Anatomy of Conventional Wisdom

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.

29 thoughts on “Anatomy of Conventional Wisdom

  1. Stan

    All parents have their childrearing experiences seared into their brains, and few of us have the objectiveness to accurately assess how well we raised our kids. Those of us with adult children can have a bit more objectivity, due to the passage of time and the realization that all of our children ultimately have to find their own way in the world, but we are still biased towards the perceived righteousness of our childrearing. My sense is that over-protectiveness is harmful, but keeping a watchful eye and trying to protect children from arbitrary injustices may sometimes be necessary. [Anecdotes considered and deleted]

    1. SHG Post author

      Well, true as that may be, my way is the one right way. My way, dammit. Mine!!! Because otherwise, I might not be a wonderful parent, and that couldn’t possibly be.

      The irony is that we used to say that it’s too bad kids don’t come with instructions, but some people believe that now they do.

    2. Brett Middleton

      It seems to work the other way around as well. As adults, how do we objectively evaluate how well we were raised? Even if we turned out pretty well, how much of that was due to the way we were raised and how much came about in spite of it? Lacking that evaluation, how can we objectively decide which behaviors we should copy from our parents in raising our own kids and which behaviors we should discard?

      This leaves us without much firm footing to contest newer notions as they come along, so fine-sounding theories can gain traction because about all anyone can say against them is that “my parents didn’t do that and I turned out okay.” Then, a couple of generations later, parents may end up saying “oops” after the sociologists finally have enough data to debunk an idea. But that’s a bit late for the kids who have already gone through it.

      1. SHG Post author

        The answer always has been, and always will be, that we do the best we can. The point is that there are no instructions, per se, and we, as parents, stick our nose in when we feel we must. But that’s become subject to mission creep, until we had our nose so deep into our kids’ lives that they have no lives of their own. So if there is anything we learn from our parents, it’s to give us enough rope to swing or hang so our children ultimately become human being in their own right.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    When my girls were little, we had a serendipitous sequence of events that I believe enhanced their education. As you say, I can’t prove it, but…

    When my wife took my oldest to the first day of second grade, it was bedlam at the school, apparently because the crossing guard quit without telling anybody. My wife grabbed a flag and started crossing the kids, and next thing you know, she was the crossing guard. She did that for 7 years at around 7 bucks an hour.

    Since she was at the school anyway, when she got done, she’d ask if they needed any copying done or anything, before she went home. This led to editing the PTA newsletter, helping out at lunch, tutoring some slow readers, etc.

    The thing is that my wife wasn’t doing any of it directly to help our kids. She was genuinely interested in helping the people who were helping all the kids, and it showed.

    Anyway, when you’re up at the school all the time and you’re a nice, helpful person (my wife, not me), then good things automagically happen. Somebody’s got to get the good teachers, so why wouldn’t it be your kids?

  3. John Burgess

    On the anecdotal front, my parents waded in one time during my schooling. My fourth-grade teach (a family friend at that) tried to coerce me into becoming right-handed instead of my natural left. It was traumatic for me (though I didn’t grow up to rob banks), but even more traumatic for the teacher.

    My wife went in once for our son when he was accused of plagiarism by a teacher. The teacher thought the content of a paper was discordant with our son’s awful handwriting. My wife brought in other papers he written and the teacher got off that hobby horse.

  4. Carolyn Elefant

    Add my anecdote to the collection. Short of constantly emphasizing that my sisters and I would all go to college, my parents were completely laissez faire, so much so that by 8 years old, my sisters and I had perfected their signatures to sign off on our failed tests, warning noticed and and the like. Yet they still produced a PhD, JD and 2 grad degree scientists – just like Boynton. I haven’t been quite as hands off but generally held breath and stayed out of it. Any good results are attribute largely to luck and genes.

  5. earlwer

    There is a wide range of parental involvement. I would suggest that some is better than none. If the parents encourage reading at an early age, the child will have the means to acquire knowledge on their own. If the parents value an education, there are good chances the child will stay in school instead of dropping out.
    Unfortunately, we are so concerned about protecting our children from harm that we isolate them from the real world and preventing them from learning about the bad things on their own.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a wide range of parental involvement. I would suggest that some is better than none.

