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Parental Involvement: A Double-Edged Sword

Back when I used to work as an SAT tutor in an affluent New York City suburb, I encountered a peculiar breed known as "helicopter parents." These parents would hover around their teens, constantly calling to make "suggestions" about the content and frequency of our tutorials, enrolling their kids in all types of extra-curricular and enrichment activities (often without any interest or commitment from the kids themselves), compulsively contacting their child's teachers anytime the kid received an unsatisfactory grade on an assignment, and ruminating obsessively about how any minor hitch (a low grade on a math test, difficulty understanding a particular novel, the decision to take one SAT II test over another) would adversely impact the child's chance of getting into a top college.

I found these helicopter parents annoying. Their children, I think, were about ready to run away from home. My SAT tutoring sessions with these kids would sometimes look a lot like therapy sessions; I'd spend as much time reassuring them that their parents' gloom-and-doom prognostications of their chances for admission at various colleges had little to no basis in reality, that doing so many extra-curricular activities that they had no time to sleep wasn't even healthy, and that a B in pre-calculus would not, in fact, bar them from higher education. Sometimes, a particular kid would hit a threshold beyond which he or she just couldn't pass, on the SAT or ACT--and it was always a bit heart-breaking when the parent would refuse to accept this, insisting that the kid be grilled continuously with more and more tutoring sessions in the vain hope of an improvement that would never happen. I wanted to say, "Please! Accept the wonderful kid you have, who may not break 600 in Math, but has so many other excellent talents and qualities." But in the world of elite test prep, that kind of thing didn't go over too well.

When I returned to teaching in the Bronx (as I had done before, and continued to do after my hiatus of tutoring in the suburbs and attending graduate school), I encountered the opposite type of parent much more frequently--the one who is wholly uninvolved. Parents like this would not only never come to parent-teacher conferences; they would inevitably fail to return phone calls home, skip pre-arranged meetings with teachers and guidance counselors, and--when asked--demonstrate a total lack of awareness of their students' progress in their classes. ("Are you aware that your child is failing every course?" I once asked the father of a 10th grade student. "I'm very busy; I don't have time to check his report card," he replied.) I ranted about this in a different post a couple of years ago, much to the consternation of some readers, who felt I was being unduly hard on needy parents encountering rough times.

In a recent NYTimes "Opinionator" blog post entitled "Parental Involvement is Overrated," professors and authors Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris explain that, as the title of the post implies, students across all ethnic/cultural lines show basically no improvement (and sometimes are even adversely affected) by their parents calling teachers, showing up in classrooms, participating in school events, etc. This would seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, according to the authors. But in fact, the only behaviors on the part of parents that seem to have any positive impact whatsoever on students are the following: showing expectations that a child will go to college, talking with the child about school activities, and--when possible--requesting a specific teacher for the child. No other types of "involvement" have been shown to be particular useful, according to Robinson and Harris.

Based on my "desk-eye view" of parents at both ends of the spectrum of involvement, I'd be inclined to broadly categorize these positive behaviors as "promoting a valuation of education." Parents who convey the importance of learning and education, both by espousing high expectations for college attendance and by promoting an atmosphere of literacy and studying at home, will likely foster the best outcomes for their kids, according to the studies cited by Robinson and Harris. In other words, ideally parents toe a happy median line between "helicopter" and "uninvolved."

Moreover, the best types of "involvement," I think, are indirectly linked to what happens in the classroom. These include showing interest in kids' schoolwork simply as an aspect of kids' lives ("So...tell me about what you did in school today."), making interesting enrichment options available without pushing them aggressively (say, enrolling a kid in Boy Scouts because he shows interest in outdoorsy activities--not simply as padding for a transcript), and taking kids to the library or bookstore regularly to pick out new books for pleasure-reading. All of these, I would consider as examples of educationally-involved parenting--yet, none require showing up at a child's school.

Finally, the most basic aspects of good parenting probably having the strongest positive educational correlates: These include showing warmth and encouragement to children, setting high expectations for conduct in life (as opposed to merely in school), imposing clear guidelines and limitations on everything from sweets to television to bedtimes, and being attentive to and supportive of kids' needs and goals. These, again, do not require attending PTA meetings or contacting teachers, but will undoubtedly pay dividends in the long run, as far as facilitating a child's successful educational experience.

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