Mères Tigre? Non!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 5th, 2012

Expat mom Pamela Druckerman wondered why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts.  In a Wall Street Journal essay, she credits French parenting techniques, which she says are marked by an “an easy, calm authority with their children.”  French children don’t run off, talk back or engage in prolonged negotiations with their parents, she notes.  Like Americans, French parents talk to their kids, read to them, take them to sports, music lessons and museums.  But helicopter parenting?  Non!  Says Druckerman:

“The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother told me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”

How do they get their children to behave?  When she asked French parents how they disciplined their children, Druckerman found they were often nonplussed.

“’Ah, you mean how do we educate them?’ they asked. ‘Discipline,’ I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas ‘educating’ (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.”

An essential part of this education, “is the simple act of learning how to wait,” writes Druckerman.  And it explains, in her view, why French babies sleep through the night while toddlers sit quietly in French restaurants as their parents eat dinner. Unlike American kids who snack all day, French kids have three meals a day and one snack around 4 pm, according to Druckeman.

“American parents want their kids to be patient, of course. We encourage our kids to share, to wait their turn, to set the table and to practice the piano. But patience isn’t a skill that we hone quite as assiduously as French parents do. We tend to view whether kids are good at waiting as a matter of temperament. In our view, parents either luck out and get a child who waits well or they don’t.”

Druckerman is painting with a pretty broad brush here in her characterization of American and (one assumes) French parenting practices.  Indeed, Druckerman’s observation that “middle-class America has a parenting problem” effectively translates to “affluent America has a parenting problem.”  A more authoritative brand of parenting never went out of style in many U.S. families.  Druckerman describes her “strategy” of finishing restaurant meals quickly to keep her daughter from being “kicked by a waiter or lost at sea” after refusing to sit still in her high chair.  “We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table,” she writes.  No doubt there are many families with a very different “strategy” for dealing with children who can’t behave themselves in restaurants.  It’s called “staying home.”

I’d like to see some data before I conclude that all American parents are Velveeta-eating surrender monkeys who cater to their children’s every whim.  But this is to quibble.  Druckerman’s observations are from her upcoming book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I suspect that like last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it will set American tongues to wagging anew over how we raise our children.

Closing 1% of the “Parenting Gap” is Worth 150 KIPPs

by Robert Pondiscio
September 9th, 2010

What impact would improving parental involvement have on the overall state of student achievement in the U.S.?   

Bill Jackson, the founder and head of GreatSchools.org uses the term “parenting gap” to describe “the gap in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors between more effective and less effective parents.”  By Jackson’s estimate, closing 1% of the parenting gap nationally “would have about the same impact on college-ready high school graduation rates as replacing dozens of low-performing schools with about 150 high performing schools like KIPP.”   He’s quick to point out that his estimate is merely a back of the envelope calculation.  But the number is plausible and the reasoning unassailable.

An email from Jackson to Whitney Tilson was featured in the latter’s most recent ed reform email blast (it will appear on Tilson’s blog eventually, I assume) and is quoted here with Jackson’s permission.  Arguments about how best to teach poor children tend to come down to fix schools by addressing poverty, or address poverty by fixing schools, he notes.   But both sides are missing something.  “You don’t have to be rich to have high expectations for your children,” Jackson writes. “You don’t have to have a lot of money to make school and working hard a huge priority in your family’s life.”

“Here’s one way to dramatize this: If you’re a poor kid in New York, there is one ‘intervention’ that is at least as powerful as KIPP and other high-performing schools: having an Asian parent. I looked at the NYC NAEP data and the evidence is pretty compelling on that. I’m not saying that all parents should try to be ‘Asian’ in their parenting approach (or even that there is one ‘Asian’ way to parent). One sees effective parenting in all ethnic and income groups. I am saying that parents have a huge impact, and their potential impact depends only partly on how much money they have.”

“If we’re serious about education reform, we can’t ignore the parenting gap anymore,” Jackson concludes. 

Like curriculum, parenting is a powerful lever—and both are potentially much more impactful than the structural reforms in the standard ed reform playbook.  “Education reform is not just about school improvement,” Jackson concludes.  “It’s also about informing and inspiring parents so that they can ‘come on the team’ with high expectations and high levels of support. We’ll get much farther much faster if we think this way.”

