he said.

“It’s hard for them to concentrate,” Tough explained. “They’re distracted by the emotions and anxieties that are flooding their nervous systems.”

Grit and resilience can’t be taught like math or reading, writes Tough in The Atlantic. However, some teachers and schools are able to reach stressed students.

The central premise of EL schools is that character is built . . .  through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.

. . . In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first—and often the only—approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.

That’s not enough, writes Tough. “For a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.”

Kids need ‘serve-and-return’ parents, teachers

Skills such as self-control, resilience and grit are products of a child’s home and school environment, writes Paul Tough in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.
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What’s most important is “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”

That sums up nearly all we need to know about parenting and teaching, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Brilliant Blog.

Warm, “serve-and-return parenting,” which can be done in many ways, “conveys to [children] some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world.”

Effective teachers “convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity . . . In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.”

In addition, writes Paul, students must be exposed to deep, meaningful, sensibly sequenced knowledge.”

Principal: ‘Harry Potter’ damages young brains

Fantasy books “can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children” and lead to mental illness, writes Graeme Whiting, headmaster of the private Acorn School in England.

Is Harry Potter's evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

Is Harry Potter’s evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series,  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Terry Pratchett’s novels “contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” wrote Whiting in a post that’s gone viral. “Yet they can be bought without a special licence.”

Whiting wants “children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty.”

Lord of the Rings' Sauron is evil.

Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, is evil.

He praised the “old-fashioned values of traditional literature,” such as Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens and Shelley.

“Beware the devil in the text!” Whiting concludes.  “Choose beauty for your young children!”

I loved fantasy books when I was a kid, though I didn’t go from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings till I was in sixth grade. I think my brain survived. But, then, I wouldn’t know if it hadn’t, would I?

As a child, Neil Gaiman was allowed to read whatever he liked, he tells the Guardian. Somehow that’s not a surprise.

“I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable,” says Gaiman. “Except possibly in Chaucer and The Bible, where you’re actually discovering murder and masturbation – and you’re going ‘this is cool, this is subversive, because it’s the stuff they want us to read and they seem to have forgotten that it’s filled with stuff that they don’t want us to read’.”

We read Canterbury Tales in 10th grade English and were astounded — and delighted — by the dirty jokes. Finding sex jokes in Shakespeare was fun too.

How the rich ensure their kids will stay ahead

Tutors, museum trips, piano lessons and gymnastics are all very well, but there’s “one thing rich parents do for their kids that makes all the difference,”, writes Emily Badger in the Washington Post.

Hint: location, location, location.

Yes, well-to-do parents buy homes in “nice neighborhoods with good schools.” They bid up the prices on homes near high-performing schools. Middle-class parents settle for second-best school districts and low-income families are out of luck. (Badger doesn’t mention charter schools, which do provide an out-of-neighborhood choice.)

“Forty to fifty years of social-science research tells us what an important context neighborhoods are, so buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid,” says Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “There’s mixed evidence on whether buying all this other stuff matters, too. But buying a neighborhood basically provides huge advantages.”

Increasingly, college-educated professionals marry other professionals, increasing income segregation. There’s more income to invest in little Aidan and Amelia. The gaps keep widening.

Integrating schools could integrate neighborhoods, writes Badger. Two years ago, District Mayor Vincent C. Gray proposed ending neighborhood schools. It was wildly controversial and was dropped.

Closing the ‘word gap’ — is it enough?

Home visitor reads a book with a mother and her 18-month-son in Providence, Rhode Island.

By the age of three, the children of educated, middle-class parents have heard millions more words — often encouraging, informative, vocabulary-building words — than the children of poorly educated, low-income parents, according to the Hart-Risley study.

Closing the “word gap” is the goal of various campaigns, including the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative,  writes Amy Rothschild, a preschool teacher, in The Atlantic.

Providence, Rhode Island is trying to prepare every child for school by sending Providence Talks educators into homes to encourage parents to talk, sing and play with their children. 

But some — “social justice” folks — think focusing on closing the word gap ignores larger issues, such as poverty.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children's books through Reach Out and Read.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children’s books through Reach Out and Read.

“If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” said Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.”

He thinks the “number one thing” that would help children is to “give parents a stable job with a livable wage.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who works with low-income families, is a big fan of Reach Out and Read, which gives children’s books to low-income parents and encourages family reading. However, “there’s so much a book and a pep talk from me can’t do,” she writes in the Huffington Post. “They can’t teach a parent to read. They can’t make it so that a parent is home at bedtime, instead of working the evening cleaning shift while an older sibling or neighbor watches the child. They can’t get rid of the toxic stress that pervades every family interaction.”

