Structure and freedom for kids

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews discusses some findings in Michael Petrilli’s book The Diverse Schools Dilemma; namely, that middle class and working class parents tend to have different parenting styles that impact education:

A middle-class, college-educated parent of any ethnicity is likely to be like me: Overscheduling children’s free time but preferring innovative instruction and informal discipline at school.

The research Petrilli cites says working-class and poor parents of any race are more likely to let their children amuse themselves as they see fit once their homework is done but tend to prefer schools with traditional teaching styles and strong discipline.

He cites the work of University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. She and her team closely tracked 12 families of different racial and class backgrounds. They found the center of life in middle-class families was the calendar, with what Lareau said were “scheduled, paid, and organized activities for children . . . in the two-inch-square open spaces beneath each day of the month.” But despite the forced march to improvement that characterized their children’s free time, those parents tolerated a lot of back-talk and often negotiated with children about what they wanted to do. They preferred teachers who did not give orders but encouraged creativity..

Working-class and poor parents, researchers found, left their children on their own on weekends and summer days but were more likely to set strict behavior rules. Those parents tended to like teachers who were tough and structured.

As a nation, we have been arguing for many generations about the best parenting styles. Those of us who prefer lots of scheduled activities but not much discipline should remember that many members of the revered Greatest Generation who won World War II were raised the way many low-income children are brought up today. . . .

Do loose school lessons teach more than structured ones? Does regular weekend soccer practice do more for our children’s character than roaming around with their friends? I don’t know. The research doesn’t say.

If middle class and low-income parents have different methods with their kids and different expectations for their schools, how do principals and teachers serve both populations?

via Do rich and poor parenting styles matter? – Class Struggle – The Washington Post.

So when middle class teachers go with a “creative” free-form approach to teaching, working class kids end up with no structure, either at school or in their free time.  Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured.  If this breakdown is correct, poorer kids would do really well if they only had more structure in their schooling.

As I recall, though we were middle class, my school was highly structured and my free time was my own.  That may have more to do with “greatest generation” parenting, times gone by, and local culture.  I think it’s good to give children some space for freedom and for pursuing things they enjoy on their own, rather than scheduling every minute with sports and self-improvement lessons.

Do you think this holds true?  Can you make a case for one of these parenting/educational styles over the others?  Are there other possibilities?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    A very thought-provoking article. Education is such a conundrum – successful adults seem to emerge from virtually any education system. I’m not an educator, but it seems to me that the key to optimizing this “style of education” thing would be identifying which students would benefit most from which style, then structuring their education in that direction. I’m sure this is easier said than done.
    As to Dr. Veith’s comment above that, “perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured”; we home-schooled for a while when the kids were younger. It seemed to us that there was less rigid structure in home-schooling. There was quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how much or how little work to do on a given day as well as lots of opportunity for extra-curricular learning. I would also suggest that the success of home-schooled kids likely relates more to other factors than the degree of structure; teacher/student ratio is obviously a big factor, as well as the level of investment of the teacher in the success of the student(s). Worldview homogeneity helps, I’m sure. Not to mention the fact that merely undertaking the home school venture selects a cohort of parents whose commitment to parenting is fairly obvious – something that is not at all a “given” in the traditional school setting.

  • Pete

    A very thought-provoking article. Education is such a conundrum – successful adults seem to emerge from virtually any education system. I’m not an educator, but it seems to me that the key to optimizing this “style of education” thing would be identifying which students would benefit most from which style, then structuring their education in that direction. I’m sure this is easier said than done.
    As to Dr. Veith’s comment above that, “perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured”; we home-schooled for a while when the kids were younger. It seemed to us that there was less rigid structure in home-schooling. There was quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how much or how little work to do on a given day as well as lots of opportunity for extra-curricular learning. I would also suggest that the success of home-schooled kids likely relates more to other factors than the degree of structure; teacher/student ratio is obviously a big factor, as well as the level of investment of the teacher in the success of the student(s). Worldview homogeneity helps, I’m sure. Not to mention the fact that merely undertaking the home school venture selects a cohort of parents whose commitment to parenting is fairly obvious – something that is not at all a “given” in the traditional school setting.

