When dozens of students were caught cheating on high school graduation exams this summer, much of the media coverage questioned the level of pressure that students there faced to achieve academically. In the last few years, a number of books and the documentary film Race to Nowhere have focused on this question of whether American parents and schools force unreasonable demands and stress on their students. The reality is that, while a small percentage of upper-middle-class, hyper-involved parents prepares its children to succeed in modern America, a far larger number of American children face chronically low expectations and a lack of opportunity to attain the education or skills required to navigate the professional world.
With wealthy parents scheduling every last moment of their children’s free time, hiring private tutors and enrolling their high schoolers in SAT prep courses, the lack of equality and rigor in our nation’s low-performing schools is not on these parents’ lists of priorities. It is easy for those removed from the problems of low-income families and schools to write them off as the results of lax or deficient parenting, but as someone who interacted every day with the parents of my 6th graders from inner-city Boston, I can attest that it is not a lack of concern but rather a lack of resources that harms our students. When faced with failing schools, a lack of funding for extracurricular activities or tutoring, and no forum to bring attention to their children’s needs, these parents are forced to settle for what they are given. Their children suffer a deprivation that cannot be undone in their adult lives. Once a child is behind, catching up becomes nearly impossible.
In his book “Whatever it Takes,” Paul Tough followed Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, as Canada developed programs that taught low-income parents in Harlem the basic tenets of effective child rearing—practices such as reading to your child at night, using timeouts instead of corporal punishment and talking to your babies. Canada’s work reveals the desperate battle just to get knowledge in low-income parent’s hands despite the fact that in many neighborhoods in America these ideas have been mainstream knowledge for decades.
Critics of the over-parenting craze argue that these parents create insecure adults who are unable to deal with failure, but the reality is that these parents also provide their kids with the skills to navigate the professional world. Annette Lareau, in her 2003 book “Unequal Childhoods,” argues that the different parenting techniques of upper and lower-class parents give their children skills that are perceived differently in the job market. Middle and upper-class children grow up negotiating with and criticizing their parents—skills that serve them when securing a spot in college or negotiating a raise—while lower class children are not expected to view their parents as equals and learn not to expect authority figures to listen to them.
The key word that Lareau uses is “entitlement.” While feeling entitled might not seem like the most desirable quality in a child, it is the driving force that helps these children manage the adult world—getting to where they want to be. Meanwhile, inner city children grow accustomed to lower expectations for their future and don’t expect society’s institutions to respond to their demands. This sense of entitlement starts in the home but is reinforced by the opportunities they receive and, especially, the education system that upper-middle class students encounter. Children from low income and minority families are not taught to expect excellence because they don’t receive it. Our schools are failing our children in enormous numbers and, without education, our left-behind children and their families aren’t taught to negotiate with the system to demand more. A good education system would demand the best from all children while reinforcing the importance of independent hard work to get there.
While there are problems with the over-structured or pampered childhoods of the overachiever parents, the real tragedy lies with the parents who have no option but to give their children over to an education system that is failing them. The heartbreaking truth in America is that our children grow up in two stratified worlds. We push too few of our children to be the best they can be.