Most Americans applaud the prison sentences given college admissions scandal parents like actor Felicity Huffman and “fixers” like tennis coach Michael Center for manipulating outrageous claims and exorbitant “donations” to get coveted college admissions for unqualified students. A new study hints that similar kinds of pressures start early, are widespread, and are difficult for well-meaning educators to resist.
Last year’s college admissions scandal was shocking. But in a briefing report released by the Council on Contemporary Families, Indiana University’s Associate Professor Jessica McCrory Calarco shows that the roots of such excesses can be traced back to parent-teacher dynamics that are evident as early as elementary school. While not focusing on such extremes, Calarco’s report, When “Helicopters” Go to School: Who Gets Rescued and Who Gets Left Behind?, documents problems in ordinary elementary schools that carry the seeds of future abuses.
Teachers and schools rely on helper helicopter parents. In a three-year study, Calarco spent approximately 500 hours observing at a suburban elementary school, and interviewed 21 students, 24 parents, and 14 teachers and administrators. She documented how educators, trying to supplement unequal and inadequate resources for high-quality education, come to rely on a set of privileged helicopter parents who contribute substantial amounts of time and money to the school. These parental volunteers allow schools to offer enrichment activities and supplemental staffing they could not otherwise afford.
Some teachers are deferential, others just feel obligated to bend for these helper helicopters. Calarco shows how teachers’ and administrators’ dependence on these parents makes them yield to those who expect their children to receive special consideration as payback for the time and money they contribute. Some teachers willingly bend rules for these kids, reasoning that children whose parents don’t or can’t be highly involved in their education haven’t “earned” special consideration. Others, Calarco shows, feel compelled to violate their sense of what is fair and best for the students’ own development.
Don’t kid yourself: It isn’t the children of helicopter parents who suffer, it is the other students who are harmed. Most criticisms of helicopter parenting focus on how such parents hurt their own children by their over-protection and coddling. However, Calarco shows that the kids who actually get hurt by this are not the ones who gain an edge in their school records and college applications but the ones who don’t.
It is easy to blame ambitious, over-engaged moms, but helicopter parents aren’t so much a cause of inequality as a consequence. For the past forty years, economic inequality has grown: Benefits of economic growth have been gobbled up by the top ten percent, and the bottom half of the population has seen wages stagnate while costs of schooling have soared. Over this time, the intensity of parenting has increased—and parents with more resources are spending those on their children at an accelerating rate.
The policy recommendations aren’t complex. “Adequate and equitably distributed school funding (particularly if coupled with redistribution of funds raised by Parent-Teacher Organizations) has the potential to reduce schools’ dependence on higher-SES ‘helicopter’ parents,” Calarco writes. In America we have a deep belief that education leads to social change. This work shows such change could be towards equity, but has instead been towards growing, persistent inequality that leaves some children and their parents stymied in school and beyond. These inequalities exacerbate the unresolved racial and ethnic disparities that plague our education systems.
“It’s perfectly natural to want your kids to do the best they can,” Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research, notes.“But in societies with high levels of economic inequality, parents often want them to do better than everyone else. And when schools are unequally funded and must rely on parents’ contributions of time and money, it creates patterns of entitlement and exclusion that pave the way for the abuses we have seen in the college admission scandals.”
We’ve all read about – and maybe even known – the “helicopter” parents who sweep into K-12 schools, demanding special treatment for their children, second-guessing teachers’ grades or comments, and insisting that schools adapt to their child’s unique needs. Teachers complain that these parents are “always rescuing their kids,” hovering over them and “making sure everything is done for them.”
As one elementary-school teacher wrote in an “open letter” to “helicopter” parents, “I love you, I do. But some of the things you do drive me nuts and are really bad for your kid! …Please, let them do their own work. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Teach them hard work, success and failure.” In an online magazine for teachers, 5th-grade teacher Abigail Courter warned that parents may be “educators’ greatest assets” but they are also “at times, our biggest nemesis,” especially when they set their children up for failure by not teaching them how to cope with setbacks.
Now, it’s clear why “helicopter” parents have an interest in giving their children an edge in school. What’s less clear, though, is why schools are willing to let those parents give their children that edge at the expense of other children in school. Most educators honestly believe in equal treatment – and equal consequences – for all their students. So why do so many schools end up catering to privileged “helicopter” parents and their children, even when it goes against what teachers believe is best for students and undermines a school’s commitment to fair and equal treatment of students?
To answer this question, I spent three years observing and interviewing teachers, administrators, parents, and students at a socioeconomically diverse, public elementary school I call Maplewood (research-related regulations require that I protect the privacy and anonymity of my participants by not disclosing their names or the name of the school). In doing so, I found that:
To achieve or maintain a reputation as “high-quality,” schools rely on privileged “helicopter” parents for tax dollars, donations, and volunteer hours. “Helicopter” parents (especially higher-SES, white, stay-at-home and part-time-employed mothers) are often the mainstay of the unpaid volunteer labor force that schools must rely on to provide quality instruction and activities. As a result, teachers use special favors and strategic rule exemptions to avoid conflict with such parents and keep on their good side.
Teachers told me they want to enforce rules but worry that doing so will lead privileged “helicopter” parents to make trouble for them with higher-ups in the administration. As 4th-grade teacher Ms. Russo explained:
Edward [a higher-SES white student] forgets his homework. And so I tell [Edward’s mother] that Edward will have to stay in for recess. And she writes back, [including the principal in the email, saying]: “I really believe that recess is a time for them to run around. I don’t believe in staying in.” [And the principal conceded]. So Edward has no consequences. If something happens, he’ll go home and tell mom, and she’ll write an email to the principal. And she’s threatening with words like “advocate,” “lawyer,” all these things. And because [Edward’s mother is] saying that, because she’s using the fear factor – has Edward stayed in for recess? No. He hasn’t had to face those consequences.
Even without pressure from school administrators, teachers recognize that failure to meet the demands of entitled “helicopter” parents will jeopardize the help they get from such parents. As 3rd-grade teacher Ms. Filipelli explained:
At Maplewood, I get lots of emails. Daily emails. A lot of emails. There’s been one parent [a higher-SES, white mother], she’s… oh my goodness. It’s like I need a secretary to be dealing with all these emails. But I know those parents love their children. And those are the parents that help. So, if they have questions, I’m going to answer them. And you might find someone else complaining about it, but at [the lower-SES school where I used to teach], I never had any support. I would have, like, one parent helping. So, bring it on! I’m just happy to have the support.
