Legislating Parenting is Still Missing the Point

Recently, two articles (one by The New York Times and the other by Psychology Today) have brought to light the movement toward parent accountability – the notion that parents should to be liable (even punished) if students are chronically absent or if they rarely complete homework, for example. Alaska already fines parents for child truancy. This year, California law allows misdemeanor charges to be brought to parents as well as required attendance to parenting classes if necessary. Though teacher accountability has drawn the majority of public scrutiny in education reform, it was only a matter of time for teachers to point the finger at parents.

Chronically low-performing or behaviorally disruptive students reflect poor upbringing and apathetic parenting, say fed-up teachers. As a result, representatives of Indiana and Florida have introduced legislative bills that would require either parent participation in school or parent grades of some kind. The author of one of the articles, educator Dr. Jim Taylor, conceded that putting some of that responsibility back to parents would be a good idea. Is it?

On the surface, it does sound good; after all, I have strongly advocated for the inclusion of parent accountability as part of the public discussion on education reform. I frequently cite reports such as the 1966 Coleman Report that concluded family background and other non-school factors were much more important to student outcomes than any school-based factor such as teachers, classroom resources or size.

However, there is a difference between advocating for more focus on parents and families as I have done and advocating to legislate parenting. Policies that punish guardians are short term fixes that will neither improve parenting nor diminish the achievement gap. Instead they tend to breed resentment, just as negative reinforcement measures tend to have the opposite effect on children’s behavior.

It also leads to the same misguided slippery slope as the current teacher accountability movement. How far do we go to reward or punish? What percentage of school failure is attributable to parenting? The general public is merely passing the buck to teachers, and exasperated teachers are now passing the buck to parents. As Diane Ravitch criticized, “If we could just find the right person to punish. Punish the teachers. Punish the parents. It’s Dickensian.” Such punitive measures are reactive stop-gap measures rather than proactive long-term solutions.

The real answer is closer to her idea of giving a helping hand to parents and teachers, yet it’s MUCH more than that. We can’t just provide wraparound social services to these parents, though it’s a start. Not to mention, poor parenting is not the provenance of poverty-stricken families. Most teachers will agree that poor parenting exists in all social classes, leading to widespread student apathy and underperformance in the U.S.

We need to proactively change the current atomistic culture that promotes immediate fixes and piecemeal reform efforts. Large class size is not the culprit, nor are feeble public schools, nor even subpar teacher training, though they all do contribute. Most importantly is the culture of individualism that is our nation’s heritage and the subsequent accretion of values and beliefs that make up our heterogeneous culture. Though positive in many respects, this amalgamated culture hurts our ability to collectively prioritize education. Entertainment, sports, and other popular culture take up too much of our time. I traced the roots of our malaise in more detail in a previous post.

So how do we fix that? We need to concentrate on improving social stability – developing the family unit through pro-family policies such as better parental leave and sick time as Western European countries like France, Sweden, and Great Britain. This allows parents to focus on their children and not worry about being laid off. On top of that, we can develop sensible parenting techniques through a mass communication approach (as conservative scholar James Q. Wilson suggested in his essays On Character). How about prenatal parent education for expecting mothers (and fathers)? These suggestions are part of a long-term effort to prevent bad parental practices from developing in the first place.

Of course, improving social stability involves a collective community effort to make children’s well being and education the priority, which will be very difficult in our profit-oriented economy and culture. This means government agencies partnering with corporations (who influence and shape popular culture tremendously), small businesses, and schools to collectively commit to putting children first. Education is simply not a priority in the U.S., and a large part has to do with the plethora of attractive distractions that make up our popular culture.

Current pleas for community involvement typically advocate for disjointed and small-gain partnerships, like parent involvement in schools or corporate philanthropy. They are the islands of excellence, but remain unconnected to the whole community.This idea of making a cultural shift is much more. It requires changing corporations’ product and service offerings to push education and social responsibility. It means no more beer and cigarette advertising on high-visible billboards. It means developing more educational documentaries and affordable healthy foods. No doubt the government will be a large part of this, whether through subsidies towards all things educative or through FCC initiatives; in summary, a paradigm shift about what it means to be a community and to live in an American culture. These collective partnerships, some of which I’ve detailed in my post on the government’s role in creating a culture of education will lead to improved social stability (i.e., family stability), which in turn will lead to improved education.

Reporter and writer T.R. Reid expressed this collective mentality best after living in Japan with his family:

“In Western societies, the job of transmitting moral norms is left largely to churches, families, educational organizations, and the like. In Asia, moral values are considered too important to be left to the private sector. The whole community, public and private, takes part in teaching values, and the teaching never stops.” (Read his book, Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West).

This is why you will see encouraging signs in Japan or China, like “Please sit with your legs tightly together on the bus, to make more room on the seat for others,” or “Teach the schoolchildren by the example of your good manners.” To Americans, this sounds corny, but the result of this collective effort is social stability (i.e., low crime rates, rates of divorce, broken homes, drug use, vandalism, etc.). Even Adam Smith, perceived as the champion of free market economics, advocated for interest of the greater good in his other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

I am not advocating to legislate parenting, which misses the point of parent accountability; rather on a cooperative effort by every sector of society. This can only happen through government incentives (such as subsidies), as opposed to legislation and regulations, which will be perceived as fascist and un-American. It’s about changing entrenched cultural attitudes. That is where we need to start.

One thought on “Legislating Parenting is Still Missing the Point

  1. Although I agree with the basic premise of this article, more cooperation between home, school, and comminuties as a whole is paramount to successful students and citizens, it is always interesting to me that teachers, news people, etc don’t include the opinion of school psychologists. It is not a turf issue, but for example the correct terminology is seldom used in articles like this. Please review and learn the actual definition of “negative reinforcement” before using it in a commanding way. Hint: it is not punishment!, and NR actually increases the likelihood of a desired behavior to occur again. I hope you don’t think I’m corny for bringing this up.:-)

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