What We're Learning

Parenting Is Not a Race

Many parents feel enormous pressure to equip their children to succeed.  They know the world is always becoming more competitive and they may even have heard news stories about American children being worse off economically than their parents.

In response, parents are investing more time and resources in educational activities outside of school: reading aloud, teaching letters/numbers/words, and telling stories.  Researchers have found that, beginning the 1990s, there was a big boost in parents teaching their children – most especially among affluent, college-educated families who wanted to ensure their children would gain admission to competitive colleges, too.

How much more time?  Higher earning, college-educated mothers increased their childcare time by nine hours per week between 1995 and 2008.  Lower-earning mothers increased their childcare time by four hours per week.  In both cases, already-busy mothers were getting even busier.  It’s like mothers picked up a new part-time job.  (Fathers, interestingly, increased their time spent on childcare by a much smaller amount.)

Does it work?  Yes and no. 

There is very strong evidence that certain activities like reading with young children can have a positive impact.  But researchers have found that many other things that parents do – like volunteering at school – don’t make any difference, academically.  Parents should do them because they love doing them or want to help, not because they will ensure that their children grow up to be top students. 

Some forms of parent involvement are actually associated with students doing worse.  For instance, students whose parents frequently help them with homework tend to do less well than similar students whose parents let them do their homework alone.  (It’s the student’s work, after all.)

There are a few implications.  First, parents should cut themselves some slack.  Killing yourself to raise a superchild is going to make you crazy and probably won’t work.  Second, when we see children struggling, we should avoid the urge to assume it’s because their parents aren’t involved or don’t care.  Children from all types of homes struggle from time to time, and there’s no guarantee that if every parent in America simply spent more time parenting, our problems would be solved.  Raising healthy children is more complicated.

So what should parents do?

There are a few general strategies that appear to be sensible, when used in the context of a balanced approach to parenting.

Don’t forget the basics

It’s much harder for kids to learn if they aren’t getting enough sleep, eating well, staying healthy, or going to school consistently. If something’s off in any of those areas, work on that first.

Spend time reading and counting with your children – especially up through first and second grade

Build a strong foundation by starting early. Talk to your child, ask them questions, and read with them every day. Model good habits by reading yourself.  Take an interest in the books your children read. 

As your children grow older, build their independence

Send the message that they are doing their schoolwork for their own satisfaction and development, not to please you.  Tell them you believe in them, that you expect them to try hard and do well. Give them some space to struggle and fail and change their minds. Help them see that making mistakes is part of learning.

By middle school, build a sense of academic identity

Am I the type of child who does well in school and goes to college?  Or do I think school is hard and I’m better off focusing my energy somewhere else?  What do I ultimately want to do in life and how is school the path to get me there? By discussing school regularly with your pre-teen and developing a long-term vision of where education can take them, you will help your child persist through the challenges that are inevitable in the teenage years.

Teach them to advocate for themselves

One of the long-term keys to education is being able to interact successfully with institutions.  What happens when a bright, motivated high school student is placed in unchallenging classes that won’t prepare her for college?  If nobody says anything, nothing’s going to happen.  She’ll stay there and her prospects will diminish.  But if she knows how to demand something better, she’ll likely get it. 

Remember: Good parents can raise great kids.  It’s about being involved, not being perfect.  It’s about spending time together, not spending every waking moment running a race.