In consequence, teachers tend to grant the special favors and rule exemptions that privileged “helicopter” parents desire, even when they believe those actions will be detrimental to students. Meanwhile, when less-privileged students and students with less-involved parents break the rules, teachers regularly keep them in for recess, reprimand them in front of their peers, take off points on their assignments, and evaluate them less favorably.
Fifth-grade teacher Mr. Fischer, for example, knew that Ms. Becker, a higher-SES white mother, was doing her son Nate’s homework for him, noting that she tended to “over-manage” everything Nate did, limiting Nate’s ability to develop any “independence.” But Mr. Fischer did not try to stop the practice. Nor did he subject Nate to any punishment or grade deductions for failing to do the homework on his own.
When higher-SES white student Drew, whose mother was highly involved in the PTO, forgot to do a language arts project, his 5th-grade teacher Ms. Hudson told him: “Don’t worry about it,” adding “That’s what responsibility gets you. There’s a trust, okay?” Yet when Cody, a lower-SES, mixed-race student whose parents were not visibly involved in school, read the wrong section of the book for homework, Ms. Hudson kept him in for recess, cutting off his explanation and saying sharply: “Well, the first thing is to make sure you have the assignment right. That’s responsibility.”
Since such amenities are not standard educational entitlements, schools are dependent on privileged “helicopter” parents to attain them, and that dependence routinely leads schools to capitulate to those parents’ demands. The result is a vicious cycle. The schools’ reliance on “helicopter” parents sustains the enrichment activities that create a first-class learning environment, but it also allows such parents to game the system for their children, thereby reinforcing successes that may be the result of special treatment rather than special merit.
Adequate and equitably distributed school funding (particularly if coupled with redistribution of funds raised by Parent-Teacher Organizations) has the potential to reduce schools’ dependence on higher-SES “helicopter” parents. Those resources would allow schools to offer high-quality opportunities and amenities for students without the need for support from privileged parents. They would also alleviate pressure on parents (especially mothers) to provide “helicopter”-like support for students both at home and in school.
No doubt you’ve seen the headlines about women’s burden increasing as everyone stays home. This pandemic, with mandated isolation at home with our families, forces us to pay attention to our loved ones and our family dynamics. Those sheltering in place with spouses and children are spending more time together than anyone ever hoped or dreaded. Many of those lucky enough to be able to work from home are doing so while trying to homeschool as well.
I think I will scream if I see one more magazine article about couples where the father shuts his study door after breakfast and protects his work time during the day while the mother tries to homeschool her children while also working full-time for pay, online. Are all the men out there really still Neanderthals? Is the coronavirus really a disaster for feminism?
We do not yet know if both parents, in two-parent families, are being pressed into simultaneously working for pay and doing the child care that has suddenly morphed into teaching. Or whether only mothers are handling this double shift on steroids.
I think so. Let’s start by getting our facts straight. Only then can we use research evidence to help shape our decisions about family life. In heterosexual partnerships, men, overall, do less housework and child care than women do, even when both work full-time for pay outside the home. But, over time, each generation of men, internationally, does more than their fathers. While we should not forget that men often do less than their wives, we also should remember that most men do more than their fathers. Change is possible. Change is happening.
A wide-angle lens only looking at sex differences obscures as much as it illuminates. Statistics that only compare men vs. women hide the diversity within each group. Here is some really big news that gets lost.
Very few men in previous generations shared the work at home. I’m old enough to know this from experience. In the 1970s, my then husband’s boss told me we shouldn’t have children because I wasn’t the kind of wife a lawyer needed if he was to be a father. Can you imagine a boss telling his male employee’s wife that now? So let’s not underestimate the cultural changes that have occurred.
If some couples are really walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, what does that mean for the rest of us? Good news for the single heterosexual woman. No woman has to settle for a man who doesn’t share her commitment to equality; feminist men are out there. I know because I talked to some of them for my last book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us. We also know from international research that feminist ideas matter: Those couples that endorse feminism are most likely to share the housework and child care.
If you are a woman now facing working from home, or perhaps an essential worker on the front lines every day, and married to a man who hasn’t noticed how much effort it takes to run your household, now is the time to show him. If you are a man married to an essential worker who comes home after her day at the hospital to a dirty house where you’ve been working all day, how fair is that? If you are a woman married to a man who claims to believe you are in an equal partnership and then doesn’t clean the bathroom or supervise the online classes, here is your chance to change that. Try this.
Families are all home together for more time than anyone could have ever imagined. Kids who are old enough need to step up and help around the house, as well as sit in front of their screens for both school and pleasure. So it’s the perfect time to have a frank conversation, a family conference, about housework, care work, and equality. Who should be doing what and why?
Research shows that women who work at jobs that require negotiation tend to have more egalitarian marriages. They bring those skills home to challenge the often hidden and taken-for-granted male privilege in families. Of course, negotiation takes time and energy. At the moment, many of us have the time, and in the long run, this will save energy.
In this moment, every family has two options. You can do whatever you have always done, and for many heterosexual families that means letting the workload fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. But with women so clearly being “essential workers” in this crisis, perhaps afterward, they will be mad at the gender inequality at home, and maybe eventually get even, leading to more divorces in the coming year.
There is another path. We are a species that can adapt and change. Just because something has been so in the past, does not mean it has to be so in the future. You can be one of those families based on respect and equality, where men don’t expect wives to manage the family affairs as well as do more of the child care, cooking, and cleaning.
How do we get from here to there? Each member of the couple should sit down and make a list of what needs doing and who should do it. Then come back together — and if you have kids, include them — so that each of you has to make sensible, logical arguments and sound like an adult.
Compare lists and then begin to negotiate. Volunteer for tasks so that they are shared fairly. Don’t leave one parent (read: mother) to be the enforcer, or you are back right where you started, presuming the family work is a mother’s job. Assign a different person each week to be “the enforcer,” to make sure everyone is doing their fair share.
This pandemic is turning life upside down. We all feel somewhat out of control. One important lesson I’ve learned from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, who facilitates a group of people in the Joy Collective, is that it is very important to take control of what you can, to empower yourself by making goals and meeting them, especially in a moment in history when so much is externally constrained. So take charge of what you can indeed control.
