We have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem

In
kicking off Education Trust’s annual conference, Kati Haycock said that we
can’t let “bad parenting” be an excuse for poor educational results. She’s absolutely
right, of course. It’s not like our schools are running on all cylinders
(especially schools serving poor kids), and if only parents were doing their
jobs, too, achievement would soar. Sure, we’ve got several examples of school
models that are making a tremendous
difference

in educational outcomes for kids, regardless of what’s happening at home.

That
said, it strikes me as highly unlikely that we’re ever going to significantly
narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor unless we narrow the “good
parenting gap” between rich and poor families, too. (And yes, I know I’m going
to catch a lot of grief for saying that.)

We're never going to significantly
narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor unless we narrow the
'good parenting gap' between rich and poor families, too.

 
   
 

Let’s
admit it: The Broader/Bolder types are right when they say that a lot of what influences student achievement
happens outside of schools and before kids ever set foot in a Kindergarten
classroom. Where they are wrong, I believe, is in thinking that turbo-charged
government programs can compensate for the real challenge: what’s happening (or
not) inside the home.

Conservatives
used to talk about this, but for whatever reason they’ve been awfully silent
lately. Perhaps that’s starting to change. A new book by Minnesota
think tanker Mitch Pearlstein addresses the issue head on. And last week, in
the Washington Post, compassionate
conservative Michael Gerson argued that issues
like divorce and teenage pregnancies are what are dampening social mobility.

So
let’s get specific: What can parents do to increase the chances of their
children doing well in school? Let’s just start with the zero-to-five years.

  1. Wait until
    you’ve graduated from high school and you’re married to have children.
  2. Stay
    married.
  3. Don’t
    drink or smoke when you’re pregnant.
  4. Get
    regular prenatal check-ups.
  5. Nurse your
    baby instead of using a bottle.
  6. Talk and
    sing to your baby a lot.
  7. As you
    child grows, be firm but loving.
  8. Limit
    TV-watching, especially in the early years.
  9. Spark your
    child’s curiosity by taking field trips to parks, museums, nature centers,
    etc.
  10. Read,
    baby, read.

For
virtually all of these items, we’ve got evidence that affluent parents are much
more likely to engage in these behaviors than poor parents. And what makes it
easier for affluent parents to do these things mostly isn’t about money (more
on that below) but marriage: Getting hitched and staying that way. It’s a heckuva
lot harder (though not impossible, of course) to be a great parent when you’re
doing the job alone than when you’ve got a partner. And in case you haven’t
noticed, out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates and divorce rates have reached
catastrophic levels for the poor and the working class—but not for the most
affluent and well-educated among us.



staircase going up photo

The first step is admitting there's a problem.
Photo by Erich Ferdinand

As
mentioned above, the Left’s answer to this challenge is a panoply of social
programs. Home visits for pregnant women. Community-health centers. Head Start.
I’ve got no complaints with these, especially if they can show evidence of
working.

But
we’re still dancing around the issue if we don’t address the family directly.
Imagine we could convince most poor teenagers—whether they are black, white, or
Hispanic—to save child-rearing for their 20s, and to get and stay married
first. Getting them to adopt healthy parenting behaviors, then, would be much
more doable, even on a limited budget. (See the innovative work that GreatSchools.net is
doing

on this front.) You don’t have to be Richy Rich to nurse your baby, or sing to
her, or learn how to be loving but firm. Sure, a few of these items are easier with
money. (I imagine that low-income families use TV as a babysitter more because
they can’t afford alternative childcare.) But mostly these take commitment,
discipline, and practice.

So how
do we spark a marriage renaissance, especially for poor and working-class families?

Honestly, I don’t have a clue. Some argue for
family-friendly tax incentives; others think a religious revival is what’s
needed. I would vote for middle schools and high schools that are unafraid to
preach a pro-marriage, wait-till-you’re-older-to-have-babies message—neo-paternalistic
charter schools or religious schools in particular. In other words, this is
another strong argument for school choice.

Whatever
the solutions, let’s at least start talking about the problem. Pat Moynihan
tried to warn us long ago that our national experiment with large-scale single
parenthood would turn out badly. He was right, and then some. Let’s not wait
any longer to do something about it.

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