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I've read three separate "articles" in the past couple of days that all seemed to coalesce in my mind. Let's see if I can bring them together for you.

First was an article by Kay S. Hymowitz called "What’s Holding Black Kids Back?"

Social scientists have long been aware of an immense gap in the way poor parents and middle-class parents, whatever their color, treat their children, including during the earliest years of life. On the most obvious level, middle-class parents read more to their kids, and they use a larger vocabulary, than poor parents do. They have more books and educational materials in the house; according to Inequality at the Starting Gate, the average white child entering kindergarten in 1998 had 93 books, while the average black child had fewer than half that number. All of that seems like what you would expect given that the poor have less money and lower levels of education.

But poor parents differ in ways that are less predictably the consequences of poverty or the lack of high school diplomas. Researchers find that low-income parents are more likely to spank or hit their children. They talk less to their kids and are more likely to give commands or prohibitions when they do talk: “Put that fork down!” rather than the more soccer-mommish, “Why don’t you give me that fork so that you don’t get hurt?” In general, middle-class parents speak in ways designed to elicit responses from their children, pointing out objects they should notice and asking lots of questions: “That’s a horse. What does a horsie say?” (or that middle-class mantra, “What’s the magic word?”). Middle-class mothers also give more positive feedback: “That’s right! Neigh! What a smart girl!” Poor parents do little of this.

The difference between middle-class and low-income child rearing has been captured at its starkest—and most unsettling—by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their 1995 book Meaningful Differences. As War on Poverty foot soldiers with a special interest in language development, Hart and Risley were troubled by the mediocre results of the curriculum they had helped design at the Turner House Preschool in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. Comparing their subjects with those at a lab school for the children of University of Kansas professors, Hart and Risley found to their dismay that not only did the university kids know more words than the Turner kids, but they learned faster. The gap between upper- and lower-income kids, they concluded, “seemed unalterable by intervention by the time the children were 4 years old.”

Trying to understand why, their team set out to observe parents and children in their homes doing the things they ordinarily did—hanging out, talking, eating dinner, watching television. The results were mind-boggling: in the first years of life, the average number of words heard per hour was 2,150 for professors’ kids, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families.

But the problem went further. Welfare parents in the study didn’t just talk less; their talk was meaner and more distracted. Consider this description of two-year-old Inge and her mother:

Inge’s mother is sitting in the living room watching television. Inge . . . gets her mother’s keys from the couch. Her mother initiates, “Bring them keys back here. You ain’t going nowhere.”

Inge drops [a] spoon on the coffee table. Her mother initiates, “O.K., now leave it alone, O.K., Inge?” . . . When she picks the spoon up again, her mother initiates, “Come here. Let me bite you if you gonna keep on meddling.” Inge goes on playing; when she bangs the spoon on the coffee table, her mother initiates, “Inge, stop.”

. . . Inge sits on the couch beside her to watch TV and says something incomprehensible. Mother responds, “Quit copying off of me. You a copy cat.” . . . Inge gets a ball and says, “Ball.” Her mother says, “It’s a ball.” Inge says “Ball,” and her mother repeats “Ball.” When Inge throws the ball over by the TV as she repeats words from a commercial, her mother responds, “You know better. Why you do that? . . . Don’t throw it no more.”

It’s easy to spot what’s wrong here. Inge’s mother does not try to interest her daughter in anything—though observers noted that there were toys, including a plastic stethoscope, in the house. A different mother might pick up the stethoscope, call it by its name, pretend to use it, and invite the child to do the same. Instead, Inge’s mother’s communication can largely be summed up by the word “no.” You can’t chalk this up to a lack of feeling. Hart and Risley observe that the mother is “concerned, nurturing and affectionate”; at other points in the transcript, she kisses and hugs her child, dresses her, and makes sure she gets to the bathroom when she needs to. Nor can you argue that she simply doesn’t know how to engage or teach her child. Notice that she repeats the word “ball” to reinforce her daughter’s learning; at other times, she points out that a character on television is sleeping. But she does all this as if it were an afterthought rather than, as a middle-class mother might, one of the first rules of parenting.

In other words, Inge’s mother seems to lack not so much a set of skills as the motivation to bring them to bear in a consistent, mindful way. In middle-class families, the child’s development—emotional, social, and (these days, above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family’s raison d’être, its state religion. It’s the reason for that Mozart or Rafi tape in the morning and that bedtime story at night, for finding out all you can about a teacher in the fall and for Little League in the spring, for all the books, crib mobiles, trips to the museum, and limits on TV. It’s the reason, even, for careful family planning; fewer children, properly spaced, allow parents to focus ample attention on each one. Just about everything that defines middle-class parenting—talking to a child, asking questions, reasoning rather than spanking—consciously aims at education or child development. In The Family in the Modern Age, sociologist Brigitte Berger traces how the nuclear family arose in large measure to provide the environment for the “family’s great educational mission.”