We can’t control the virus or the need to stay at home, but we can use the unexpected time together to make home a better place, and our marriages more equitable partnerships. Why not give it a try? When will there ever be a better time, and more time, to make your marriage and family stronger and more fair?
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.
Amber Crowell and Jennifer Randles on May 12, 2020
Between the two of us, we have two full-time jobs, two full-time employed spouses, three kids five and younger, and five furry family members. Our lives these past months since our city issued a shelter in place directive can only be described as the second shift on overdrive. Coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, the “second shift” refers to all the unpaid childcare labor and housework that must be done before, after, and scattered throughout the “first shift” of paid jobs. Women still do most of the second shift, and that will not likely change as more of us work from home while caring for and educating children full time. A recent article by Laura Bennett on “A Day in the Life Without Childcare” provides a moment-by-moment account of how this unfolds for many U.S. families. It also hints at how this crisis is exacerbating gender inequalities in carework that existed long before the first COVID-19 diagnosis.
“BBC Dad” getting interrupted by his two tots bursting into the room during his live broadcast interview last year has been viewed almost 40 million times on YouTube. Recently the comedic clip has been recirculated online as a prescient warning to parents about the woes of working from home. But mothers everywhere know it is less likely that somebody will run into the room to save them when their children crash their fourth Zoom meeting of the day. Even Senator Tammy Duckworth had to slip into mom mode while “social distancing” and virtually attending meetings from home. Our own children have made clothes-free appearances and insisted on saying “Hi Grandad!” to grandparental look-a-likes during virtual meetings. Capturing the unique intensity of the second shift during all this, we have traded pictures of working with kids—from our bathrooms.
These moments of holding meetings and returning emails while overseeing bath time and potty-training force us to reckon with stark inequities related to who does the hard, crucial, and underpaid labor of caring for children. Before our jobs as sociology professors transitioned online and the shelter in place order accompanied full or partial closures of schools and daycares, we relied on the labor of a committed community of childcare providers. All our children have attended the same childcare center since they were very young infants. The day-to-day work of our upper middle-class professional jobs—positions that get celebrated as a win for gender equality every year as part of the Women’s History Month events at our institution—has only been possible because Maria, Kiera, and Sara, and so many others have been there to feed, diaper, teach, protect, and love our babies.
Like millions of other parents in the U.S., we recently made the hard choice to keep our children home as part of coronavirus containment efforts. As we struggled this month to integrate the first and second shifts, half of the beloved staff of our childcare center was laid off. Many of the women who for years have nurtured our children and enabled our well-paying jobs just lost theirs. They join the 33.5 million who have applied for unemployment nationwide over the past two months.
This is one of many intersecting gender, race, and class inequalities severely worsened by the coronavirus crisis. Women, disproportionately women of color and immigrant women, provide almost all of the outsourced childcare labor for privileged families like ours. More than 9 in 10 childcare workers are women, and their average hourly wage is less than $10, or about $21,000 a year for full-time work. If a childcare worker is supporting herself and two other family members, her annual earnings, assuming she gets full-time work, is not enough to keep her family out of poverty.
What, then, does all of this mean now that many of these care providers are out of work?
It demonstrates the frail and fraught state of any progress made for women in middle-class professional occupations. It throws into sharp relief how that progress was made by one class of women on the backs of other women who stepped in to carry out the undervalued, yet necessary work of childcare staff and nannies. Many women with secure salaried jobs who have the option to work from home now find themselves on double duty managing simultaneous parenting and paid work responsibilities. The coping mechanism to avoid burnout is usually to cut back on work productivity. In 2015, Pew Research Center reported that working mothers were more likely than working fathers to say that parenthood interfered with their career. Yet childcare workers face an even more impossible situation: reduced hours, layoffs, and a patchwork system of emergency protections to keep a roof over their heads with the lights turned on. The gendered division of labor and the unequal burden it placed on women never went away. It just shifted on to certain women, predominately women of color, who were underpaid and are now unemployed.
There is little indication thus far that our government will help them. On March 27, Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package. For their part, the childcare industry initially asked for $50 billion to mitigate devastating financial losses and prevent permanent facility closures as the majority of parents opt to keep their young children at home. The final bill earmarks for the childcare industry only $3.5 billion out of the $6.3 billion allocated to the Administration for Children and Families—merely 7 percent of the initially requested amount. The sum is so small relative to what other industries will receive that the media is hardly even reporting on it. By comparison, the airline industry is slated to get $58 billion, almost 17 times more than the industry that cares for many of the children of pilots, flight attendants, and passengers.
This is deeply symbolic of how little our society values the labor of childcare, whether it is carried out by parents or dedicated childcare workers. It also reflects long-standing political struggles to throw public support behind childcare as a profession worthy of significant respect and remuneration. Our country did so once before during another international crisis: World War II. Between 1943 and 1946, the federal government ran a publicly funded childcare system to support the influx of mothers, including those of young children, into the paid labor force needed to support the war effort. Several decades later, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have created a national daycare system universally available to families for an income-based sliding scale fee. The government, Nixon reasoned, had no business raising children, a task best suited for parents, namely mothers. Unfortunately, that meant that most U.S. mothers were left on their own to figure out how to balance the demands of childrearing with the economic imperative to work outside the home for pay. Then, as now, they turned to underpaid and undervalued childcare workers.
It is not happenstance that an occupation comprised mostly of women of color is being further marginalized and rendered invisible by the COVID-19 crisis. Rarely has our government acknowledged the household labor taken on by women as work. During the New Deal era, the federal government declined to extend national labor laws to domestic workers—who were predominately Black women. Here, too, in our country’s legislative history, women of color shouldered the progress made towards recognizing the value and essential role of childcare and household labor. As Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, authors of A Black Women’s History of the United States, note, the collective action of Black women was the driving force behind legislation in the 1970s that extended minimum wage laws and unemployment benefits to domestic laborers.
That it took four decades to extend basic labor protections to those whose work maintains households and raises children speaks volumes. In the 21st century, women of color, now including immigrant women, are leading the fight again. Our society’s tendency to undervalue and exploit feminized labor has hardly subsided. The women—women of color, immigrant women, working-class women—who took on the roles of paid caregivers and domestic laborers so that middle-class women could pursue professional careers bear the full consequences of a society that has never paid them what they are worth.