Helping stressed, low-income parents do a better job of parenting will not solve every problem. But I think it’s more effective than ignoring parents — or assuming they’re too stressed, ignorant and “toxic” to do any better — and trying to maximize small children’s time early childhood education programs. The stable, middle-class job for every parent is . . . not going to happen.

Let kids do ‘impossible’ assignment

Let your child tackle that “impossible” homework assignment, writes K.J. Dell’Antonia in the New York Times‘ Well blog.

Theodor Geisel

Theodor Geisel

Her two fourth graders were told to “prepare a five-minute speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop.”
Dell’Antonia assumed she’d have to drag them through it, but she and her husband were too busy to do more than “a little redirection to one child early on, a little last-minute glue-gun assistance to the other.”

Her son spoke about Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), while her daughter talked about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

“Had I helped, the report would have been more about Dr. Blackwell and less about Ginger and Blackie, the horses she had during her childhood,” writes Dell’Antonia.

“It didn’t seem to matter. Their teacher didn’t want the best oral book reports. She wanted their best oral book reports.”

Her kids didn’t get the top grade, but they had the satisfaction of doing it themselves.

Taking the ‘self’ out of self-empowerment

We’ve Had 100 Years Of Progressive Education And The World’s Getting Worse, writes Jordan Shapiro, a fellow at Sesame Street Workshop’s Joan Ganz Clooney Center, in Forbes.  “A century of well-intentioned progressive trends in education may have cultivated a generation of entitled I-me-mine individualist ‘winners’,” he suggests.

Each wealthy kid who is taught to follow his/her passion, discover his/her true vocation, or find his/her authentic self, is also inadvertently learning that personal success is a kind of implicit manifest destiny.

Parenting norms differ by social class, writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids. “Well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.”

Reformers “try to spread the message of self-actualization more equitably,” writes Shapiro. They forget that “self-confidence and individual empowerment” aren’t neutral or equitable. “Winners necessarily require losers.”

Shapiro dreams of “new classroom rules, new district wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots.”

We need to teach our children that the goal is not self-empowerment for the sake of the individual, but rather for the collective. They must learn not only how to identify and discover their unique gifts, but also how to offer them up in service to the rest of us.

Do winners require losers? If Johnny learns to read well, is that bad for Susie?

And teaching kids to serve the collective is . . . kind of creepy, right?

Raising a creative child — not a gifted sheep

To raise a creative child, parents need to back off, writes Adam Grant in the New York Times. A professor of management and psychology at Penn’s Wharton School, he’s the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

“Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new,” writes Grant. Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads raise their prodigies to become “excellent sheep” who crave the approval of their parents and teachers.

“The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights.”

“Only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” writes psychologist Ellen Winner.

Parents of highly creative children set few rules, instead stressing moral values, one study found.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. . . . They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists aren’t single-minded, Grant writes. Compared to other scientists, they’re “22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

When toys talk, Mom doesn’t

Talking toys may be bad for babies and toddlers, writes Cory Turner on NPR. Parents talk less when toys talk more, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. And young children need to interact with a human to learn language.

Children between 10 and 16 months old were fitted with microphones.

Books and traditional toys, such as blocks and a shape sorter, stimulated the most high-quality conversation, says Anna Sosa, a Northern Arizona University professor who ran the study.

When kids played with the electronic toys — a “talking farm,” a “baby cellphone” and a “baby laptop” — parents and children communicated less. “When there’s something else that’s doing some talking, the parents seem to be sitting on the sidelines and letting the toy talk for them and respond for them,” she says.

“Back-and-forth conversation” with a parent or caregiver is crucial to developing language, writes Aaron Loewenberg on Ed Central.

The parenting wisdom of Star Wars

“The Dark Side can be hard to resist,” writes my stepdaughter, Gina, in The Hidden Parenting Wisdom of Star Wars. There’s nothing like a fight between Her Highness and the Little Princess to make a mother long for her own personal Death Star.

The Force Awakens' Rey grew up without parents, supporting herself as a scavenger.

Star Wars new heroine, Rey, grew up without parents, supporting herself as a scavenger.

“We may not agree with our parents’ way of thinking, but there is always something to learn from the choices they made,” she writes. Even if Dad is Darth Vader.

The new Star Wars movie has more parenting lessons:

Don’t send your son to a boarding school run by Mark Hamill.

If your kid asks for your help, don’t say, “I’ll do anything.”

The best place to abandon a child is a desert planet.

The movie plot that was good for your parents will be good for you.