Conservative vs. Liberal Parenting: Helping Parents Help Themselves

Probably Not Helpful, But This Might
There is perpetual talk of parenting and its effect on children, and, of course, society as a whole. Conservatives talk of family values, liberals talk of funding more social programs. Well, three researchers have some tough words for both sides. Here is the heart of their argument:

Conservatives are comfortable with the notion that parents and families matter, but too often simply blame the parents for whatever goes wrong. They resist the notion that government has a role in promoting good parenting. Judging is fine. Acting is not. Liberals have exactly the opposite problem. They have no qualms about deploying expensive public policies, but are wary of any suggestion that parents--especially poor and/or black parents--are in some way responsible for the constrained life chances of their children. Many liberals instinctively believe that reducing financial poverty is the only worthy social policy goal--and the principal route to reducing other social problems. Poverty reduction is, in and of itself, a vitally important ambition. But raising the abilities of parents is not just about raising their incomes.

This sounds right. Conservatives have a lassiez-faire "personal responsibility" mantra, while liberals are inclined to throw money at the problem, but white liberal guilt stops them short of actually criticizing the parenting of poor, often minority parents.

The researchers note that while we have programs that focus on pre-K (age four), the relevant science has shown that it is the first two years of a child's life where much is "won" or "lost." (And, no, children's outcome are not simply a genetic lottery).

It's the little things: "High-income parents talk with their school-aged children for three hours more per week than low-income parents, according to research by Meredith Phillips of UCLA." This results in this astounding statistic:

Children in families on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, working-class children heard 1,200 words, while children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By the age of three, Hart and Risley estimated, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words at home than one from a professional family.

Not too put to fine a point on it, but poorer parents are worse at parenting -- this is what the evidence reveals. But the answer is not, as conservatives like to do with so many issues (e.g., abortion), is to blame the person and wash their hands of it. Instead, what the researchers propose, is to focus on pre-pre-K -- zero to two years old. For example, in the United Kingdom, home health visits happen for every newborn. Contra conservatives' cries of the nanny state, Britain has a more functional, equally free democratic government. (The Netherlands has a similar program). Indeed, because most western, industrialized nations have universal health care, there is de facto pre-pre-K.

Programs like Head Start actually aren't that effective: "Head Start, a flagship early childhood program, appears to be having no measurable impact on academic performance through third grade." In other words, it doesn't work too well.

It is time for people of all political stripes to re-think what the authors call the "parenting gap" and what the best way to fix it is. Bottom line: conservatives need to accept "more government" and liberals need to accept targeted money and criticism when needed.

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