  • Kathy

    As a homeschooler, I have to agree with Pete that homeschooling is often less structured, especially in relation to free time. However, less structure does not imply “no discipline.” In my opinion, my two oldest (one in grad school and one in college) are successful because, to them, learning is interesting and a joy, not something that has to be done to get a good grade. Because of that attitude, my oldest sons would often spend their free time in further exploring a school topic.

    Also, when kids aren’t constantly running from activity to activity, they learn about day-to-day life at home: how to cook, clean, take medicine, spend money…in other words, how to care for themselves.

  • Kathy

    As a homeschooler, I have to agree with Pete that homeschooling is often less structured, especially in relation to free time. However, less structure does not imply “no discipline.” In my opinion, my two oldest (one in grad school and one in college) are successful because, to them, learning is interesting and a joy, not something that has to be done to get a good grade. Because of that attitude, my oldest sons would often spend their free time in further exploring a school topic.

    Also, when kids aren’t constantly running from activity to activity, they learn about day-to-day life at home: how to cook, clean, take medicine, spend money…in other words, how to care for themselves.

  • larry

    “…it’s good to give children some space for freedom and for pursuing things they enjoy on their own, rather than scheduling every minute with sports and self-improvement lessons…”

    Without a doubt, the antithesis to this produces neurotic kids and later adults who cannot make a decision, think creatively nor intellectually. In fact true learning takes place when the emphasis is sounded on freedom with front end structure as a minor note sounded.

    Truth be known over scheduling of one’s child’s life or driving the child to a career/goal/vocation they neither are gifted at or like is nothing more than the adult trying live vicariously through their child and “fix” what they think they failed at growing up.

    Structure should be provided as a “how to think” not “what to think or do”. That was the best advice one of my profs gave me my freshman year of college.

    One of the things lost in our general educational approach is that God actually gifts people and that gift will manifest itself both as a talent and love by an individual. Why? Because America largely measures “success” by the size of the pocket book or number and magnitude of things owned. It cannot conceive of vocation as successful if one loves doing it and it gives to another. The arts, due to this, have probably suffered the most. Real science endeavor has as well has suffered, but science “success” is viewed as more or less if x research leads to a product that can be shelped and sold at Walmart or some such.

    Such rips the heart out of vocation and makes it a bland pursuit. Its largely why most people end up hating their jobs, even when being paid well, but cannot put their finger on it. Its like reducing a wonderful feast to be enjoyed down to an effective pill containing the same nutrients that may be swallowed with a glass of water.

  • larry

    “…it’s good to give children some space for freedom and for pursuing things they enjoy on their own, rather than scheduling every minute with sports and self-improvement lessons…”

    Without a doubt, the antithesis to this produces neurotic kids and later adults who cannot make a decision, think creatively nor intellectually. In fact true learning takes place when the emphasis is sounded on freedom with front end structure as a minor note sounded.

    Truth be known over scheduling of one’s child’s life or driving the child to a career/goal/vocation they neither are gifted at or like is nothing more than the adult trying live vicariously through their child and “fix” what they think they failed at growing up.

    Structure should be provided as a “how to think” not “what to think or do”. That was the best advice one of my profs gave me my freshman year of college.

    One of the things lost in our general educational approach is that God actually gifts people and that gift will manifest itself both as a talent and love by an individual. Why? Because America largely measures “success” by the size of the pocket book or number and magnitude of things owned. It cannot conceive of vocation as successful if one loves doing it and it gives to another. The arts, due to this, have probably suffered the most. Real science endeavor has as well has suffered, but science “success” is viewed as more or less if x research leads to a product that can be shelped and sold at Walmart or some such.

    Such rips the heart out of vocation and makes it a bland pursuit. Its largely why most people end up hating their jobs, even when being paid well, but cannot put their finger on it. Its like reducing a wonderful feast to be enjoyed down to an effective pill containing the same nutrients that may be swallowed with a glass of water.

  • larry

    A good friend of ours much in advance and advised us similar to what Pete and Kathy are saying. She told us we were attempting way too much structure in HS. They’d homeschooled 3 of theirs, both parents medical doctors. She basically warned against too structure and not enough freedom, emphasis again sounding on freedom, for the child to creatively grow and in their gifted direction. One example was her son. He ended up becoming a top flight surgeon and as a side hobby/love a latin language scholar just because he was introduced to it when very little, low structure, and then pursued it because he fell in love with it and had aptitude toward.

