Strong Parenting Is Key to America’s Future

My eye caught the above title in an Education Week magazine on-line teaser and couldn’t resist reading the article, by Joseph Gauld, the founder of the Hyde Schools. I certainly wasn’t comfortable with his Cold War “us and them” framing of the need for good parenting…

Not so long ago, we vigorously opposed Russian Communism’s threat to our American beliefs. Now China is projected to replace us as the world’s economic leader… To reaffirm democratic principles for ourselves and other nations, we must meet China’s economic challenge to our leadership… Today, we need the leadership of American mothers, fathers, and all surrogate parents. We need them to begin to develop a standard of excellence in parenting and family, now and for future generations.

Classic hierarchical patriarchal stuff here, framing everything in terms of a high stakes competition between adversaries to determine superiors and inferiors, good and evil, within the pecking order. That rather than a more egalitarian view of China as a problematic peer and partner.

So his solution to winning the competition with China…

We must develop excellence in American parenting and family life to help our students excel in school and after. Then, given America’s strong cultural edge in innovation, we would retain our world leadership.

Given that I reject all his “stay on top” framing, what does he mean by “excellence in parenting”? He points to the educational success of many Asian-American kids that he credits to their parents…

Who form a deep mentoring relationship with their children, which creates a bond of love and respect. This opens children to a strong learning process at home and further prepares them for effective relationships with their teachers and schools… In contrast, I find American parenting today often gets confused with concepts of “love,” friendship, and equality, which waters down the critical parent-mentoring role both at home and then later at school. Raising children is basically an autocratic process, after all… The foundation of the learning process is character. In character development, parents are the primary teachers, and the home the primary classroom.

Okay then… there you have it! He advocates an authoritarian “strong hand” approach to parenting built around top-down control, rules, instruction and discipline, rather than more of a facilitative, relationship-based, dialog approach consistent with more egalitarian practice.

To be consistent with my commitment to “many paths”, rather than saying that his approach to parenting is inferior to a more egalitarian approach, I would say instead that I see it as consistent with a more authoritarian society generally. To move our society in a more egalitarian direction, I would respectfully put forward an equally principled, but very different alternative approach to parenting and adult-youth interactions in general.

Under egalitarian principles, final authority rests with the collective rather than the leader, with leadership ceded by the group rather than seized by the leader. Though parents are legally and ethically responsible for providing their children a safe and nurturing environment, within those bounds parents can practice the Golden Rule and model both giving and earning respect and authority with their young charges, dialogging where possible rather than exercising control by fiat. Facilitating rather than controlling their children’s development.

This is in no way permissiveness, or a confused concept of “love” as Gauld charges, but it is very much about modeling and passing on the principles of equality and mutual respect, the very foundation of our society. Kids will naturally look to loving parents for direction, mentoring and guidance, but just as naturally want to develop and exercise their own self-direction and agency.

An egalitarian society is not about winners and losers, superiors and inferiors, but instead about peers and a “circle of equals”. In an egalitarian approach to parenting, parents find opportunities to model these peer relationships with their children. Three examples from my own life can be found in my pieces “Balderdash & Circles of Equals”, “Choice Time”, and “When I Stopped Rewarding my Son for Good Behavior”. In a more authoritarian approach to parenting, my understanding is that any modeling of more of a peer relationship with ones kids is considered problematic and corrosive to parental hierarchical authority, and can easily lead to a breakdown of the whole moral structure that is seen as important to each person’s ethical compass. I don’t agree but I get that some people feel that way.

So getting back to the title of Gauld’s (and now my) piece, “Strong Parenting Is Key to America’s Future”. I think I basically agree with that statement, though I would not use the word “strong”, maybe substituting the word “good” or “effective” or just leaving out the adjective altogether. It is interesting that he sites a 1996 study that I had not heard of before…

The massive 1966 Coleman Report, which many call the 20th century’s most important study of American public schools, was popularly summarized thus: Schools don’t matter; families do. This study was ignored, and instead we continued to try to reform schools.

I think we really wrestle with this conundrum as a society committed to a significant amount of social engineering toward social progress. From a hierarchical point of view, there is so little we can do as a society to control family life, to dictate how adults parent their children.

So we instead over-focus on trying to control kids experience at school, where they are beyond the reach of their parents. We share concerns, at times justified, that kids are not getting the nurturing and developmental experience they need at home. We perhaps naively try to provide some of those missing elements in schools, but the massive scale, resulting bureaucracy and top-down governance make it all that much harder to try to substitute for what an effective family can provide to a kid.

I am hoping that in our transition from hierarchy to a “circle of equals”, from control to facilitation, that we surrender the angst of not being able to control family life, but instead do everything we can as a society to facilitate it, including rethinking our schools not as an alternative to the family, but as a support to parents, kids, and their natural developmental process. Under that broad statement is a whole world of issues and details, that I have wrestled with in my writing and will continue to process in work still unwritten.

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