By Julie Baumgardner
In a recent discussion with a group of parents about parenting and parent involvement, one of the group members said, “Define parent involvement.” As different parents gave their definition, it was clear that parental involvement means different things to different people.
“Being a homeroom mother.” “Helping children with their homework.” “Being home when they arrive home from school.” “Helping coach their sports team.”
Thinking back to your own childhood, what were the most meaningful ways your parents connected with you?
What does it mean to be an involved parent?
In a recent survey of more than 1,000 Hamilton County Tennessee residents, conducted by Barna Research group, for First Things First, respondents were asked to define what they believe it means to be an involved parent and what it looks like. Those surveyed defined parent involvement as:
- involvement – generally being involved in their lives, volunteering at school, coaching and asking children to participate in chores;
- spend time together – specifically doing activities the child enjoys, attending their activities, listening to and talking with their child, reading together, having meals together, going on vacation together, and being there when they need you;
- teach them/guide them – helping them with their homework and education, helping children discern right from wrong, guiding children through important decisions, teaching citizenship and life skills and developing the child’s unique talents and abilities;
- know them – what is going on in their lives, paying close attention to where they spend their time and with whom, and knowing their interests and passions;
- have the right mindset – being interested in the child’s activities, and loving them unconditionally; and
- provide for them – food, clothing, shelter, give them a wide range of experiences.
Interestingly, researchers noted that despite repeated probing by interviewers, most
parents were only able to identify one, maybe two areas that define what it means to be an involved parent. This suggests that people, in general, have a fairly superficial conception of being involved as a parent.
This revelation should raise some eyebrows because research shows when parents know how to engage their children and do so, the differences are dramatic compared to children with uninvolved parents.
According to the Parent Teacher Association, parent involvement is the participation of parents in every facet of children's education and development from birth to adulthood, recognizing that parents are the primary influence in children's lives.
According to George Doub, creator of Survival Skills for Healthy Families, children learn by copying what they see other people do. They are most influenced by the people who spend the most time with them. Parents are effective role models for their children when they plan time with their children, encourage them and spend time talking and listening to them about things that have meaning for both parent and child.
Many parents believe that as children approach the teen years, their influence drops significantly. While it is true that parental influence does diminish, parents who continue to stay engaged in the lives of their children are still seen as an important resource and influence in the life of the child.
What do the Kids Think?
In an informal survey of local young people, they were asked how their parents were involved in their lives. Answers ranged from helping with homework and eating meals together to helping me with sports and spending time together doing something fun. When they were asked what they liked most about spending time with their parents the overwhelming popular answer was, when we just hang out together.
Why does parent involvement matter?
According to research compiled by Dr. John H. Wherry, President of The Parent Institute, concerning parent involvement, studies find that students with involved parents are more likely to:
- earn higher grades and test scores,
- pass their classes, earn credits and be promoted,
- attend school regularly,
- have better social skills,
- show good behavior and adapt well to school,
- graduate and go on to further education
When schools work together with families to support learning, children tend to succeed not just in school, but throughout life. In fact, the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement in school is not income or social status, but the extent to which that student’s family is able to:
- Create a home environment that encourages learning;
- Express high (but not unrealistic) expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers; and
- Become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.
When parents are involved in their children’s education at home, their children do better in school. When parents are involved at school, their children go farther in school, and the schools they go to are better.
The family provides the child's primary educational environment.Parent involvement is most effective when it is comprehensive, long-lasting, and well-planned.Involving parents in their own children's education at home is not enough. To ensure the quality of schools as institutions serving the community, parents must be involved at all levels in the school.
The more parents participate in schooling, in a sustained way, at every level—in advocacy, decision-making and oversight roles, as fund-raisers and boosters, as volunteers and paraprofessionals, and as home teachers—the better for student achievement.
Can a parent be too involved?
In recent years, colleges have complained about parents hovering over their children. Instead of helping their children learn to work out problems with roommates, professors, money, etc. these parents jump in and want to solve the problem for them. While the temptation is often great to want to “fix it,” we are not teaching our children how to be accountable and responsible and to problem solve if we do it for them.
The same thing applies when they are young and come through the door with a school project. If parents do the project for the child, this is not helpful parent involvement. Ultimately, this could actually be hurtful to your child as he/she is learning what it is going to take to make it in the real world.
The goal is to be present and engaged without smothering or stifling, which can be tricky. One teenager, irritated at his mother said, “You’re all up in my business.” Fortunately, this did not deter her from staying engaged. She was doing what an involved parent should be doing even though his interpretation was that she was going overboard.
It is critical for parents to remember that young people are just that, young people, with young minds. Their working knowledge about life is miniscule compared to yours. That is why they have you to help guide them as they learn about life. Backing off from this engagement could be detrimental.
Rules of engagement
Researcher, Joyce Epstein has identified multiple ways for parents to be engaged in the lives of their children including:
- Provide a supportive home environment;
- Keep the lines of communication open between home and school;
- Volunteer at school;
- Be involved in your child’s learning at home and at school; and
- Be involved in decisions that are made regarding your child.
As your child grows older, it may be tempting to back off since they don’t seem to need you as much. Experts will tell you, adolescents need you as much as younger children. When parents are involved in middle school and high school, students have better grades, higher graduations rates and more admissions into college.
What are the Benefits?
From better grades and behaviors to higher graduation rates and better social skills, research clearly indicates that children who have involved parents do better in every aspect of their lives. Even though active involvement in children’s lives takes a great deal of time, energy and effort it seems it is well worth it when you look at the investment we are making in our children and their future.
Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb at firstthings dot org.