  • larry

    A good friend of ours much in advance and advised us similar to what Pete and Kathy are saying. She told us we were attempting way too much structure in HS. They’d homeschooled 3 of theirs, both parents medical doctors. She basically warned against too structure and not enough freedom, emphasis again sounding on freedom, for the child to creatively grow and in their gifted direction. One example was her son. He ended up becoming a top flight surgeon and as a side hobby/love a latin language scholar just because he was introduced to it when very little, low structure, and then pursued it because he fell in love with it and had aptitude toward.

  • WebMonk

    “Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured.”

    LOL! I’d be curious to know how a person who works at PHC can say something like that with a straight face. (of course, since I can’t see Dr. Veith’s face, he might have been chuckling while typing that)

    Homeschooling, by a vast preponderance, is dramatically less structured than public or private schools. Even Montessori schools, the poster children for free-form learning in school, are more structured than 90% of homeschoolers.

    The most structured homeschooling families I have ever heard of (not met, just heard rumors of their incredibly structured ways) don’t come up to the normal structured system of the typical US public school.

  • WebMonk

    “Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured.”

    LOL! I’d be curious to know how a person who works at PHC can say something like that with a straight face. (of course, since I can’t see Dr. Veith’s face, he might have been chuckling while typing that)

    Homeschooling, by a vast preponderance, is dramatically less structured than public or private schools. Even Montessori schools, the poster children for free-form learning in school, are more structured than 90% of homeschoolers.

    The most structured homeschooling families I have ever heard of (not met, just heard rumors of their incredibly structured ways) don’t come up to the normal structured system of the typical US public school.

  • dan kempin

    Or maybe a college-educated parent tends to eschew structure and discipline because that is what they were TAUGHT . . . in college. They have been educated on all of the new models of education that have left them “tolerating back talk” and “negotiating” with the children they are supposed to be parenting.

    A very broad brush, I know, but education has consequences.

  • dan kempin

    Or maybe a college-educated parent tends to eschew structure and discipline because that is what they were TAUGHT . . . in college. They have been educated on all of the new models of education that have left them “tolerating back talk” and “negotiating” with the children they are supposed to be parenting.

    A very broad brush, I know, but education has consequences.

  • dan kempin

    Larry, #3,

    “America . . . cannot conceive of vocation as successful if one loves doing it and it gives to another.”

    I disagree.

    “The arts, due to this, have probably suffered the most.”

    Are you being serious here? We swim in the arts in America. The poorest people have access to a broad spectrum of art, great or poor, in every form, and the arts are supported by both the free market and government subsidy.

    “Real science endeavor has as well has suffered, but science “success” is viewed as more or less if x research leads to a product that can be shelped and sold at Walmart or some such.”

    Well, I consider a scientific endeavor that leads to a product that can improve the quality of my life to BE a success. How would you define “real” scientific success if it is not the use of gained knowledge to benefit your fellow man?

    “Such rips the heart out of vocation and makes it a bland pursuit. Its largely why most people end up hating their jobs, even when being paid well, but cannot put their finger on it. ”

    I disagree. I don’t thing that this is what leads people to hate their jobs.

  • dan kempin

    Larry, #3,

    “America . . . cannot conceive of vocation as successful if one loves doing it and it gives to another.”

    I disagree.

    “The arts, due to this, have probably suffered the most.”

    Are you being serious here? We swim in the arts in America. The poorest people have access to a broad spectrum of art, great or poor, in every form, and the arts are supported by both the free market and government subsidy.

    “Real science endeavor has as well has suffered, but science “success” is viewed as more or less if x research leads to a product that can be shelped and sold at Walmart or some such.”

    Well, I consider a scientific endeavor that leads to a product that can improve the quality of my life to BE a success. How would you define “real” scientific success if it is not the use of gained knowledge to benefit your fellow man?

    “Such rips the heart out of vocation and makes it a bland pursuit. Its largely why most people end up hating their jobs, even when being paid well, but cannot put their finger on it. ”

    I disagree. I don’t thing that this is what leads people to hate their jobs.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    So.. There’s a distinction between the “middle class” and the “working class?”

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    So.. There’s a distinction between the “middle class” and the “working class?”

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    A very thought-provoking article. Education is such a conundrum – successful adults seem to emerge from virtually any education system.

    Bingo!