As we face the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have another opportunity to right the wrongs of our country’s historical legacy of devaluing the childcare profession and the invaluable national service they provide. The plight of women during the COVID-19 pandemic is a critical subject of discussion, but one that warrants an intersectional lens. Feminized and racialized labor is always underpaid. The women who carried out this labor for pay are joining the unemployment lines with little in reserves to pay the bills in the meantime. Their labor has always been deemed as somehow unessential to the economy and a thriving labor market. But ask any professional work-at-home mother right now how “essential” childcare and domestic workers are. If she’s able to find a spare moment between all the emails, video conferences, alphabet lessons, and diaper changes, she’ll tell you.
Amber Crowell is Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at California State University, Fresno. She studies and writes about residential segregation, racial and ethnic inequality, social demography, and housing.
Jennifer Randles is Chair and Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at California State University, Fresno. She studies and writes about family policy, racial and gender inequalities, childhood, and parenting.
Judith Warner is the author of is the author of nine non-fiction books, including the New York Times bestsellers, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, plus the multiple award-winning We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. In her new book released today, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, she reports on her interviews with middle school children and their parent’s about parenting middle schoolers in today’s society. I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her book:
AK:As a parent I hear a lot in the media about “helicopter parents” and how they are ruining their children .But I also get the impression that being a helicopter parent (or “intensive parenting”) might be the best way to make sure my kids will succeed in a competitive society. After doing your research, what do you think of intensive parenting? Why do we do it, and is it really ruining our kids?
JW: The longer I have been a parent, and the more experts I have interviewed over the past 15 or so years, the more I’ve become firmly convinced that our ability to “ruin” our children is as limited as our ability to create, much less perfect them. That is to say: we can tinker around the edges, but they are who they are, with so much of who they are hard-wired at birth. I find enormous comfort in this, as I think all parents do once they reach this point – usually when their kids are in college, but sometimes before – of understanding the limitations of their power. That said: there’s certainly a lot we can do to make their time at home more or less pleasant or miserable, and there are things we can try, at least, to do to equip them to live their lives with as much strength and resilience as possible.
Middle school really is the time when that issue of equipping them with those tools becomes particularly urgent. After all, it’s a difficult time for most kids – the time that many adults remember as the most painful of their lives. It’s also, and has long been, a very difficult time for parents, and the style in which we parent today – some call it “helicopter,” others “intensive” parenting; I tend to think of it just as enmeshment – makes it far tougher still. For us. Many parents of my generation – the older end of Gen X, though this is certainly true for at least the younger portion of Baby Boomers, too – grew up with more or less “Mad Men”-style parenting. And many of us came out of it feeling kind of under-parented, like we weren’t really seen, and our feelings weren’t validated. So much parent behavior that falls into the helicopter category comes from this, I believe. There’s also, of course, enormous anxiety about our kids’ future (and our own future), stemming from a great deal of status insecurity in the middle and upper middle class. (Lower-income parents deal with all kinds of anxiety and insecurity, too, but they tend not to be accused of helicopter parenting and tend not to have the time to engage in it with the level of frenzy we see among the affluent.)
All of which gets me to the part of your question about success: Experts believe that helicopter parenting is bad for kids – it undermines their sense of self-efficacy, prevents their developing resiliency and “grit,” etc. I’m sure this is true. But there’s a cynical side of me that has come to believe that these parents do, indeed, prepare their kids well for success in the world of the privileged, in that they very often convey the values necessary for navigating a highly unequal and status-driven world where the rules are different for the wealthy and well-connected. Helicopter parents pull out all the stops to make sure their own kids’ interests come first; this usually gets dressed up in the much nicer-sounding phrase, “they advocate for their kids.” Those with sufficient money and time on their hands to spend enormous amounts of time in their kids’ schools, volunteering in the classroom, fundraising, etc., recent studies have shown, do get preferential treatment for their kids. Those who – later on – micromanage their kids’ school work, even, at the extremes, writing their papers, genuinely do get them better grades. None of this is right; none of it is good for kids in a human, character-building, problem-solving sense. But if your goal is success at all costs in a world that runs on knowing how to game every system, then, in a certain sense, you do make your kids more successful.
AK: I went to middle school in the 1990s; my daughters will both start middle school in the 2020s. How will their experience be different than mine?
JW: The biggest change will, of course, be the ubiquity of social media: whatever sorts of social drama you remember will now be able to play out 24/7, and unless adults in your community (hopefully led by teachers and schools) set rules around access to screens, there will potentially be no escape from it. Another change, depending on the type of school your daughters are in and the type of community you live in, will be, if current trends continue, that the level of pressure middle schoolers are under will be nothing like what you remember. They’ll already be talking about college and what they have to do to get in. They may be studying math at a level you didn’t encounter until high school. They – or their classmates – may already be attracting the attention of college recruiters if they’re exceptional athletes. They’ll be wondering what their special talent is – so on top of the usual and age-old worries about whether they’re good-looking enough and popular enough, etc. they’ll also worry about whether they’re successful enough.
All that said, I also think you’ll see, as I did, that middle schoolers themselves have not really changed. I was surprised to discover this when my own daughters were in middle school in the early 2010s. We’d been hearing for decades how sped-up and racy and dangerous everything had become; that middle schoolers were yesterday’s high schoolers in terms of their sexual knowledge and risk-taking behavior. In fact, reading the news, there was – and continues to be – every reason to believe that they were all but sociopathic. But I didn’t find anything like that at all. I was a middle schooler (though people were in “junior high” then) in the late 1970s, in New York City. It was a time when there was far more sexualization – and unquestioned sexualization – of girls of middle school age. (I vaguely remembered this but re-discovering with adult eyes the way that girls like Brooke Shields were described in the media back then was absolutely shocking.) My world was full of crime and a general kind of urban rot; other adults I interviewed described sex and drugs everywhere, and a lot of parents were out to lunch. My daughters’ world was far safer and more child-like. The kids around them behaved pretty much exactly the way I remembered my peers behaving decades before. If anything, the culture had changed in ways that meant they were, at least on the surface, somewhat nicer: there was an awareness of bullying, and that it was unacceptable. Expressions of racism or homophobia were unacceptable. Studies have backed up my anecdotal observations. They show that in recent years middle schoolers are far less likely to drink, take drugs, have sex or go on dates than they were a generation ago – partly because they’re spending so much time on social media.
