We Have a Parenting Problem, Not a Poverty Problem

I glimpsed a quote from Kati Haycock, kicking off the Education Trust annual conference, saying 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. And 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.)

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 Kindergarten. 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 in the Washington Post, compassionate conservative Michael Gerson argues that issues like divorce and teenage pregnancies are what’s 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 isn’t mostly money (more on that below) but numbers 1&2: Getting married, and staying married. It’s a hell of a 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.

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 be 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–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.

-Mike Petrilli

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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