The parent gap

Huddled in the bleachers at the local arena was the usual group of doting figure-skating parents. They rose at dawn every morning so their children could get early-morning ice time, laced up skates, carried hot chocolate and warm-up sweaters in their tote bags, bought teddy bears and skate charms at skating competitions and handed checks to the skating instructor that rivaled their monthly heating bills.

Arriving at the arena to pick up my daughter one afternoon, I spotted her out on the ice practicing her layback spin. Other skaters were scattered across the rink doing axels, double toe loops, double lutzes and landing in improbable backward glides. The  instructor often told parents that young skaters are in a race against the clock to get their spins and jumps before their young bodies develop into more cumbersome and harder-to-train “adult bodies”.

As I entered the cool and magical world of figure skating, I was struck by the extremes in parenting I was witnessing that day. Working as a guardian ad litem for children in the child welfare system at the time, I had just left a court hearing where the judge had terminated the parental rights of a mother running a meth lab out of her home.

Her two children, a 4-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl, had been removed by the state for severe negligence. On more than one occasion, the boy had been found sitting or playing in the middle of the street. The 9-year-old girl had been sent to a sex offender’s house to take a bath. Frequently strung out on drugs, the mother would disappear for days and forget birthdays, Christmas and the first day of school. Not to mention that meth labs pose serious fire hazards and expose children to toxic substances and to a stream of unsavory characters who knock on the door to buy drugs.

Loath to terminate her parental rights, the judge gave the mother plenty of chances to earn back custody of her children, but she was failing and the clock was ticking for these children, too. The 4-year-old boy’s speech was barely comprehensible and he often volunteered to me that he was “stupid”. The judge decided more than enough developmental time had been lost to this mother’s drug addiction and ruled that the children should now be placed with the fathers in the hopes that they could recover some lost ground.

Although not always so glaring, educators see these wide disparities in family circumstances all the time in the classroom. These inequities are the true bone of contention in the debate over No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Educators legitimately protest that they can’t be held accountable for such dramatic differences in family backgrounds. But, then the troubling question remains: If schools do not attempt to level the playing field, who will?

Two articles in this issue of Educational Research Newsletter explore the issue of parenting and achievement. One article explores the even more subtle advantages of “concerted cultivation” some children receive when they grow up in solid middle class or upper class homes.

Another article examines an award-winning parent liaison program in one district that supported parent-school communications for low-income families. Even when parents are not battling a drug addiction and are trying to do the very best they can for their children, as many educators know, they and their children may still be at a serious disadvantage. According to the researchers, the parent liaison program in this study provided parents with the “information and support needed to negotiate the intricacies of the school system and minimize the knowledge gap that can corrupt home-school relations for poor and minority families.” Income gaps and achievement gaps are difficult challenges, but the parent gap might be narrowed in many cases if there are greater efforts by schools to support parent involvement.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)