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    A very thought-provoking article. Education is such a conundrum – successful adults seem to emerge from virtually any education system.

    Bingo!

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured.”

    Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their parents are intelligent and they inherited their abilities.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their schooling and their free time are highly structured.”

    Perhaps home-schooled middle-class kids tend to do so well because both their parents are intelligent and they inherited their abilities.

  • Kimberly

    I couldn’t help noticing that though I would be firmly in the “middle class” demographic education-wise, my ideas on raising children and what I want for them clearly resembles the “working class” descriptors. Not sure what that says about me or any children God should graciously give me…

  • Kimberly

    I couldn’t help noticing that though I would be firmly in the “middle class” demographic education-wise, my ideas on raising children and what I want for them clearly resembles the “working class” descriptors. Not sure what that says about me or any children God should graciously give me…

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I have wondered about the claim that homeschoolers did very well. The majority of the surveys that I could find were not independent. One or 2 that were independent had a large opportunity for bias, in that the participation was voluntary, and not all agreed to have their results on standardized tests used. It is likely, though not certain, that the better a person did, the more likely they were to agree to have themselves tested / their scores used.

    Unlike public schooling, where testing is done across the board.

    Most of the claims rest on anecdotal evidence / pre-disposed studies. Of course, that does not preclude the fact that some individuals will do well, regardless, and that a very dedicated parent could achieve excellent results. Also, that does not mean that public schools are better.

    But general claims, so far as I can see, are unsubstantiated, and therefore of no consequence.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I have wondered about the claim that homeschoolers did very well. The majority of the surveys that I could find were not independent. One or 2 that were independent had a large opportunity for bias, in that the participation was voluntary, and not all agreed to have their results on standardized tests used. It is likely, though not certain, that the better a person did, the more likely they were to agree to have themselves tested / their scores used.

    Unlike public schooling, where testing is done across the board.

    Most of the claims rest on anecdotal evidence / pre-disposed studies. Of course, that does not preclude the fact that some individuals will do well, regardless, and that a very dedicated parent could achieve excellent results. Also, that does not mean that public schools are better.

    But general claims, so far as I can see, are unsubstantiated, and therefore of no consequence.

  • Med Student

    I’m a little surprised this whole thing is based on a sample size of 12 families. Maybe it’s routine to use small sample sizes in the social sciences? I want to see their confidence intervals/p values before I conclude that these results are anything more than an artifact of a small sample being chosen.

  • Med Student

    I’m a little surprised this whole thing is based on a sample size of 12 families. Maybe it’s routine to use small sample sizes in the social sciences? I want to see their confidence intervals/p values before I conclude that these results are anything more than an artifact of a small sample being chosen.

  • kerner

    @10, perhaps some of each.

  • kerner

    @10, perhaps some of each.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @13

    It is routine to be sloppy and imply cause on flimsy evidence, yes. Then it gets repeated so often that it becomes urban fact and fossilizes in the collective consciousness even when better studies show very different results.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @13

    It is routine to be sloppy and imply cause on flimsy evidence, yes. Then it gets repeated so often that it becomes urban fact and fossilizes in the collective consciousness even when better studies show very different results.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Med Student @ 13 – wow, I did not see that. My inner statistician just got a coronary…. :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Med Student @ 13 – wow, I did not see that. My inner statistician just got a coronary…. :)

  • larry

    Dan you prove my point.

  • larry

    Dan you prove my point.

  • dan kempin

    Larry,

    But how? I don’t get your point. It sounded to me like you were making sloppy statements, which is not what I generally expect from you. Explain to me what you mean. I would rather concede your point willingly than prove it in ignorance.

  • dan kempin

    Larry,

    But how? I don’t get your point. It sounded to me like you were making sloppy statements, which is not what I generally expect from you. Explain to me what you mean. I would rather concede your point willingly than prove it in ignorance.

  • Joe

    KK – @ 12 you assume there is an agreed upon metric. My disagreement with the metrics used by the education establishment is one the primary reasons we home-school.

  • Joe

    KK – @ 12 you assume there is an agreed upon metric. My disagreement with the metrics used by the education establishment is one the primary reasons we home-school.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Guys, guys, can’t we all just agree that the way we raise our children is the best way?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Guys, guys, can’t we all just agree that the way we raise our children is the best way?


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