Parenting “All Joy and No Fun?”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 13th, 2010

“Most people assume that having children will make them happier,” notes New York magazine. “Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.”  The story “All Joy and No Fun,” wonders out loud “why doesn’t childrearing make us happy?”  

For those unaccustomed to New York-style navel gazing, the piece can read dangerously close to Onion-style parody – “Parents surprised to learn parenting isn’t fun” – but if you can get past the whiny anecdotes from Manhattan habitués (“It’s the drudgery that’s so hard: Crap, you don’t have any pants that fit? There are just So. Many. Chores.”) there are interesting ideas to chew on.  Writer Jennifer Senior wonders if parents aren’t “deluded” or “in the grip of some false consciousness that’s good for mankind but not for men and women in particular.”  She advances the possibility that “parents don’t much enjoy parenting because the experience of raising children has fundamentally changed.”

“As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed….This is especially true in middle- and upper-income families, which are far more apt than their working-class counterparts to see their children as projects to be perfected. (Children of women with bachelor degrees spend almost five hours on “organized activities” per week, as opposed to children of high-school dropouts, who spend two.) Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Ultimately, Senior gets around to the critical distinction between moment-to-moment happiness and the long-term satisfaction borne of feeling purposeful.   Parenting tends to be short on the former and long on the latter.  Good news for the species. And for parents.

Break It? Don’t Buy It

by Robert Pondiscio
May 10th, 2010

Demanding schools don’t work for some kids, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.  “Parents, including some Post colleagues, occasionally tell me about their bright children who see no point in many assignments and don’t do them, leading to tension and heartburn for the adults,” he observes.   The answer?  Consider a sabbatical…for the kids.

When it gets too bad, a family may pull the kid out of school to let everyone calm down and see if another approach can be found. The pause in schooling doesn’t usually last long. The student reads on his or her own for awhile–something they like to do—until the parents find a different school or a new year begins with new teachers better tuned to different rhythms.

“You might call this a kiddie sabbatical,” Mathews says, “a break to recharge batteries and reassess values.”  I would have loved this idea as a sometimes — OK, frequently — indifferent 16-year-old high school student.  I can just imagine pitching my parents on the idea.   

“Hey, Dad, I think I need a sabbatical.”

“You need a what?”

“A sabbatical.  Recharge my batteries, reassess my values.  A little time off.  You know, Dad, a break.

“You want a break?  I’ll give you a break.  Get your @#$%!  to school or a lot things are gonna get broken.”

Wretched Excess! Tough Love! Movie Rights!

by Robert Pondiscio
April 5th, 2010

Raising a spoiled, ungrateful child?  Nothing like a brief stint volunteering in a slum school in India to make your heedless spawn count her blessings.  Or so thought Manhattan screenwriter Tracey Jackson, who penned a piece in the New York Post last week blaming herself for raising a “teenage monster” who charged $1,000 a month on food and tossed designer clothes around her room like hand-me-downs from Goodwill.  

“I don’t have a problem buying my children nice things, but when you walk in and find every single item strewn about, you lose your mind. I went around her room with a calculator, adding up how much every piece of clothing cost. The total came to $12,018. “That’s as much as some people make in a year,” I told Taylor. And it was my fault for buying them for her.”

Jackson, whose best known screenplay, ironically enough, was for the movie “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” details all of the standard nausea-inducing excesses of her daughter’s privileged Manhattan upbringing — private school, over-the-top birthday parties, drinking in nightclubs, expensive trips, charge cards and shopping sprees. How to unring that bell?  By taking her daughter to India for three weeks over spring break to do volunteer work in Mumbai. “Taylor was going to the slum schools of India, teaching English, living in slum-like conditions herself,” Jackson writes. 

Is anyone surprised that mom brought a camera along?

