The New York Times Opinionator column offered a hard slap in the face to every helicopter mom: Parental involvement does not necessarily enhance a child’s educational future. Based on a three-decade longitudinal study, University of Texas sociology prof Keith Robinson and Duke sociology prof Angela Harris reported their findings:
Most people, asked whether parental involvement benefits children academically, would say, “of course it does.” But evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.
This, of course, cannot possibly be. After all, everyone knows that the more involved parents are in their children’s education, the better off children will be. Schools say so. The government says so, and has passed laws, rules and regs based on it, and, well, everybody knows. Everybody.
In the age of empiricism, we love it when it confirms that we’re doing it right. But it’s bunk when it flies in the face of what we believe. After beating the notion into our heads for decades, and parents having embraced the message to the tune of being willing to go to war when some teacher gives junior a B+ when we decide he needs an A to get into Harvard, this is like declaring that every dead child doesn’t deserve a law named after him. It just can’t be.
In a letter to the editor following this op-ed, John Boynton of Allison Park, Pennsylvania goes for the throat. So you know, it’s not easy to get a letter to the editor published. The Times gets tons of them, and parses them thoroughly for the very best, the most illuminating. So for Boynton’s letter to make the cut, it had to be superlative. This is important.
Boynton’s letter, though brief, strikes at the heart of the beast, and for that reason gets dissected:
Parental involvement absolutely enhances student achievement. Without it, many children would fail. My wife and I have raised three daughters and a son. In each case, parental intervention, homework assistance, advocacy and lots of communication made a measurable difference. Each child now has a graduate degree and is flourishing.
The letter begins by presenting the opposing view as an emphatic truism, parental involvement absolutely enhances student achievement. This is a variation on the “strenuously object” meme, that the more emphatic the protest of the unsupported truism, the more truthy it becomes.
It’s followed up by inductive reasoning, that Boynton’s children have graduate degrees and are flourishing. So if the outcome was good for him, it must be true. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course, or we would all be college drop-outs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, because it worked for them, right?
It is true that excessive and unnecessary parental involvement can be as counterproductive as micromanaging in a work environment. However, I would be willing to wager that every child needs some support or advocacy during his or her education. The trick is to remain sensitive to a child’s needs.
And what might “excessive and unnecessary parental involvement” be? What constitutes “some support or advocacy”? It’s hard to disagree with the proposition that “[t]he trick is to remain sensitive to a child’s needs,” but they are meaningless words. We’re suckers for meaningless words, because they allow us to pretend they validate our choices when they really say nothing.
Engaging in creative discussions with teachers is necessary. Attending parent nights, sharing misgivings and doubts, and offering thank-yous and positive feedback are also essential. How else does a teacher know that parents care?
Now we get into the realm of modern parental narcissism. It’s not about the child, but about the parent. Why should it matter that the teacher knows that the parents care? It’s not about the parents, but the child. Except to the parents, who want that gold star for themselves.
Observing classes? What parent in his or her right mind would attempt this unless invited to participate?
Uh oh. This is where Boynton harshes other parents’ mellow. Plenty of parents believe it’s critical to observe a class, to make sure the parent is doing right by junior, isn’t being bullied, is a star. But Boynton doesn’t do it, so he throws them under the bus. This reflects the unfortunate view that Boynton gets to ascribe to himself the role of arbiter of “too much parenting,” where his line is the line. He’s not crazy, but if another parent goes a step further, well, bells go off in the asylum.
Parents must provide space, time, moral support and at times discipline — and, yes, must check and assist with homework (when they sense a real need) if a child is to succeed.
This sounds perfectly reasonable, except for two problems. First, that it is so utterly generic as to mean nothing, and second, that it is contradicted by the empirical, longitudinal study which suggests that it may or may not be true, and it may just as well diminish a child’s success as enhance it. In other words, this is the point of the study, and Boynton’s letter fails to offer anything other than an expression of his religious belief to the contrary.
And that’s the point. People believe. They believe with all their heart and soul, and no amount of evidence that the world is round will shake them from their belief that it’s flat.
The use of Boynton’s letter as the mechanism to raise this problem is twofold. First, looking back at my own child-rearing beliefs, I am very much like Boynton. Whether I was right to be so or not is impossible to say, as I didn’t have a few spare children around for a control group, but my outcomes were good and so I must have been right. I simply must have.
And second, the failure of Boynton’s letter to present a single rational argument in support of his position is manifest. It is an homage to truthiness, but it fails miserably to counter the study. What Boynton offers is the belief that so many parents hold dear to their hearts. Not only did we believe, but we acted upon these beliefs because we wanted the best for our children. We believe we did right. We need to believe that we did not fail our children, even if we were mistaken to hold these beliefs.
Assertions of truthiness are rampant, and have become de rigueur. When someone explains that they’re irrational, people get horribly offended. But it’s not an insult, but rather an application of logic to positions that are proffered in defiance of reason.
All arguments that are constructed like Boynton’s are failed arguments, not necessarily because they are wrong but because they lack a rational basis. Whenever common sense, conventional wisdom, any amorphous justification short of provable foundation and rational construction, is used to assert a conclusion, it is suspect.
Whenever we see it, and we see it all the time, recognize it as flawed reasoning even when it validates your own beliefs. But when it involves the education of our youth, our old friend demands that we question it. Do it for the children. This time, it really is about them.