Opinion: Daily Journal

Tiger Moms and Guerrilla Dads

RALEIGH — Cultural catchphrases for parenting styles abound. From the “tiger mom” to the newly coined “guerrilla dad,” each purports to capture a distinct set of parenting behaviors. Even the micromanagerial methods of the “helicopter parent” have garnered a place in our pop culture vernacular.

But what kind of parent has the edge when it comes to raising academic achievers?

Tiger moms do, Yale University law professor Amy Chua famously proclaimed in her controversial 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Tiger moms’ exacting expectations, exhaustive home-based drill sessions, and rules prohibiting all sorts of silly childhood fun are the reason Asian students achieve, wrote Chua. Her scholastic salvo (and censure of Western parenting) illuminated the power and peril of intensive parental involvement.

Criticism over tiger moms’ cult of perfectionism has given way to jabs at hovering helicopter parents. Their breathless hypervigilance and overinvolvement in kids’ educational lives hinders healthy independence, say researchers ― especially as teens launch into college.

And so, not surprisingly, the parenting pendulum now swings to the other extreme. The current message: Back off, moms and dads.

This year, sociology professors Keith Robinson and Angel Harris released their book The Broken Compass, debunking conventional wisdom on the link between parental involvement and student achievement. In a New York Times op-ed essay, the duo claimed parental involvement was “overrated” and, in most cases, ineffective.

Self-proclaimed “guerrilla dad” David Fagan, author of Guerrilla Parenting (out January 2015), is already a media darling with his message of self-reliance and entrepreneurship for kids. Fagan, a successful entrepreneur who never earned a college degree, recently told NBC News he offers no homework help and won’t pay to send his eight kids to college.

All of this bipolar messaging is enough to give any parent whiplash. Who’s right? Media catchphrases notwithstanding, there is no holy grail of parental involvement. But this we know, and unequivocally so: An “engaged parent” is good for kids ― and schools.

Warm, loving parental engagement, expressed through active involvement in a child’s education, isn’t unconventional. It isn’t gimmicky or extreme. But it is effective.

Students with involved parents perform better on virtually every academic metric, from grades to test scores; they exhibit fewer behavioral problems and are likelier to finish high school than kids with uninvolved parents, the Washington, D.C.-based research center Child Trends reports.

Yet not all forms of parental involvement are equal. Attending a PTA meeting is not on par with reading to a child. The Harvard Family Research Project, featuring data from William Jeynes on school-based parent involvement programs, indicates that shared parent-child reading experiences, teacher-parent communication and partnership, and daily checks for homework completion are most beneficial.

Of course, the ways engaged parents support children shift across the developmental trajectory. But parental expectations remain powerful predictors of success throughout the school years. Parents who articulate high expectations for children’s educational attainment increase the odds that kids will share and ultimately achieve these goals.

Engaged parents benefit schools, too. A 2012 N.C. Department of Public Instruction case study of 12 highly successful public charter schools revealed their best practices included “multiple levels of parent engagement.” Parents led tutoring or service-learning programs, planned fundraisers, or served as lunch monitors so teachers could plan.

Such findings provide an encouraging counterpoint to current trends, which show parental involvement declining. Sloganeering and sound bites will come and go. But at home and school, the power of an engaged parent endures.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.