My research for the book, which traces how adults have looked at, thought about, and written about kids in the years around puberty for over a century in the U.S., has redoubled my feeling, based on personal experience, that we have to be super-skeptical of any reports on how dangerous or otherwise bad things are among middle schoolers. Adults have been catastrophizing about them since the early 1960s. And the narrative through which they do so is pretty much always the same: these kids aren’t kids anymore. Because of earlier puberty, they’re getting into sex earlier, etc. That, at least, was the predominant narrative from the early 60s through the late 2000s. I think it’s calmed down since. But the panic about sexting and the general evils of social media has replaced it. Once again, social media plays a huge role in middle schoolers’ lives, but that role is not terribly different than the use to which we put analog forms of communication (land lines and notes passed in class) in the past. I think it’s important not to exaggerate the dangers and vilify it, because doing so can actually let adults off the hook from thinking concretely and productively about how to educate kids in handling it. We used to talk a lot about media literacy – we need social media literacy now, i.e. to give kids an understanding that what they view on line is curated, that they need to think critically about what they’re viewing, and whether their own behavior on or around social media serves them well.
AK: What did you find most surprising when doing research for this book?
JW: As I mentioned a moment ago, discovering how much middle schoolers of my daughters’ generation were essentially just like the sixth, seventh and eighth graders I remembered from the past really was eye-opening. Another thing that really surprised me was discovering that many of the most basic and essential truths about early adolescence were known to researchers back at the turn of the 20th century. Late 19th century brain research had shown that kids undergo significant cognitive changes right around puberty, and that those changes were likely due to changes in the brain – not in its size, but in its structure and functioning and, in particular, the nature of its connectivity due to myelination. Educators in the early junior high school reform movement – who advocated separating out 7th and 8th graders from their old K-8 schools and putting them in new institutions with 9th graders where they could enjoy an education specially tailored for their unique needs – knew that kids the same age in the years around puberty varied enormously in their levels of physical, emotional and intellectual maturity, and that this unusually high degree of variability was absolutely normal. They knew that kids at the younger end often appeared not to be good students and were at risk of being seen, or thinking of themselves as “not smart,” but that intelligence had nothing to do with it. For that reason, they advocated very strongly for individualized instruction in what are now the middle school years, using the very same terms of argument you’ll hear today. They didn’t get it – and neither did the proponents of the middle school movement in the 1960s. We still don’t have it today.
I also was surprised at just how emotional my interviews turned out to be. My central interest, when I embarked upon writing this book, was in finding out how people’s middle school experiences lived on in them throughout their lives: what they had experienced, how they had experienced it, and how they had turned their memories into their stories of self afterwards. I wanted to know how middle school and its vicissitudes lived on in adults and impacted them throughout their lives, especially as parents. I was knocked off my feet by the volume of response to my initial queries. If I’d interviewed everyone who expressed interest, I’d still be at it today, five years later. The interviews were one-on-one, and they usually lasted about two hours. Many people cried. I saw that, if you say to someone, “Tell me about your middle school experience,” you’d soon get their entire lives in a nutshell. This remains the part of the book that fascinates me the most.
Judith Warner is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Journalism Fellow with the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign. She is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, was a contributing columnist for the Times and a special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, and has freelanced for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines.
Arielle Kuperberg, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UNC Greensboro, and the editor of the CCF Blog @The Society Pages. Follow her on twitter @ATKuperberg or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefan Timmermans and Chloe Bird on April 28, 2020
It is time to publicly and privately discuss the limits of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, known as CPR, so patients stricken with COVID-19 can make informed end-of-life decisions and make those decisions known to their closest relatives.
In anticipation of the pandemic surge, hospitals are discussing blanket do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders for patients dying from the coronavirus. These conversations are being driven by concerns about the limited value of resuscitation efforts among these patients. In addition “code blue” CPR efforts typically involve 8-30 clinicians rushing to the patient’s bedside, thus increasing the risk to hospital staff at a time when hospitals are dealing with dwindling supplies of protective equipment.
A whispered secret in medicine is that resuscitative efforts do not typically save a life. When you took the mandatory CPR class to become a lifeguard or babysitter, they probably skipped over these stats. But outside the hospital, the survival rate of resuscitative efforts is dismal. Thumping the chest with or without blowing air in the lungs brings about 1-8% of people back, more if automatic external defibrillators are available. In-hospitals the survival rate hovers around 20%, but the success varies greatly based on underlying condition. The coronavirus patients ending up in ICU’s typically have multi-organ failure, respiratory failure, and septic shock.
Influenced by TV hospital dramas where the medical hero almost always snatches life from the jaws of death, people tend to have unrealistic expectations and overestimate their chances of survival after CPR. Most such patients do not live to walk out of the hospital and instead succumb to complications of their illness. Moreover, resuscitative efforts are harsh especially for older patients, often resulting in painful broken ribs or a cracked sternum. Some patients will end in a coma or survive with cognitive problems and a rapidly diminished quality of life. Physicians know these ugly statistics. No wonder most doctors would forego CPR for themselves and their loved ones if they were dying from a terminal illness.
In fact, six months ago, one of us confronted this decision in the most personal of ways. Chloe’s husband elected DNR at a point when his health was declining but still fair. As a physician, his choice was not to forgo treatment from which he could benefit, but rather to close off one path that he knew was likely to contribute to a bad death. When the time came, knowing his preferences provided comfort to him and the family.
Regardless of the pandemic, keeping our health care workers safe and healthy should always be the top priority. From a medical perspective, it may make sense to avoid futile efforts and to provide a policy that guides treatment decisions and prevents individual clinicians having to repeatedly make the call not to attempt resuscitation. And for patients kept isolated in the hospital, being brought back only to extend dying while gasping for air may be the epitome of a bad death.
Blanket DNR proposals may feel like nightmare flashbacks to paternalistic medicine of a century ago when physicians decided unilaterally what was best for patients regardless of what patients preferred. It doesn’t need to be this way. In the age of patient-centered medicine and shared decision-making, we each have to do our part. Now is the time to make your wishes about the end-of-life known to your family and your physician. If you don’t talk with your family about this now, you may have a much more challenging conversation under constrained circumstances.
While physical distancing requirements may make it impossible to contact a lawyer or to sit down with your physician, you can find advance directive forms online that give you step-by-step advice on where you want to draw the line. While thinking through the different scenarios, you may want to consult with your relatives and, of course, you will need to tell them what you want and keep the form handy. The advance directive may not just minimize the trauma of health care providers contemplating when to respond aggressively. It could be a gift to you and to those left behind to grieve you. Knowing that your wishes were followed may give everyone peace of mind.