“I decided to make a documentary out of it. I wanted to see if this experiment was going to wake her up and alert her to a different way of being in the world — more empathetic, less angry….When we landed, it finally sank in. I took her to the house she would share with four other women, all in their 20s, who taught at the school in exchange for room and board — and she broke down in tears. I hugged her and said, “I know you’re scared, but you’re going to look back on this when you’re an old lady, or maybe even in your 20s, and you’re going to say, ‘I did this really crazy, amazing thing when I was only 15 — I went to India and I lived with people I didn’t know, and I taught in the slums, and I grew up more in those three weeks than I did in my whole life.’ “

In a blink-and-you-miss it paragraph, Jackson notes that back home her daughter ”slipped back into her bad ways — pot-smoking, clubbing, undereating — and I discovered that I couldn’t rewire her in just three weeks.”  Jackson, however, insists that the experience changed her daughter, now a college freshman, “in the long run.”

“Boo freakin’ hoo,” writes ascerbic Post columnist Andrea Peyser, slamming Jackson and her piece in this morning’s paper.  “What sounded like a clever lesson in tough love turned into a fiendishly smart and potentially lucrative marketing ploy,” she writes.  “Here’s the true lesson Taylor learned on spring break: Never pass up an opportunity to exploit those lesser than you without first securing movie rights.”

No word on whether the proceeds from documentary “Lucky Ducks” will be donated to the school in Mumbai.  Wanna bet?

The “Digital Decade” Has Changed Childhood Forever

by Robert Pondiscio
December 28th, 2009

Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Wii and YouTube are among the innovations that have changed childhood – and parenting – for the better in the past decade.  And for the worst?  Grand Theft Auto, digital cheating, World of Warcraft, texting while driving and Webkinz.  So says Common Sense Media, which offers up a list of 20 innovations and entertainments that have “revolutionized how our kids communicate, create, learn, and play” for better and for worse.

 “Just about every child knows how to find just about anything by Googling,” CSM notes. “It’s opened the world to our children — sometimes bringing in too much, too soon — and parents found out it was up to them to teach their kids to surf safely and responsibly.” 

On digital cheating, Common Sense notes:  “Anonymity, ease, and lack of clear rules on right and wrong have made illegal downloading, plagiarizing, or texting answers to friends so “normal” that kids don’t realize that digital cheating is still cheating — and not OK.”

Also on the “10 Best” list:  Harry Potter, American Idol, TiVo, cell phones and iTunes.  Rounding out the worst list: The Bathroom Wall, Gossip Girl books, Superbad, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and celebutantes, and erectile dysfunction ads.  “No parent needs to discuss four-hour erections with any child, end of story,” says CSM.  “And certainly not after the third inning on a Saturday.”

Chaos Theory

by Robert Pondiscio
December 15th, 2009

Chaos is bad for kids.  Noisy households with no set routines or predictability contribute to lower IQ and behavior problems in children, according to a new study cited by Dan Willingham on his Washington Post blog.  What’s cause and what’s effect?  Certainly, he notes, household chaos could easily correlate with plenty of other issues that could negatively impact children, such as a death in the family or unemployment. 

To get around that problem the authors took a broad spectrum of measures from each family: the parents’ education level, parent’s IQ, a measure of the literacy environment in the home (number of books and so on), the housing situation, a measure of parental warmth/negativity, and a measure of stressful events.  The researchers then used techniques to statistically remove the effects of these other variables before they tested for an effect of chaos on the child’s IQ and on the child’s conduct. They found that chaos in the home was negatively associated with each.

The study has some drawbacks, not the least of which, Willingham notes, is that it could be harder to maintain an orderly home if you have a defiant child. “On the other hand, among the factors that influence your child, chaos is one of the easier ones to address. It’s hard to make myself smarter or to change my housing situation,” he concludes.

It would be interesting to see the same approach applied to classrooms.  It’s not hard to imagine higher level of student achievement, if not IQ, in classrooms that are well managed and orderly.  At the very least, the lack of those qualities is one of the most visible signposts of poorly run schools.

WH Official: Hispanics Lack “Sense of Urgency” on Education

by Robert Pondiscio
December 8th, 2009

Here’s a comment I haven’t seen repeated or discussed anywhere.  Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, said in New Mexico last week that Hispanics aren’t being aggressive enough about closing the academic achievement gap.  According to a report in the Albuquerque Journal, Sepulveda has visited 18 states discussing the Hispanic achievement gap and “noticed a disturbing trend”:

The most surprising thing…in our conversations is what I didn’t hear, and that was a sense of urgency,” Sepulveda said at a summit in Albuquerque. “We hope you can step up to help us to create the national will, the political will to say, ‘This is something that has to happen now,’ and to create a sense of urgency that we can’t lose another generation.”