      So you’re not big on empirical longitudinal studies and prefer your way too? Well, if it’s your suggestion, that changes everything.

  6. Bruce Coulson

    The key phrase from the original article would seem to be

    “…Policy makers should not advocate a one-size-fits-all model of parental involvement…”

    Which actually is intuitive, if one stops to think. Everyone is different, every family is different, and so every child learns slightly differently. (Unfotunately, that lets our anecdotal experience be valid and wrong simultaneously.)

    But such an individualized approach not only contradicts our anecdotal experiences and beliefs, it would be expensive to implement and contrary to proper bureaucratic practice. Money and inertia wins over concern for children every time.

    1. SHG Post author

      First, there is no reason why it’s necessary to reduce things to the level of simplicity of a “key phrase.” Second, even if I was inclined to do so, that would definitely not be the phrase I found key. But more importantly, try not to reduce complex ideas to an overly simplistic level. It helps no one. Certainly not you.

  7. Ken Bellone

    Sorry, not a fan of a good number of “studies”, as the authors are human and often begin with their own premise and manipulate, add and delete data that “support” their predetermined conclusion. That doesn’t mean all studies are wrong, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that the obnoxious parents who race to berate school administrators when junior “earns” a B, but Mom and Dad feel they “deserve” an A, because, well, “they’re my junior and he is smart”.

    My evidence is not derived from any longitudinal study, but from observing the world we live in with an objective and critical eye. Students whose parents at least take more than a passing interest in their children’s education will do better than ones who have no guidance, nobody to ensure homework is done, that their child is at least making an attempt to do their work. Not being overbearing, just involved.

    Sure, it’s just my observation, you may call it opinion if you like. I don’t require a study to observe that parental involvement “improves” a child’s opportunities. You may not be able to make your child smarter, luckier, or necessarily more successful, but you can give them a better chance at it than if you sit on the recliner, dozing in front of the tube with a beer in your hand, oblivious to what’s going on in your child’s life. If a study is required for that, we’re in more trouble than I thought.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sorry, not a fan of a good number of “studies”…

      Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It’s all according to how good a study it is. Longitudinal studies tend to be far better than others.

      Sure, it’s just my observation, you may call it opinion if you like.

      Sure. What else could it possibly be called? You have your opinion. Others have their opinion. And despite no proof, everyone is absolutely certain they’re right. Was this unclear?

      If a study is required for that, we’re in more trouble than I thought.

      And that’s the point. We all know the answer, so let’s just assume we’re right and screw the study so we can have empirical evidence rather than the “everybody knows” intuitive crap. Same for trials. After all, everybody knows the defendant is guilty. See any parallel?

  8. Ken Bellone

    Normally, I’d take my whupping and shut my pie hole. It IS your platform and I am just a guest. I cannot draw a parallel between a “trial” in a courtroom sense vs a trial or study in other situations.

    A legal trial presents both sides of a case. Both the platiff and the defense get to present their respective sides of an argument and let an “independent arbiter” (ugh)decide. No, even as a non-attorney, I am far from naive enough to believe that there isn’t an institutional bias.

    Studies, on the other hand, generally begin with a premise and the author works to present a side, leaving out the details that don’t meet the narrative. This would be somewhat akin to a plaintiff presenting their case, and the defendant sitting their quietly accepting what is said as fact, then accepting whatever fate is handed him.

    You are spot on with the opinion comment and I will readily head behind the wood shed.

    1. SHG Post author

      The trial analogy has to do with people’s beliefs despite evidence. It’s fine for you to question the study, but that doesn’t explain why you have a belief and cling to it rather than question your “conventional wisdom.” That same conventional wisdom is that all defendants are guilty, cops don’t lie, etc. That’s the parallel.

      You don’t have to change to adopt the study, but you find your beliefs sufficiently sacrosanct that you feel compelled to announce them anyway. If your beliefs are “truth,” then so too is everyone else’s, like the people who believe that evil defendants should be executed. Your blind faith is no better than anyone else’s.

      1. Ken Bellone

        I agreed with your point about opinion. Mine is mine and I have no monopoly on being right because I “feel” like I am. “Blind” faith is illogical. Point taken.

