What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word “education”? I’d be willing to bet that for most people, the answer is “school.” But there’s a strong argument to be made that we should instead associate education primarily with families.
As a growing body of research shows, parents shape their children’s language development and education from infancy onward. “Indeed,” scholars April Trent and Javiette Samuel state, “parents are the first teachers of young children and home is the first school.” Parents’ varying proficiency in this role is evident in the achievement gap that opens between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds before they even reach the age of two. Schools can only do so much to address this gap, and despite their best efforts, may sometimes exacerbate it: If “skills beget skills,” then the highest-achieving five-year-olds will benefit more from kindergarten activities than their classmates who are already falling behind, thus increasing their advantage over their peers.
How, then, can we try to close the achievement gap and ensure all kids can fulfill their potential in life? Assuming we don’t want infants and toddlers to spend their every waking hour with professional caregivers rather than with their parents, in the effort to minimize parents’ importance in their lives, part of the answer must lie in training parents to educate their kids. That could include, in Trent and Samuel’s summary, teaching parents about child development, helping them form the habit of reading to their children, encouraging them to find healthy food and activities for their kids, and more.
Evaluations of existing efforts to train parents to teach their children are limited; however, the available evidence suggests that this approach could potentially be effective. Especially in light of the limited effectiveness of school-based programs like Head Start, policy-makers should consider expanding the government’s current modest support for parenting education. (Needless to say, non-profit organizations, community centers, and religious institutions could also expand their efforts in this area.)
Setting aside evidence about the shortcomings of school-based programs, there are still good reasons to devote more resources to helping parents to help their kids, rather than concentrating solely on schools, child care centers, and so on. First, in the vast majority of cases, parents care more about their children and have a greater desire to see them succeed than even the most devoted teacher or social worker. And parents interact with their children one-on-one much more often than other adults do, which means that, especially if they have received some training, parents will be the ones best equipped to spot their children’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and to adjust their approach accordingly.
On an even more practical level, parents are involved in their children’s lives for decades, whereas most other caregivers, teachers, and mentors will be involved for only a year or two. For good or for ill, parents will have a greater impact on their children than anyone else. Finally, parents’ availability to their children isn’t contingent on public policy, and parents won’t disappear from kids’ lives in the event of government budget cuts the way that preschool teachers, visiting nurses, or mentors might.
If we truly want to give every child an equal start in life, we must stop overlooking the importance of parents.