To its credit, the Obama Administration has been clear and consistent in preaching the gospel of parental responsibility (to what degree that is reflected in its policies is up for debate), most notably in the President’s “put away the Xbox” speech to the NAACP.  Sepulveda’s remarks can be viewed in that light. 

I’ll defer to Sepulveda’s take, even if it feels not quite right.  Anecdotal observations from my time teaching mostly Hispanic kids in the South Bronx drives my perception:  The families I worked with, often first or second generation Americans, defered almost reflexively to school personnel on issues of student performance, and even on discipline.  It feels to me that the issue is not a lack of urgency, but what I interpreted as a lack of experience advocating on their children’s behalf, plus few models of what effective schooling looks like.  In short, the parents of the students I worked with were not critical consumers of education.  If the school said “your child is doing fine” or “we’re doing just fine” there was almost always taken at face value.  There was very little pushback.

“Infantilizing Our Kids Into Incompetence”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 20th, 2009

A new revolution is under way, according to the cover story of the latest Time Magazine.  It’s aimed at rolling back “the almost comical overprotectiveness and overinvestment of moms and dads.”    Call it slow parenting, simplicity parenting, free-range parenting, the magazine notes, but the message is the same: “Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.”

A fair amount of the piece looks at the mixed blessing of hyperinvolved parents in schools.  Parental involvement in education is unambiguously good.  But how much is too much?  Like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. 

Teachers now face a climate in which parents ghostwrite students’ homework, airbrush their lab reports — then lobby like a K Street hired gun for their child to be assigned to certain classes. Principal Karen Faucher instituted a “no rescue” policy at Belinder Elementary in Prairie Village, Kans., when she noticed the front-office table covered each day with forgotten lunch boxes and notebooks, all brought in by parents. The tipping point was the day a mom rushed in with a necklace meant to complete her daughter’s coordinated outfit.

Time writer Nancy Gibbs quotes a guidance counselor at a Washington prep school who urges parents to make friends with parents who don’t think their kids are perfect, and willing to push back: “When schools debate whether to drop recess to free up more test-prep time, parents need to let a school know if they think that’s a trade-off worth making.”

Lenore Skenazy, whose account of letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway on his own  was the shot heard round the world of the helicopter parenting backlash, points out there are no reports of a child ever being poisoned by a stranger handing out tainted Halloween candy. And the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million.

When parents confront you with “How can you let him go to the store alone?,” she suggests countering with “How can you let him visit your relatives?” (Some 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives.) Or ride in the car with you? (More than 430,000 kids were injured in motor vehicles last year.) “I’m not saying that there is no danger in the world or that we shouldn’t be prepared,” she says. “But there is good and bad luck and fate and things beyond our ability to change. The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources.”

The best quote in the piece belongs to Skenazy.  “10 is the new 2,” she quips.  “We’re infantilizing our kids into incompetence.”

If Bedtime is Book Time, Why Not “Morning Math?”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2009

The best idea I’ve heard in a long time comes courtesy of Lisa Guernsey of Early Ed Watch (where is Sara Mead, anyway?) who points out that every parent gets the idea that bedtime is book time, but what about math?  She’s encouraging parents “to build math moments into the morning routine, just as book reading is part of the bedtime drill.”

Rummage through the sock drawer with your 4 year old, encouraging her to find a matching pair. Voila. You’ve covered one math concept already. Go to the freezer and pull out the frozen waffles for your 6-year-old. “You want one-and-a-half? How about three halfs instead?” Wink, wink, another concept down the hatch. Ask your 8-year-old to pour the juice so that the glasses are 75 percent full. Aha. A good opening for a chat about fractions.

Guernsey points out that we’ve had plenty of research and public service campaigns encouraging parents to read to their children, yet math skills trump reading skills as one of the best predictors of school success.  “Imagine what might happen with a similar campaign that suggests ways for parents to do math in the morning with their children,” she urges. ”Look for numbers on cereal boxes. Talk about the score of last night’s ball game. Point out patterns on their hats and mittens as you dress them for school.”

What a simple, brilliant idea.  Pass it on.