Personal and Political

A mom sent me an article that expresses concern about the way educational success has been linked to parenting.  The author refers to a study that links demand feeding of babies with higher IQ scores and better results on national achievement tests.  She refers to what she calls the “scam of the baby manual industry, which is as prone to change as fashion.”  Parents are bombarded with contradictory information, so the only thing you can say to new mothers is: “Everything you do is wrong, but your child will probably survive it.”

The article describes the various changes in prescriptions for mothering that have taken place over the years, such as the switch from strict feeding schedules to demand feeding.  Another was sleeping with your baby and feeding it non-stop, to letting the baby cry it out.  The article’s author writes from personal experience having lived through these changing ideas by having had three children over three decades.

But the deeper point here is the way in which larger social problems get connected to failures or errors of parenting.  In many ways this relates to the recent controversy over “redshirting”, the practice of holding children back from entering Kindergarten until they are older as a way of advantaging them.  It is not only that parents are blamed for the social problems that exist, they are made to feel responsible for fixing them.

Over the last fifty years changes in prescriptions for parents have been related to changing social agendas.  Raising emotionally well-adjusted children became the task of mothers after the second World War, at a time of concern about mental health.  During the cold war, when Russia seemed to be winning the race to space, the focus became raising smart children, and parents began focusing on letters and numbers.

The subsequent “war on poverty” focused on cultural deprivation.  Mothers were taught to read to their children, and programs like Sesame St. were created for early learning as a tool for children’s later economic success.

Another task assigned to parents in the past was the elimination of sexism through child-rearing.  More recently, attachment theory has become the basis for parenting prescriptions as a way of addressing problems in relationships between parents and children, or children and others.

At the present time the focus does seem to be on connecting academic success and failure to aspects of parenting.  Many recent articles have appeared based on research findings relating issues such as self-control and frustration tolerance to academic outcomes.  The focus then becomes what parents are doing or not doing that leads to children’s lack of self-control and poor frustration tolerance.

We are all aware of, and have heard a great deal about, the problems with our education system nationwide.  We know about overcrowding of schools, lack of books and other needed materials, the focus on teaching to the test and measuring the success of both children and teachers by test results.  We have also read about and felt the cuts in funds for education.

Yet, what stands out most of all is the onus put on teachers and parents.  It is as if all that is wrong is the fault of poor teachers and ineffective parents.  If we teach teachers how to teach and parents how to parent, the problem will be solved.  Of course we know that there are teachers who probably should not be teaching.  Parents know who they are and often look for any possible means of avoiding having their children in their classes.

We also know that not all parents are as effective as they might be in helping children take responsibility for their assignments, or in helping them with school work when they get stuck.  But parents, for the most part, are super responsible and extremely concerned about their children’s academic success.  It is the anxiety parents feel about how their children are doing that can become an added source of pressure for both children and parents.

It is just such anxiety that is created when fingers are pointed at parents as somehow the cause of social problems that in reality require political rather than personal solutions.  Yet parents do take such criticism personally, and expend considerable effort in an attempt to find personal solutions for their own children. 

But there is a limit to personal solutions if your child is in an overcrowded classroom, or has difficulty maintaining attention because of the absence of gym or recess, or reacts poorly to time pressure, or is judged primarily by a standardized test. 

Perhaps the energy we put into worrying about our children and examining our own parenting could be better spent on finding ways to solve our nation’s larger problem.

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