How are these vignettes related?
Vignette 1 - “I was so proud – I texted my mom that I got a 100 on my test in Accelerated French! She wrote back and only said, ‘now do the same in math’”. Overheard - 2 high school students
Vignette 2 - In a classroom conversation on race and racism, a biracial student noted that everyone in her group was white - except her. The white girl next to her sighed dramatically and asked with annoyance, “WHAT ARE YOU, anyway?” Reported to parent
Academics or Caring?
I’ve had the 2014 study, The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values — Making Caring Common (harvard.edu) in the back of my mind for a while. (For a fantastic infographic, click here). The authors find that 80% of kids believe their parents value good grades and/or personal happiness over being a caring person (graph below). This parenting approach wreaks havoc in the broader community.
This report dovetails with existing research outlining how intensively academic parenting causes problems for kids (as early as 6th grade!) . For example, in higher income communities, children:
Are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as: alcohol abuse; marijuana and other drugs; promiscuousness, smoking
Experience depression and high levels of anxiety
Ironically, this parenting approach can also decrease student learning*
COVID has only increased pressure, as parents attempt to keep pace academically without acknowledging that, for students, this year has not been normal.
"Cruel, Disrespectful, and Dishonest”
However, problems are not confined to families who use this parenting approach. Instead, children who believe their parents value "success" over caring are more likely to be “cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest” which increases bullying, sexual harassment, and cheating in schools. Students bring their disregard for caring into their school communities.
I saw echoes of these problems in my own research… except, the “cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest” behaviors centered on race. After all, who gets bullied? It’s often children who are different. Affluent and middle-class communities are often primarily white and “different” in majority white communities can be, quite simply, *not white*.
Microaggressions like the one described above - occur with frequency. On the surface, focusing heavily on academics should not impact equity in education, right? But a closer look reveals that it very possibly does. The student whose parent dismisses a moment of pride can become the student who uses any available factor to do the same to others. This is especially true of race and especially true of communities immersed in whiteness and in the end, everyone within the community is negatively impacted.
Is This My Child?
You may be wondering if this is your child. Try this:
Pick a few friends of your children and be ready to just listen - and ask simple follow up questions. Listening (not telling) is key.
Ask “what do you think that X, Y and Z’s parents believe is most important, getting good grades or being a good person?” and "How do you know?"
Ask again with a broader focus – “Kids in your class, in your grade - what do you think their parents believe is most important, getting good grades or being a good person? How do you know?"
Ask "when kids are mean, what do they say? What do they do?"
Listen carefully to their answers because they will reveal how your child views the culture of the school, their peers, and how they see you. Lastly, ask - "what do you think we believe is most important?"
What to do next?
Reframe caring relationships as successes. Grades are one piece of a successful future - but just one piece. Grades mean nothing if you are not a caring person.
Be explicit - I would rather you be a kind and thoughtful than have you get straight A's. If you do both - that's fine. But people are more important than grades (tests, "being ahead" etc).
Teach them to be upstanders – ask about and troubleshoot these issues in their schools. Point out that bullying and dishonesty diminish everyone. Create a plan for upstanding.
Talk about the same patterns in adult behavior (hint – try your local Facebook page where posters frequently blame others for broad and complex problems). Point out the rigidity and intolerance of this behavior and talk about how poor behavior can masquerade as “drawing attention to a problem" or "advocacy”. We can be firm and clear in our positions without being unkind.
Share your own upstanding with your children.
Developing care and empathy in our children is not only an individual pursuit, but also helps them develop personal priorities which reinforce an equitable community.
* (Ciciolla, Curlee, et al., 2017; Li, Obach, & Cheng, 2015; Luthar et al., 2013; Warner, 2005)