How About Better Parents? Ask Clarence Lee

Reading Thomas Friedman in yesterday’s New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of the Shel Silverstein classic, “Clarence Lee from Tennessee,” a 1993 poem suggesting that kids could trade in their parents for new ones.

Clarence Lee from Tennessee
Loved the commercials he saw on TV.
He watched with wide believing eyes
And bought everything they advertised

I used to read this to the kids whom I tutored in reading and also brought it with me to classrooms, to share with whole groups of students.  The poem introduced these youngsters to narrative rhyme — and  the ubiquity and charms of advertising:

Powder for his doggie’s fleas,
Toothpaste for his cavities,
Stylish jeans that fit much tighter.
Bleach to make his white things whiter
Spray to make his hair look wetter
Cream to make his skin feel better

It was a set-up, of course, to the punchline: parents were just like toothpaste: trade ‘em in for better ones. And, of course, it was funny because the kids Silverstein addressed actually loved their parents, despite the fact that they made them do things they didn’t want to do, such as go to school, read, do homework, take the garbage out.

But I eventually stopped reading the poem in my school, as I realized that its punch line — that the kids could trade their parents in for “’A brand-new Maw, a better Paw!” —  didn’t work for kids who really did have bad parents and insufferable homelifes.  For these kids It wasn’t funny.

New, improved in every way –
Hurry, order yours today!

If only.

It was not funny for kids whose parents weren’t there, who beat them up, smoked dope, disappeared for days – these kids really did need new parents. But it’s a complicated relationship.  Once while reporting a story for Life magazine many years ago (“Children of Poverty”), I recall walking down a residential street in an Ohio town, just behind a man and a young child. It was a Norman Rockwell moment until, out of the blue, the man suddenly slapped the child down.  I was stunned. And I watched in utter horror – and confusion – as the little boy got back up and rushed the man and clung to his leg, crying. “Daddy! Daddy!”

Anyone who has lived for more than 30 seconds understands the importance of parents – and the complicated relationship between them and their children.   It’s not surprising that the PISA study that Friedman cites (from our friends at the Organziation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who develop the international test of 15-year-olds) concludes that the kids “whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.”

But it’s also not surprising that schools can’t remake parents — a fact that Friedman doesn’t mention.

What does a teacher – or a school – do in the face of the reality that parents make a difference?  The answer: teach the kids.  Schools can’t fix parents. They can — and should — educate (fix) kids.

The problem, as I pointed out last week, is that “the parent improvement movement is destined to become another responsibility for a system already freighted with the weight of the world – and the World Wide Web!” Parent improvement initiatives are not – and should not be – respsonsibilities of the schools.  Schools need to focus on teaching children what they do not know.  Schools need to do what schools can do – before saddling themselves with responsibilities that they can’t do; e.g. fixing parents.

Having said this, I encourage all parents – and teachers – to read Friedman and the PISA report. Be a good parent; read to your child. Be a good teacher, teach your student.

–Peter Meyer

This post also appeared on Flypaper.

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