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Poor Parents Understand Importance of Reading, School Readiness, Survey Says

It turns out that in the lower-income neighborhoods of Oakland, Calif., 70 percent of parents read to their young child at least three days a week. That fact is one of dozens of fascinating tidbits gleaned from a survey of 420 parents conducted last spring by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a local philanthropy.

Having reported extensively in Oakland, I was especially interested in the survey, which I was tipped off about by New America's early-education newsletter. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that while the gap in education-focused parenting behaviors between college-educated, white, middle class parents and their less advantaged peers is notable, it's not as big as you might think. 

To back up a step: The survey covered five Oakland neighborhoods. One of them, North Oakland, is increasingly white and middle class. The others are working class to poor. The differences in the responses between the neighborhoods are pronounced enough that the surveyors pulled out the North Oakland responses on several of their calculations. For example, North Oakland responses were pulled out of the finding that 70 percent of parents read to their children at least three days a week. In North Oakland, that figure is more like 93 percent, with 85 percent reading to their children every day.

But setting North Oakland aside, low-income parents responding to the survey listed far more positive parenting behavior than they are often given credit for. The idea that a lack of storng parenting leads to failures in schools is widespread, though certainly not universal. Student behavior is especially likely to be linked to parenting and that argument has been a sticking point in the debates over school discipline. Low-income children and children of color are more likley to be disciplined or suspended and the blame for that has sometiems been placed at parents' feet even as others argue that the primary cause is implicit racism. Given this swirling debate, the Oakland survey provides an important window into the actual home lives of children in lower-income areas. 

Generally positive parenting practices were very common among respondents. More than 70 percent of respondents hugged their children, told them they loved them, and tucked them in at night seven days a week. More than 70 percent of non-North Oakland parents had dinner with their child and spouse or partner seven days a week. (In North Oakland, the number was actually lower: 48 percent.)

Parents were also actively engaged in helping prep their children for school. In addition to near-daily read-alouds, 68 percent of respondents went to the library several times a month. More than half of non-North Oaklanders had 10 or more children's books in the house and said their children played outside often or very often. And between 40 and 55 percent of respondents sang songs, played with toys, and played imaginary games with their children daily.

But here's where it gets really interesting (to me at least): Parents in the non-North Oakland neighborhoods, though loving and very clear on the importance of helping their children prepare for school, are more likely to have misconceptions about which specific activities are most helpful for their young children. A third of those parents thought letting a toddler read the same book over and over would keep the child from learning new words. In fact, annoying though it may be to parents, reading the same book over and over is great for toddlers. North Oakland parents knew this. None of them agreed that letting a toddler re-read a book over and over risked limiting vocabulary.

It takes a lot of time to get at complexities like these. Interviewers spent an hour and a half or more with the people included in this survey. They also offered gift cards, books and crayons as incentives to participate. Not all organizations invest that much time and money to really understand the communities they are proposing to help.

Read the complete results of the survey.

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