A few years ago a small article appeared in a local newspaper. It was picked up by a number of other news organizations. No wonder… it’s not every day a child earns a perfect score on an SAT test. But this story was even more remarkable. It was the story of a family with two children, who had… years apart… BOTH earned perfect scores on their college entrance exams.
The mother of the high-performing siblings was asked the obvious parenting question: “What did you do?” How had she managed to groom two perfectly stellar achievers? Had she paid for expensive tutors or test prep courses? Had she been a tireless disciplinarian… making sure they did their homework and studied in all their free time? “No,” she said. This parent said she really couldn’t answer the question. The only thing she could remember that might be noteworthy about the formative years of her son and daughter was that they spent an unusual amount of time just reading and enjoying books together. That’s all. She had helped to nurture a love for books.
When parents are asked to name the critical factors in receiving a quality education, they will usually say that the teachers must be qualified. They will tell you it helps when students have a quiet place to do homework. Sometimes, they will add that it’s important for parents to help with homework. Frequently, parents are surprised when they learn that the single most powerful factor in a child receiving a quality education is how involved parents are in the child’s academic life.
The best involvement, research tells us, does not mean hovering fearfully or forcefully over a child’s every move. It does not translate into constant affirmations to artificially boost a child’s sense of esteem. Nor does it mean a parent is pressuring, threatening, bribing or even doing the child’s work. We’ve seen those projects… an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower submitted as a kindergartener’s independent work. The best involvement entails taking an interest, communicating positively and setting an example.
Taking An Interest
The parent of a very young child asks lots of questions, listens and observes to find out what matters to the child. This parent learns as much as possible about developmental milestones and encourages those. What colors and shapes do they see? Would the child like to sing the alphabet song together? What would the child like to play next?
As the child grows, the parent is available to help teach letters and letter sounds, to help with learning to write a name. The involved parent asks about what’s happening at school or in the child’s social and emotional world. And the interested parent does this best when the child knows there is absolute emotional safety with this parent… no chance for ridicule, shame or pain.
Taking an interest can mean being available to foster learning… to practice a reader’s theater script together and share fun books. It can mean helping with homework by spending more time asking the child questions that help lead to a young person’s own discoveries… rather than simply providing answers. Taking an interest communicates respect about the child’s world, the child’s mind, the child’s life. It is empowering, because parents are the ones who, ultimately, tell their children who they are for a lifetime.
If I believe I am a successful student… if I truly believe it… then I will behave like a successful student. When the communication I receive from home indicates that I am loved, smart, capable and on my way to great things…that is how I am likely to perform. As children get older, they become susceptible to the influences of those around them to a greater degree, but over a lifetime, no one has a greater impact than the parent— the first and most important teacher. Parents tell children who they are.
When parents communicate with their children with respect and honesty, it creates a climate of trust. This doesn’t mean inflating a child with constant praise. A child knows when feedback isn’t genuine; over time, this can cause a parent’s word to lose credibility. Communicating with constant criticism is no better. A child hearing constantly how he or she doesn’t measure up won’t ever measure up… because the parent has communicated that a failure is what the child is. Children are going to be who we tell them to be… by our words and actions. This is why it’s healthier to give feedback about behavior rather than judge the child.
When we offer positive communication, we don’t say, “You never have been any good at math…” or “You never study and that’s why you’re always going to fail.” Instead, we can observe, “I notice your grades are usually better when you’ve spent time studying.” We can say, “How proud will you feel when you’ve finished writing a great story?” We can say, “I know you’ll feel good about yourself when you’ve done your best.” We can say, “You are so smart, but I don’t expect perfection. Come to me if you feel frustrated or if you need help.”
It also helps children when parents communicate regularly and positively with other educators. Staying informed and connected, respectfully advocating for your child, and reviewing classroom material at home are all meaningful ways to be involved.
Setting an Example
“Like a sponge” is often how a child is described. What they absorb most readily is what they observe at home. How you spend your resources… time, money, talents and so forth… shows what you value. Our little sponges will take their cues from us. We know from research that children do better academically when they:
- Spend time reading with an adult at home
- Sit down for meals regularly, with at least one adult and without a television; talking and listening are literacy skills.
- See print in the home… whether the print is in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc.
- See an adult reading for pleasure on a regular basis
- See an adult taking an active interest in children’s lives
- See an adult volunteering at school on a regular basis Volunteering has a stronger impact when it ties directly to academics than when the visits are simply about snacks, parties or field trips… although all positive, parent involvement is commendable.
One great way to be involved… to take an interest, to provide positive communication, to be a strong example… is to spend time reading together. From the earliest days, this helps to teach about print… how books work, what letters look like and what sounds they make. It helps plant the seed that good books are wonderful friends and excellent bridges to whatever we can imagine. When parents choose to read aloud, listen to budding readers, take turns reading… allow students to recite poetry for them or perform reader’s theater plays together… they are taking a vital interest in the literacy lives of their children. They are being excellent first teachers. They are paving the way to a lifetime of success.