Key points:

  • On average, low-income and middle-class families raise their kids differently.
  • On average, low-income parents treat interaction with their kids and, most especially, training their kids as "an afterthought."
  • On average, middle-class families view interaction with their kids and training their kids as their raison d'etre, their reason for being.

Next article.

Not really an article. It was a letter. A post. On the Sonlight forums. I didn't see it until I saw yesterday's Beam of Sonlight. ElaineB wrote:

Our children are not just learning logical thought and critical thinking (important but not an end in themselves). They're gaining an understanding of what to do with that knowledge. They're becoming passionate about changing things that need changing, righting wrongs, seeking justice. They've grown up with examples like William Wilberforce, Nathanael Bowditch, William Carey: average people who became pioneers . . . world changers . . all within the context of the history we're studying.

They're not only learning about the problems and the evils of the world, but getting to know people who overcame the problems and fought the evil and influenced their world.

In my kids, this has resulted in a confidence that they can do big things in the world. They have big dreams to change big things. When I hear my son talk about the things he hopes to accomplish in his life, sometimes it's hard not to be dubious about it. For instance, one of his goals is to reform the Philadelphia foster care system. But I have to remind myself that sometimes people do change things, big things. Some people do make a huge impact on their culture. Maybe he will be one of those people.

I believe Sonlight is helping us to raise not only thinkers, but world changers–whether it's a little corner of the world, or a larger aspect of it. We are barely beginning to see what this first generation of children raised in Sonlight is capable of. I will not be surprised if within the next ten years or so, many of them will be on the forefront of positive change in many industries, vocations and ministries throughout the world. I'm seeing that the impact of Sonlight on my children's lives is helping to make them into people of purpose and passion. Look out world!

Wow! This brought tears to my eyes.

Fifteen, sixteen years ago, just before Sarita and I began working on Sonlight Curriculum, I had actually spent about a year and a half working on a prototype and business plan for a magazine whose name I had conceived of as . . . WorldChangers.

And to think that . . . just maybe . . . God might bring about through this curriculum what I now believe could have never occurred through that magazine . . . !

* * * * *

The third article: Joel Belz's lead editorial in this week's (April 30, 2005) World magazine: "Aim low":

George Barna, who heads [The Barna Group] research organization, has said more and more emphatically that evangelical Christians are a lot better at talking than they are at walking.

Now Mr. Barna and his number crunchers say that a whole lot of Christians aren't even bothering to talk with all that much seriousness. His recent survey focuses on what kinds of goals parents are setting for their children. . . . Even on that front, Christians come across as timid and flabby.

It may not be surprising, for example, to find that American parents in general (four out of 10) say that a good education is the main goal they are pursuing for their children. . . . But wouldn't you expect that seriously committed Christians might state the goals they have for their children in a faith-centered way? Mr. Barna says we shouldn't kid ourselves. We look pretty much like our secular counterparts. . . .

[B]y a 2-to-1 margin, [self-identified "born again"] respondents said they'd simply consider whether they'd done the best they could [at raising their kids]—regardless of the outcome. The Barna report didn't indicate if the same folks would be so forgiving toward surgeons, car mechanics, stockbrokers, and airline pilots who might take the same approach.

Indeed, "discipline" and "toughness" were hardly dominant in the characteristics respondents describe as most important to effective child rearing:

• Patience: 36 percent
• Demonstration of love: 32 percent
• Being understanding: 22 percent
• Enforcing discipline: 22 percent
• Significant faith commitment: 20 percent
• Good communication skills: 17 percent
• Being compassionate: 14 percent
• Knowing how to listen: 12 percent
• Being intelligent: 11 percent

"Being a praying person" got a measly 4 percent score, while "having integrity or good character" got just 1 percent.

Let me confess: I was not so shocked at these numbers as I was challenged: challenged to consider anew what my goals are for my kids . . . and for education.

Have you thought and prayed through your goals for your kids' education and, if I may suggest that all of life is education (Deuteronomy 6:6-7), have you thought through your goals for your interaction with your kids?

I pray they may be along the lines that ElaineB suggested she is holding out for her kids!

–John

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