Who is shaping notions of “right” parent involvement?

How much parent involvement is “just right?” Spirit-Fire, CC BY

As parents, you are constantly walking on a thin line. If you don’t show up at the school enough, it’s assumed you don’t care about your child’s education; show up too much and you’re a “helicopter parent” who suffocates your child and her/his teachers by your “overinvestment.”

As did Goldilocks, school teachers, administrators, counselors and others seem to have a formula of “just right” participation that is not too much but not too little; not too pushy but not too passive; not too directive but not uninformed.

This begs some important questions: Where do these ideas about “just right” parent involvement come from? And who benefits from this particular take on the “right” way to be involved?

For one thing, my research suggests that “just right” parent involvement relies on America’s white, mainstream, middle-class conventions of politeness, interpersonal interactions and relationships.

Far from being neutral, these conventions take for granted the ways in which communication is shaped by gender, class, racial and cultural norms. As such, the “just right” involved parent manifests as a native-English speaking white woman who is available to be at school during the day because she isn’t employed outside the home.

Additionally, there is an expectation that the good involved mother will not interact with teachers in ways that can be perceived as aggressive; will not pull the proverbial race card when her child experiences mistreatment; and will “speak the language” of school – that is, she will have the social and cultural capital to know what to do and say.

Consequently, the people who benefit from this frame of “just right” parent involvement are the people whose lived experiences fit its expectations, underlying assumptions and demands.

What is being missed in this approach is that America’s population is vastly more diverse than it was a few decades ago. Indeed, the “just right” involved parent described above represents only a tiny slice of the US population today.

Changing demographics

Census data show a 158% increase in people over age five speaking a language other than English (LOTE) at home in the last three decades (1980-2010). Additionally, nearly a quarter of adults between the ages of 25-50 in 2014 were from racial groups other than white. Estimates also show that by 2044, more than half of all Americans will be nonwhite.

There are other changes happening as well at the level of household earnings.

The single-earner American household is a dying breed. In June 2014, the Council of Economic Advisers, a three-member agency in the Executive Office of the President that advises the president on economic policy, released a report titled Nine Facts About American Families and Work. The report showed that while most children live in households where all parents work, mothers are increasingly the household breadwinners and fathers are increasingly family caregivers.

Parents at a concert in school. woodleywonderworks, CC BY

Consequently, a growing proportion of today’s students come from linguistically diverse families; families with different cultural understandings of the relationship between home and school; or families whose life circumstances make creating distance from school logical and self-protective (such as undocumented families or parents with multiple jobs).

Families could be facing other extenuating circumstances as well, such that a grandparent, an older sibling, a neighbor or close friend may be handling school drop-off or pick-up, supervising homework and overseeing the child’s schooling.

And though school teachers and administrators often are aware of these realities, this awareness does not extend to building a new imagination for “just right” parent involvement.

Most of the faculty and administrators with whom I speak feel woefully unprepared and underresourced to connect to culturally, linguistically and socioeconomically diverse families.

A diverse group of parents

At the same time, a recurring theme in my research with families is a sense of being misjudged or misunderstood by teachers and other education professionals.

One Haitian father I interviewed shared his frustration over teachers’ low expectations of his daughter, even though he was an educated man who had high aspirations for his daughter’s future. He said:

Some teachers do not expect them [Haitian students] to go to college even when you show your own background. When you talk about your goals for your kids they are often surprised.

Too often, parents who do not fit the mainstream, “just right” model are assumed not to care about their children’s education. This father’s testimony speaks to this.

An African-American father I interviewed was planning to ask his daughter’s teacher for academic material he could go over with her in the summer, both to get his daughter ahead and to demonstrate to the teacher that he was being vigilant about her education. He hoped this would lead to the teacher to be more accountable. As he put it,

I think a lot of times a lot of the teachers [when] they see that you’re putting forth the effort to advance your child, then they’ll work a little bit harder. They’ll know you [and] not to just push your child on through because you’re paying attention to them.

Neither of these fathers fits the “just right” involved parent described above – a native-English-speaking white woman who is available to be at school during the day because she isn’t employed outside the home.

Each father clearly had goals and plans for his child and wanted teachers to be on board with their goals and plans. Their identities and expressions of “just right” parent involvement may not have fit the mold, but their commitment cannot be questioned.

The way forward: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The rules of engagement today privilege the orientations and resources of white, middle-class and single-earner families.

Family-school relationships based on the realities of people’s everyday lives and on respect for families would open conversations, stimulate self-reflection and build understanding. Expectations on both sides would be recalibrated.

If this does not happen, students will continue to be caught between seemingly unbridgeable worlds.

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