Stefan Timmermans is a professor at the UCLA Department of Sociology and the author of Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR. ChloeE. Bird is a senior sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This symposium is a testament to our substantial but still partial progress around issues of sex and consent. When I went to college in the 1970s, a half century ago, acquaintance rape was common, but victims had no term for it, no remedy, no education, no understanding of its frequency, and no sense that they might not be solely responsible. If women spoke of the problem—and mainly we didn’t—we referred to it as bad sex. Or a mistake not to be repeated. And the mistake was always ours, never his.
All that has changed. We have named and measured the problem, and established countless legal and programmatic initiatives to address it. Yet campus sexual assault and abuse remain pervasive. Estimates suggest that about one in five college women is a victim of rape, although precise figures are unavailable given the absence of consistent definitions in nationally representative samples. With my gender textbook coauthors, I have written elsewhere about the complicated causes of the problem and the inadequacy of our legal strategies. Here, I want to focus on three of the most vexing issues surrounding this topic: the difficulties of defining and enforcing affirmative consent; the problems relating to substance abuse and role of alcohol; and the challenges of designing effective education, prevention, and risk reduction programs.
Definitions of consent
When campus sexual assault first gained traction as a social issue, reformers attempted to change laws and practices to recognize that “no means no” and that forcible resistance was not required. At the time, even this change was controversial, because studies by Jozkowski and Emmers-Sommer indicated that women sometimes initially protested even when they wanted sex, in order to avoid looking promiscuous. In fact, however, it soon became obvious that requiring an explicit “no “did not always protect students from nonconsensual sex. As Kipnis (2017) says, in what is often called “gray rape,” “bad sex,” or “regret sex,” students may have sex when they don’t want to because they don’t feel able to say no or because their partners proceed without asking. According to West and a New York Times survey of a group of college students, reasons students engage in unwanted but not forcible sex include peer pressure, a desire to attract, retain, or not antagonize a partner, and a wish not to appear a “tease.”
Ambiguity can also arise when a woman says “no” once but then does not repeat it later on. Consider the following situation described by a female Swarthmore student: a male friend with whom she had been sexually involved fell asleep on her bed. Because the two had decided, she thought mutually, just to be friends, she climbed in next to him. When he began taking off her clothes, she reported later, “I basically said, ‘No, I don’t want to have sex with you.’ And then he said, ‘Okay, that’s fine,’ and stopped.… And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.” She told a drug and alcohol counselor about the incident, who responded that the student was “such a good guy” that she must be mistaken. Three months later she complained to a dean. The students both graduated, and she never learned the outcome of any investigation.
One reaction to such sexual dynamics has been to require an affirmative “yes” for a sexual encounter. According to Grigoriadis, an increasing number of colleges and universities use some type of affirmative consent definition in their sexual assault policies, and a number of states, including New York and California, require publicly funded schools to adopt such policies. However, expecting verbal consent may be unrealistic in youthful sexual relationships, leaving open the possibility of inconsistent enforcement. In one recent survey at Columbia University, students reported that affirmative consent, the school standard, rarely figured into their sexual experiences, even those that were desired by both parties.
According to one study, in a majority of campus rape cases both parties have been drinking or taking drugs and often suffer from impaired judgment related to substance abuse. Some research suggests that it is not drinking itself that increases the likelihood of sexual assault but rather the context in which drinking takes place: party subcultures, in which what some psychologists call “rape myths,” such as the idea that men can’t control themselves once they become sexually excited, are widely accepted and sexual aggression is normalized. In such settings, alcohol is “often used to create a gray area, a realm of plausible deniability where no one supposedly has to take responsibility for what he (or she) wanted to do,” according to Knapp. But it is also true that being intoxicated increases the possibility of misinterpreting social cues. Should alcohol abuse be a mitigating factor for the perpetrator (he wasn’t fully in control of his actions) and/or an aggravating factor for the complainant (she shouldn’t have put herself in that position)? Or is it the responsibility of defendants to know that victims’ intoxication makes them incapable of consent? And what criteria should be used to determine when someone has crossed the line from being slightly disinhibited to being incapable of consent?
Consider the following situation. In a 2014 case at Yale, a young woman drinking with friends exchanged text messages with a former sexual partner in which she told him that she was getting drunk and stated “don’t let me try to seduce you…. Sex is awesome…and I might try to get it from you. But I shouldn’t. I don’t think.” The two eventually did engage in sex that evening and she later charged him with assault, claiming she was too intoxicated to do anything other than “capitulate.” An adjudicative panel found that while “alcohol may have reduced [her] inhibitions,” her actions “taken as a whole, do not indicate that she lacked the ability to make or act on considered decisions.”
Many campuses have responded to such difficult cases, as well as other harms associated with substance abuse, by banning hard liquor from campus parties and punishing violators. Such prohibitions are difficult to enforce and may encourage students to drink elsewhere, in even less safe settings. And what is the proper response when both students violate such rules? On the one hand, Brent Sokolow, President of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, notes the unfairness when both students involved in a sexual assault are intoxicated and in violation of campus rules, but only the accused is subject to sanctions. On the other hand, campus officials worry that if they also punish students who bring complaints of assaults involving substance abuse, that would discourage reporting. According to Wilson, many feminists have been critical of initiatives that penalize victims who drink instead of just perpetrators who rape.
Education, Prevention, and Risk Reduction Programs
Over the past quarter century, campuses have launched a variety of rape education and prevention initiatives. Based on this study, common objectives include:
Reducing attitudes that support coercive sex;
Increasing knowledge about sexual violence, consent requirements, and reporting opportunities;
Building empathy for survivors;
Encouraging bystanders to intervene in high risk situations;
Increasing resistance strategies and skills.
Researchers find that these programs can be effective in increasing knowledge and decreasing rape supportive attitudes, especially in the short term, but most have not been shown to reduce the frequency of sexual violence. However, according to Zimmerman and Henricksen et al., recent initiatives emphasizing bystander intervention, the need for consent, and risk reduction/self-defense strategies for women have shown more success. The most demonstrably effective program to date is a Canadian course for female first-year students. As a study conducted by Senn et al., explains, those who completed the course were half as likely to have experienced rape and nearly three times less likely to have experienced attempted rape as female students who did not complete the course. The program emphasizes the need for women to avoid men who speak negatively about them in general terms, who attempt to control them, or who purposely try to get them drunk or high. It encourages women to defend themselves, to have the sex they want, and to speak out. Women also learn self-defense techniques. To increase the willingness to say no, the program also educates women about the adverse effects of nonconsensual sex, such as depression and PTSD, which makes “let’s just get this over with” a less than optimal response.
