Christmas Gifts—Parent Power

Christmas in a hot climate doesn’t have a Christmas feel to it.

As much as I dislike the cold, there is something to be said for being wrapped up in a warm winter coat. Gloves, hats, scarves and thick socks, a hassle usually, become essential, joyful wear during Noel.

Night-lights, carols in the dark and mulled wine just add to the atmosphere. Even the risks of slippery snow shod sidewalks suddenly add to the fun.

In the sweltering heat of countries on the equator or in the southern hemisphere plastic Christmas trees, presents, preseason parties and barbecues still generate excitement and goodwill, but not quite the same pleasure. A northern winter-bound December brings poignancy to the lights, festivities and friendships of Christmas.

Yet one thing remains constant wherever we spend Christmas day. All things being equal, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, somehow and to some degree head across the city (or country) to spend time together.

Meals and presents are certainly a large part of Christmas. But amid the celebrations stands a reminder. Family matters—and that for better or worse, it endures. Blood is thicker than water.

It’s hardly surprising then that family influences our outcomes in education.

It should be common sense.

Family is the first port of call for so much in our lives. It is where we begin to form an opinion of our value; it is where a mother or father’s words and actions shape an early view of ourselves.

It’s also where we learn to value or not value others and other things. We watch our parents act, and listen to what they say about members of the community, work, sport and learning. We learn how they think.

In a tale of two schools this was brought sharply home to me.

One school in one country with few resources was fortunate enough to have a community that valued it. Two generations of multiple families put money aside to sponsor it into existence. Grandparents, parents and siblings took a passionate interest in its performance and the children who attended it. They closely scrutinised the Board of Governors, principal and staff and held them accountable. Additionally, where they could, given their scant resources, they worked with their children closely in both a supportive and monitoring role. Their sense of ownership expressed itself through their commitment to the kids. And the kids excelled.

A second school in a different country featured or more accurately did not feature much of a community. And many families in the area were broken. Foetal alcohol syndrome was not uncommon.

On one occasion I caught up with the principal early in the day before lessons had began. She was slumped over her desk broken, just like her community. Hers tears came from heartbreak.

I sat down in one of the chairs and waited. After a while, looking up, she told me she had just stood down an 11-year-old boy for bringing into school a large black garbage bag packed with loose-leaf marijuana. When she asked him where he got the drug, he told her it had been lying in piles on the kitchen table, and that he had just taken some for his friends. Whatever readers might think about marijuana, it doesn’t have a great effect on young kids and classroom learning. It smothers life.

I mention family and community because at this time of the year when families gather and interact with the wider community, often in churches, or here in the southern hemisphere in parks and on beaches, it is worthwhile highlighting the role each (family and community) plays in preparing the next generation for living well. And part of that relates to schooling and education.

Research repeatedly tells us that families and communities either negatively or positively affect our children.

Negatively, and hardly surprisingly, evidence suggests family structures that are highly conflictual generate poor educational outcomes. Dysfunctional families produce low levels of literacy in children and low levels of self-esteem. Substance abuse is also associated with domestic friction. There is always a way out with happy endings for children in theses situations, but it is a hard road and a resource intensive one to take.

And positively? Well, several factors are important.

Firstly, it helps if parents are directly engaged with their child’s learning and have an interest in what they are doing at school.

In some cases this might mean learning a little math, playing Lego or sharing family history. More simply it means interacting with your child and chatting about the topic they are studying. Mealtimes are a good place to do this, although the stats indicate fewer families are eating together than they were two decades ago—and that when they are eating together they are often watching TV. No conversation; just viewing and eating. Reading to your child is a good thing, but actively engaging with them is even better—and it gets better results.

Secondly, it helps if parents value education and share their aspirations for their children with them. Creating an atmosphere of expectation is important. But if it is tinged with judgement and the spectre of punishment for failure, it can be crushing. If it is well done, however—earmarked with encouragement—it’s of enormous help to your child. Caste a vision for your children and applaud every step they take on their way to achieving it.

It’s an advantage, too, if parents not only value education, but also have a level of educational success themselves (interestingly, especially on the mother’s side). Access to resources, to books on the shelves at home, or to iPads and handheld devices also has a positive impact on educational outcomes. Watching their parents read and interact with digital media encourages kids to do likewise—although it goes without saying that what we read and how we interact with digital media needs careful consideration.

Finally, children benefit not only from interaction with moms and dads, but also the wider family and community they are part of. This is especially the case if there is little cultural, educational and financial capital in a family: the magnifying effect on learning of an older brother or grandparent who values education, or who can access a laptop for Christmas, or who possess tremendous memories of a social movement or event is substantial. And the same is true for a richly textured community—be it a sports club or a faith-based group, etc.—. Community done well understands it role in educating.

Back to my tale of two schools and two communities: you might be surprised to learn the first was in a developing nation. The second was in a western country.

Take away points: When it comes to learning outcomes for children family matters. Community does, too. Children learn from parents: values, attitudes, conceptual frameworks (worldviews), information and critical reasoning. Moms and dads who interact with their children foster these skills and values. Great parents make an effort to do this well. Parents who align themselves with what’s going on in their child’s classroom impact their child’s future, too. By being aspirational parents lift educational performance. Parents who lack resources can help their kids educationally by reaching out to the extended family for support. Participation in various communities powerfully supports children’s learning.

Research: An executive summary of The Complexity of Community and Family Influences on Children’s Achievement in New Zealand: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES): http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2515/5947

Chapter 5: The Contributions from the Home: Hattie, J. Visible Learning, a Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon: Routledge, 2009: http://www.amazon.com/Visible-Learning-Synthesis-Meta-Analyses-Achievement-ebook/dp/B001OLRMHS/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Glorious. A Christmas treat: George Friedrich Handel. Messias. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nZpe32M-EI

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