Adventure in Normal Life / book reviews / intellectual

insights about PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 4

It’s the 4th snow day we have had in the Northeast – can you believe it? We are having snow of epic proportions.We have enjoyed hosting some board game nights in our cozy place and getting together with friends who can climb over snow banks and drifts to ride out the snow storms together.  I hope all of you affected by adverse weather are staying safe and warm, and aren’t subject to cabin fever! The roads are looking clearer today, so I hope to get out for a bit later. Now, back to “the smartest kids in the world”…


As one of your fellow readers pointed out in the comments from my previous post on insights about Math, her mother played a significant role in emphasizing the need to work hard and do well in school. While this post is not going to be one about parenting wherein I describe classifications for four common parenting styles (in case you’re curious: authoritarian, authoritative, indulgent, and neglectful), it is important to point out the fact that parenting is a key influence, whether as a result of or by virtue of the culture in which a family raises their kids, of educational results. Amanda Ripley introduces the topic of parenting nicely here:

Parenting, like drive and diligence, was often ignored in international studies of education. The evidence that did exist tended to focus on one country only, and it generally showed what you’d expect: more involved families had children with higher grades, better test scores, improved behavior, and better attendance records. That dynamic held true across all ages, races, and income levels in the United States. But what kinds of parental involvement mattered most? And did parents do different things in different countries? (p.107)

Those are the questions, and answers, that I’ll present here. Think back to your school days: how involved were your parents? Did they make brownies or cookies for bake sales to raise money for a club you were involved in, or for an annual small stage production or concert? Did they coach your little league or soccer teams? Did they go on field trips as chaperones, at a time in which you were perhaps embarrassed when they would follow you around the dinosaur exhibits, or sneak you a snack? Did they read to you at night? Did they assign you extra worksheets, or monitor your TV time?

Parental involvement takes different shapes and forms, and the types and associated educational outcomes may surprise you as they did for me.

Take volunteering. A 2009 survey asked parents around the world how they raised their children and participated in their education.

Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small. (p.107)

Is this counterintuitive? Don’t schools encourage parents to be involved, offering opportunities for them to be present in the schools, know what is going on, and stay engaged so their kids would similarly stay engaged in schools? What could be going wrong? From a research point of view, this result could be confounded by other factors, such as, parents who get involved may be taking the time to volunteer precisely because their particular kids were already struggling in school. It could thus be a problem on the level of the education at the school rather than parental effort.

By contrast, other parental efforts yielded bigger returns. All around the world, parents who read to their children every day, or almost every day, had kids who performed much better in reading. Reading is just one benchmark of educational progress, but still! I remember all the reading initiatives – colorful posters of books with READ in bold letters – when I was a kid myself. As a result, I became quite the bookworm: picture, small girl with glasses and a ponytail under a tower of books, carefully balancing them, or alternatively, small girl dragging a large canvas bag of library books out the sliding doors. Read on.

Read to your kids. Could it be that simple? (p.108)

I love this inspiring passage. It is hard to belittle or write off reading in any way after reading this. Reading DOES open doors.

After all, what did reading to your kids mean? Done well, it meant teaching them about the world – sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things. (p.108)

So, what is the type of parental involvement that seems to matter most?

All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversations about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels.

Now for a comparison amongst cultures, we have to take a look at a period in American educational history in the 1980’s and 90’s when the self-esteem movement took hold. American Parent Teacher Association (PTA) parents knew education was important, and many American parents tended to be more highly educated than parents in most developed countries. American parents focused their energies on the nonacademic side of their children’s school, and as a part of the self-esteem movement, they subscribed to the idea that their children needed to be “protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed”(p.109).

While American parents’ role was the #1 Fan, Korean parents were Coaches.

Ripley describes the kind of Asian parents, or even European American parents, and Asian-immigrant parents that also cared deeply about their children.

[Coach parents] spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. 

Contrary to stereotypes about Tiger Moms, for instance, children raised in this way in the United States did not seem to necessarily make the kids miserable. They did better in school and actually seemed to enjoy reading and school more than Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.

Asian parents taught their children to add before they could read. They did it systematically and directly, say, from six-thirty to seven each night, with a workbook – not organically, the way many American parents preferred their children to learn math.

The coach parent did not necessarily have to earn a lot of money or be highly educated. (p.110)

The example that parents hold, even apart from their children, still had high impact: if parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, kids are more likely to enjoy reading too. This pattern held across different countries or levels of income.  Actions speak louder than words.

Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said. (p.111)

This is all very thought-provoking, so I’d like to hear what you think. Some ideas are below, but feel free to weigh in otherwise. Education progresses through discussions and thought exercises such as these.

If you’re a young parent today, what do you think of the Coach Parent or the #1 Fan Parent style? How will you imprint the value of education on your children? 

If you’re a college student, or a graduate student, what reflections do you have about  how you got to where you are? Do you have any regrets, or praises for your parents?

If you’re working today successfully, how much of your success can you attribute to your home life, and to your schools? 

What challenges were there? 


Up Next: Part 5: insights about  MOTIVATION

If you missed the first four installments in this series, click below for links!

insights about::–>

insights about:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 1

insights about MATH:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 2

insights about the EDUCATION OF TEACHERS:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 3


One thought on “insights about PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 4

  1. My mother was definitely the Coach.

    The other factor is that immigrant parents are less likely to volunteer because 1) they may not know about it because it’s not a part of their culture and 2) language barriers.

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