To drive a car, we need to study and take a test. To build an addition to a home, we need permits. To vote (in the USA), we need to be at least 18 and register. But there are essentially no preparations necessary to become a parent. But even as someone who teaches a lifespan development course at the college level to future nurses, teachers, and child development “experts” — I always think I could use help in figuring this parenting business out! How do I get my otherwise lovely 2-year-old to not randomly spit out food? How do I prevent him from hitting/biting/inappropriately kissing other people? How do I raise him to be unselfish one day despite the fact that he is phenomenally self-absorbed these days?
So even though in the last few posts I’ve been making a distinction between impoverished families and more wealthy families, the real truth is that we all need a little help in the parenting department.
There are three (non-exhaustive) forms of help I want to highlight here: (1) concrete tools, (2) strategies, and (3) social support.
1. Concrete Tools
Our minds are more than the squishy brains we have rattling around in our skulls… our cognition is highly influenced by the tools we have at our disposal. Picture books help us think of new things to teach our kids; museums provide new contexts for exploration; smartphones embody new ways of keeping our children quiet and seated. One concrete tool currently being tested as a possible solution to the income gap in language acquisition is the LENA (Language Environment Analysis). The small device is like a pedometer but for speech and conversational turn taking.
The 30 Million Words initiative (http://tmw.org/) is using LENA in conjunction with home visits to prompt parents to talk more with their children. I’m interested in the results of their randomized control trials. Home visits have been shown to be effective for teaching a variety of positive parenting practices for at-risk mothers (the Nurse-Family Partnership is one example) but the inclusion of LENA might help even more. Part of the rationale is that talking is something that everyone does but it is hard for us to have a sense of how much we talk. My students (who self report being from mostly working class and low income families) invariably believe their parents spoke to them a lot more than parents from other social classes (typically my students assume that the most wealthy families talked to their children the least and are surprised by the research showing the opposite).
Tools like LENA are helpful in giving us an objective sense of our behaviors. And it’s sort of a Schrodinger’s cat situation: the very act of measuring might change the state of the system. If you knew you were being recorded and measured, I bet you would act differently! And when you have data to directly compare yourself with other parents, I bet that is an even more powerful motivation for change.
Advocates of programs like 30 Million Words and Too Small to Fail (a Hilary Clinton initiative to help close the language gap) indicate that low income parents often don’t know that they need to talk more with their children. And perhaps the old GI Joe PSAs are correct: Knowing is half the battle. The other half of the battle might be won with tools like LENA.
We all need strategies for how to discipline our kids and deal with difficult situations. But parenting is one of those domains where everyone has an opinion (typically a really strong one) that is culturally biased and informed by our history/experience. Imagine for a moment if that is how we approached other domains such as surgery or building bridges? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place with parenting tips informed by research? It’s not that we have to adopt all of those strategies, but wouldn’t it be nice to know what they were??? That might especially be true for parents who are under high levels of chronic stress (such as economic stress) or are generally at high risk of abusive practices.
Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) is an example of an evidence-based package of parenting strategies. Although programs like Triple P started off as attempts to help at risk kids or to reduce abuse, their strategies are helpful for all types of parents and many of their resources are freely available online.
3. Social Support
And last, but not the least, is the social support that all parents need in order to keep going despite the many times we fail as parents. This might be especially important for low income parents who are also likely to be single parents. I’m so grateful to my husband as well as other parent-friends (especially E.Devers, M.Shea, M.Ito, NaeGwut) who have kept parenting fun/sane, offered advice/prayer/encouragement, and shared in the struggles.
Social support, in the form of a caring and resourceful adult, is important for at-risk families. A great example of this principle was profiled in the NYTimes in 2011: Friends of the Children, a research-based mentoring program that commits to long term mentoring relationships (for 12 years starting from kindergarten) with at risk kids growing up in poverty. These mentors are not only a source of social support for the children, they provide that support for the parent(s) as well.
So what’s the upshot of all this? What’s the point? Among highly competitive (usually highly educated) tiger parents, there is an anxiety and fear about whether we are doing enough or being awesome enough… as well as some level of judgment. And with some shame I admit that there is some amount of judgment lurking when I think about the differences between high and low SES parents. But I need to come to parenting with a spirit of humility. I need to remind myself that we all need a little bit of help! Thanks to my kids for reminding me of that by kicking me in the face (thanks Amos) and pooing on me (thanks Nathan).