Grigoriadis notes that few American universities have adopted this approach and the federal Center on Disease Control hasn’t supported it, on grounds that it doesn’t prevent assaults but simply protects certain women from experiencing them. Many feminists would prefer more emphasis on bystander intervention training and peer education among all-male groups such as fraternities and athletic teams that have too often enabled abuse. Other experts favor a public health approach, along the lines of Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation. This program began by collecting a large amount of data on students’ sexual experiences with an eye to identifying the most effective prevention and support services. Although the work is still ongoing, a 2019 report summarized key findings and made a number of recommendations. The study indicated that nearly a quarter of Columbia students had experienced unwanted non-consensual sexual contact, two thirds of these were linked to alcohol use, and only two percent of students made a formal report. It recommended that “educational initiatives on campus should consider a broad range of topics, going beyond consent to include positive and healthy social and sexual relationships, sex education, sexual refusal skills, and bystander training.” No single approach was likely to be effective in addressing all the different kinds and causes of sexual abuse.
Many schools, including Columbia, are also grappling with how to provide fair procedures for all concerned. According to Grigoriadis, Yoffe, and Kipnis at least a hundred men have sued universities for unfair proceedings, with allegations including shoddy investigations, biased adjudication, and inadequate opportunities to review charges, present evidence or question witnesses. Anti-rape activists have sometimes minimized these concerns. In a widely circulated Washington Post op-ed concerning false allegations at the University of Virginia, Zerlina Maxwell wrote:
“We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. … The accused would have a rough period.…But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it’s done quickly.”
Maxwell cites no evidence to support these assertions, and according to Kipnis there are many examples to the contrary—men whose lives have been upended based on allegations that are found to be unsupported or circumstances in which complainants did not clearly communicate non-consent. Labeling someone a rapist can carry enormous, and sometimes permanent, reputational, and career costs. Campuses need to work harder to create processes that are fair, and perceived to be fair, to all stakeholders.
If we have learned anything from the last two decades of campus assault initiatives, it is this: When it comes to sex, talk is cheap but cultural change is not. Over the last half century we have made enormous progress in understanding the causes and consequences of unwanted and nonconsensual sex. Our challenge now is to engage in more experimentation and evaluation of efforts to prevent it.
Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, email@example.com.
What do Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and the United States have in common? None of them have a federal paid parental leave policy. The US is clearly out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to this issue. In Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution (2020, NYU Press), I look to the UK and Sweden for lessons about what might work and what might not work in the US.
I started with Sweden because that seemed like the obvious starting place. Sweden was the first country to introduce parental leave back in 1974. And gender equality, or jämställdhet, is a huge part of the cultural fabric in Sweden. But I was also worried that the US wouldn’t go from 0 to 480 days of paid parental leave. So I turned to the UK, our closest ally and fellow liberal market economy. I was also hopeful that the UK could offer some ideas after introducing shared parental leave in 2015. Unfortunately, their policy hasn’t panned out, with very low rates of take-up among British fathers. All the same, I learned a lot from closely examining the policies in Sweden and the UK, and I think these lessons pointed me toward the six month solution.
My book discusses 6 main points:
The US is way behind the rest of the world
The US is the only industrialized country with no paid parental leave at the national level. We are literally in a category by ourselves. There are a handful of states that offer paid family leave, and these may offer insights into how to pay for a federal policy. There are also an increasing number of (mainly large) companies that offer parental leave, but many of these policies are gendered; I created a classification of policies – gender equal, gender modified, gender unequal, gender neutral gendering.
2. Parental leave is good
There are so many benefits of parental leave for mothers, fathers, children, and business. And it has the potential to promote gender equality in the home and workplace, if shared more equally.
3. Too much parental leave is not good
There is a catch. When leave is too long or taken mainly by mothers, it may actually discourage gender equality. It gets more difficult to return to work and mothers often face wage and career penalties. Another downside of too much leave is postpartum depression. Based on a number of studies, it looks like 6 months of leave is the “sweet spot.”
4. Fathers as partners, not helpers
It’s imperative that fathers are equal partners and not simply helpers. When fathers are given very short leave, they often use their limited time at home to support their partner who, by default, become the primary caregiver.
5. The UK is not a good model
When I first went to the UK, I thought surely any policy is better than no policy. Yet, the UK has a track record of a highly gendered model of parental leave with 52 weeks of maternity leave (39 weeks paid) and 2 weeks of paternity leave. Under this system, mothers are assumed to, and generally do, take at least nine months of leave, often returning to work part-time. It’s not surprising then that men don’t do much at home and women struggle to advance in the workplace. Shared Parental Leave, introduced in 2015, hasn’t been effective, mainly because it’s still attached to maternity leave (mothers have to give it up for fathers to take it) and is low paid.
6. The Swedish model is great – but not perfect
Sweden could be the closest to perfect (though Finland’s new policy is dreamy). With 240 days of leave for each parent, it’s clearly a generous policy. In an effort to get fathers to take more leave, Sweden has what’s known as pappamånader, or “daddy quota” of 90 days, meaning that it can only be used by fathers (though the actual policy uses gender-neutral language to apply to any two parents). It’s not really a question of whether Swedish fathers will take parental leave but how much leave, going so far as to say only “oddballs” don’t take leave. But it’s still not equal.
All this suggests the US needs to get its act in shape.
The good news is that the US has a clean slate (I’m a glass half full kind of person). So when we create a paid parental leave policy – and we should do this sooner rather than later – we can do our best to make sure it not only helps workers balance having a new kid with their job but also promotes gender equality at home and work.
Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College. Find out more at https://gaylekaufman.com/and follow her on twitter @gakaufman22.
A working-class family’s struggle to get enough to eat amid school closures and job layoffs as a result of Covid-19 is the topic of a recent New York Times article. With schools closed, many children no longer have access to the free or reduced-price meals provided through the National School Lunch Program, which serves nearly 30 million children a day. And their families may have lost important sources of income as businesses have closed or scaled back operations. The mother of six in The New York Times article described reducing her meals to one a day while making sure her kids were eating three times a day. She could eat more, but the uncertainties of tomorrow impel her to give up her food needs today in case things get worse next week.
