A mother whose daughter attends a private high school recounted a conversation she had with another mother whose daughter attends a different private school. The second mother said, “We’re so relieved about the prom. The dance is at the hotel, the parties afterwards are at the hotel, and the kids all have rooms at the hotel for the night.”
The first mother swallowed hard and said, “But don’t you realize the signal that sends to kids—what it gives them permission to do?”
The second mother sighed and said, “Well, at least they’re not drinking and driving.”
In reporting this exchange, the first mother commented, “We draw a line, and then we cross that. We draw another line, and then we cross that. Pretty soon we’ve compromised our standards to the point of disappearing.”
Our parenting, including the standards we teach and uphold, has a profound impact on our children’s moral development and behavior. When we do not set high standards, we abandon our children to their own immature desires and the negative pressures of the peer group and culture.
Our parenting also greatly affects our children’s ability to learn and do the disciplined work of school. The psychologist Robert Evans reminds us that in their 1992 book America’s Smallest School: The Family, educators Paul Barton and Richard Coley predicted the failure of school reform if it ignored a basic fact: The family is the cradle of learning. They pointed out that student achievement improves when there are two parents in the home; when children are well cared for and feel secure; when the family environment is intellectually stimulating; when parents encourage self-regulation and perseverance; and when they limit TV, monitor homework, and ensure regular school attendance. 2
In these vital areas, however, growing numbers of families are not meeting children’s needs. As Evans observes, most children today arrive at school less ready to learn. At the very time that teachers face mounting pressures to increase student achievement, they have to cope with the decline of things they used to take for granted: students’ attention, respect for authority, rudimentary social skills, and willingness to work. 3
The sources of these problems, as Evans and others note, are well known. Millions of children are growing up in single-parent households (some of which, through lots of parental love and monitoring, manage to help their children thrive, but the odds are tougher than for two-parent homes). Many of these children are essentially fatherless; many are poor. In all kinds of families, including affluent and intact families, parents are spending less time with their children, providing less guidance, and setting fewer limits. Despite the fact that heavy television viewing increases children’s aggression and lowers academic performance, parents allow their children to devote more time to television than to school and homework combined. Three-quarters of sixth graders have TVs in their bedrooms. 4
To be fair, even the most competent and conscientious parents often struggle to get through the week and are beset by feelings of failure. Parenting is inherently hard work. We get our training on the job. The job is harder than ever because the family has fewer allies (such as the extended family and cohesive neighborhoods) and more enemies (such as a toxic media culture, other parents who are overpermissive, and an economy that doesn’t pay a living wage). Because families are more stressed than ever, and because there are many more negative forces in our children’s lives, parents need to be much more intentional than in past generations about creating a family life and more vigilant about raising a moral child. Good character will not be absorbed from our current moral environment.
To all families, whatever their strengths and struggles, the school’s message must be: Make your children your first priority. Because the family is the foundation of both intellectual and moral development, helping parents to be good parents is the single most important thing a school can do to help students develop strong character and succeed academically.