        Perhaps I am the one of the exceptions when it comes to legal cases as I am inclined to believe that ALL humans lie to benefit themselves and their individual end game. I’m not being cocky, but if someone were to ask me during voire dire if I had to say if a defendant is guilty or not, right at that moment, I’d stick to the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty. I know it’s not the norm, hence the absurd conviction rate on Long Island. FWIW, my wife was asked the same question during a homicide case last summer, “do you believe cops lie?”. She answered “they’re people, so sure they do”. She was still seated as a juror, maybe because she is woman and Asian, I have no idea. I know you have every reason to be cynical, given your experience, but there is hope. More folks are “getting it” than you think. It may be too late, but I will keep trying. I hope you will, too.

        1. SHG Post author

          This post isn’t really about the right/wrong way to be involved in a child’s education, but about how we cling to conventional wisdom for dear life in the absence of evidence, and even when evidence to the contrary is proffered, we still refuse to let go. It happens with children, with the law, with everything. So here, where we’re try to be more enlightened, we open our eyes when it’s “our” issue but otherwise remain just as locked into conventional wisdom as anyone else.

          Frankly, my child-rearing beliefs are pretty much the same as everyone else’s here. I challenge the blind faith, not the way people rear their kids.

    2. Brett Middleton

      “Studies, on the other hand, generally begin with a premise and the author works to present a side, leaving out the details that don’t meet the narrative.”

      Just a guess, but I’d say you haven’t done a whole heap of scientific studies. Of course studies begin with a premise. That’s called the hypothesis, and you have to begin with one or you aren’t doing science. But the idea is to test that hypothesis to determine if it adequately explains the data or fails to do so. The scientist doesn’t get to leave out details that don’t fit the hypothesis because that would invalidate the test. We call this “scientific misconduct” and we take it very seriously.

      1. SHG Post author

        There are studies and there are studies. Good studies are good. Some people claim studies that aren’t good, and they may not have to worry about scientific misconduct because they are out to promote a cause and they couldn’t care less about subsequent scientific condemnation. The trick is distinguishing between the two.

        1. John Barleycorn

          There are studies and there are studies. Good studies are good.

          butter lots and lots of butter please.

        2. Brett Middleton

          I agree that studies can be used dishonestly or disingenously, but object to Mr. Ballone’s generalization that studies are usually conducted this way. There are certainly those who will cherry-pick studies to support a narrative, but this says nothing about whether the selected studies are good or bad, just that they can be construed (or misconstrued) as supporting the narrative.

          There are, unfortunately, too many bad studies out there that have slipped through peer review, which is often a coarser mesh than we would like to believe. However, most of them are the result of honest error rather than misconduct. To suggest that scholars generally skew their data and results deliberately is not helpful to the conversation, I think.

          1. Ken Bellone


            Apologies, then. The error was mine is saying “most”, as that has not been my experience. My wife hates those modifiers, along with always and every. They tend to skew the point and people get upset and I lose my point. It isn’t “most” by any stretch. My bad.

  9. John Barleycorn

    Oh really?

    Fun comment stream.

    But by-golly-be-good it is spring break season pagans.

    I only hope (not really but just for fun
    AND to prepare the prepared one) that one of our esteemed host’s “childrens” put some soap in his ear that he does not find slippery or easily soluble in water.

    And he is just going all “temporal” and momentarily insane with longitudes on the LaTiTuDe figuring out how the new yoke stick and foot pedals work.

    Can you believe he still reads and tries to tame the “editorials” to balance the the empty weight in his ruck sack?!

    Shame, shame…Shame, and a warm and a swan-like- smile while shaking, and whirling the cowbells while taking a refreshing bath in the Yukon Territories.

    Let go & write your own editorials dumbass.

    Yes I know you like to aggregate and instigate but you ain’t getting any younger.

    Just saying there may be gold in the creek.

  10. Mayson Lancaster

    Speaking of studies, how about Bloom’s two-sigma problem, and of experiments, Harlem Children’s Zone. Both more pertinent to improving education in this country than debating helicopter parenting.

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