It’s good The New York Times is showing its readers the incredible sacrifices people are making and the unequal effects the novel coronavirus is having on American households. But worrying about not having enough food is a pressing issue for 1 in 9 Americans every single day. And, like the mother in The New York Times article, women in households with children bear the brunt of food insecurity.
Much has been written about how Covid-19 is affecting Americans differently across the class spectrum. (Illustrating the diverging class responses to the coronavirus, a recent breezy column in The New York Times offers readers advice on how to survive self-isolation “with a delicious meal, some self-care and a riveting read”. The piece includes DIY tips such as how to brighten your skin, declutter your life, and prepare for sandal season.) But the effects of Covid-19 aren’t just classed, they are also gendered (and racialized as others have noted).
As a sociologist who studies family, I have been writing about social inequalities within and between families for over a decade. A major theme in my research with low-income mothers is the sacrifices they make daily on behalf of their children. Mothers go without so their children can have, whether it’s going without food so their children can get athletic shoes for gym class or giving up on higher education and better job prospects in the future in order to meet their children’s needs today.
Poor mothers make these sacrifices willingly. It’s what good mothers do, they say. One mother I interviewed described going to extreme lengths to make sure her daughters were able to attend a track meet that required an entrance fee, ending by simply stating, “You know. Sacrifice.”
Low-income mothers also feel held accountable for performing sacrificial motherhood. Mothers spoke of the judgmental gaze of their communities and the punitive arm of the welfare state. Poor, racialized mothers feel the monitoring of their mothering especially keenly and described encountering high levels of regulation. For example, a low-income Black mother interviewed said she was reported to Child Protective Services by a staff member at her children’s school based on a perception that her sons seemed too hungry and therefore must not be getting enough to eat at home.
Low-income mothers’ status as good mothers is precarious in part because they don’t have all the trappings that Americans equate with good mothering. Good mothering today is often synonymous with intensive mothering and requires large amounts of time, money, and cultural capital. Yet everyday low-income mothers take extraordinary measures to prioritize their children’s needs and well-being. They shouldn’t have to.
Covid-19 has laid bare the paltry social safety net in the United States. Far too many families are surviving day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck with no savings, no stores of food, and no healthcare. Within many of those families, mothers may be making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that their children stay healthy and have enough to eat. In doing so, they are risking their own health and well-being.
The low-income mothers I have gotten to know over the years are resourceful. They will make a coronavirus stimulus check stretch if given the opportunity. But a one-time payment is not going to fix the long-term problem of an inadequate safety net. The current Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity to fundamentally overhaul the US social safety system so that mothers and children—and all families—have what they need to thrive today and into the future. A great deal of evidence shows that American parents—and families—are happier and healthier when they live in a country with supportive policies.
Sinikka Elliott is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her work focuses on families, social inequalities, and social policy. She can be reached by email: Sinikka.firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter: @SinikkaElliott
Public and private schools across the nation have closed their doors as everyone scrambles to protect themselves from the COVID-19 viral disease pandemic.
With little or no time to prepare for this disruption, families from Seattle to the New York City suburbs are suddenly having to figure out how to help their kids learn at home. This is an unprecedented effort.
Another step: I put locks on my home office door so I don’t end up like this professor in South Korea whose interview went viral when his kids wandered into the camera’s line of sight. My 5-year-old and 2-year-old are cute, but I don’t want them barging in and disrupting my classes now that their school and day care center are closed.
My concern with these disruptions, however, isn’t for professors and parents like me – it’s for elementary, middle and high school students from low-income families. They rely on schools for food and health services while their parents are at work. Those students also face significant barriers to academic success, and their families can’t easily set up a school-like environment – with computers, quiet spaces to work and hands-on support – to keep them learning while they’re stuck for weeks at home.
Relying on parents
While it’s unclear what most schools will expect of students during this health crisis, I suspect that teachers will depend on parents to help kids do their schoolwork.
That would be consistent with my own findings from spending nearly three years observing and interviewing students, parents, teachers and administrators in a socioeconomically diverse, suburban public elementary school outside of a large, East Coast city.
Even on routine schooldays, teachers expect parents to be their partners in helping children learn. That includes pitching in with homework and staying in touch with the school. Teachers also criticize parents who provide less support, despite acknowledging that those families might be struggling to make ends meet.
“I feel like there’s a pocket here – a lower-income pocket,” a fourth-grade teacher I’ll call “Mr. Cherlin” to protect his privacy told me. “If they don’t have that support at home, there’s only so far I can take them. If they’re not gonna go home and do their homework, there’s just not much I can do.”
Encouraging kids to complete their homework, for example, is often tough for families managing full-time work and family obligations on a tight budget. That’s true no matter what’s going on.
Consider the situation faced by “Ms. Marrone,” a low-income white mother, who works as a home day care provider and also cares for her ailing father. Her son Shawn, who just finished fifth grade, “does know how to do the homework. It’s just finding the time,” she explained, sighing. “I can’t even blame him completely. It’s the way our household is. It’s a little crazy.”
Homework is also hard for low-income parents who never excelled at school.
“Sometimes you just feel…stupid,” said “Ms. Compton,” another low-income white mom who didn’t finish high school but later got her GED. Close to tears, she told me how difficult it is to help her fifth-grade son with math h
While some schools give students laptops or tablets to use, those programs are far from universal. Instead, low-income students are significantly less likely to have the equipment and bandwidth they need to livestream classes from home.
About 15% of all U.S. families with school-age children lacked high-speed internet as of 2015. Among families with incomes of US$30,000 or less, the share without that access was more than twice as big.
Meanwhile, even elementary-aged children who have access to digital technology may need considerable help from parents to use those devices for learning at home.
It’s often challenging for low-income students to get their homework done correctly and turned in on time. Those students are also more likely than more affluent kids to face consequences related to homework – losing points due to missed or late assignments, being deprived of recess, being chastised in front of their classmates and getting their grades docked.
As school leaders decide how to proceed, I encourage them to be mindful of the unequal burden closures will place on students and their families. That means accepting that not all parents are equally able to help their kids keep up academically during this disruptive time.
Jessica Calarco, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, is the author ofNegotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaCalarco
About Council on Contemporary Families
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. CCF seeks to enhance the national understanding of how and why families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.