How does parenting impact future success?

Education, Life Coaching, Life Skills

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’.  In it he analyses in detail the factors which affect success.  One point about parenting caught my attention.  He says various studies into parenting approaches all show the same thing: that there are basically two parenting philosophies which divide almost perfectly along class lines.

Middle class parents are more involved in controlling their children’s free time (ferrying to clubs, conversations and questions about what they have learned, who their team mates are etc, practice times, homework time) whereas parents from lower income backgrounds are much less prescriptive over their children’s free time.

Sociologist Annette Lareau calls this middle class style of parenting ‘Concerted Cultivation’: an attempt to actively foster and assess the child’s talents abilities and skills.  The alternative parenting style she calls ‘Accomplishment of Natural Growth’: to care for children but let them grow and develop by themselves.  Lareau does not suggest that one is morally better than the other but that practically speaking ‘Concerted Cultivation’ almost always leads to greater academic and economic success.

I think this has huge implications for how schools ‘meet the needs of all pupils’.  I think the extent to which schools succeed in helping disadvantaged students make significant progress is likely to be commensurate to the extent to which they make up for this lack of ‘concerted cultivation’.

Last year I took 100 Year 7s on a camping trip on the Dorset Coast.  For a number of them it was their first time in a tent, first time away from home and even for some, first time they’d been to the beach – in spite of living in Poole!! We walked up from the beach to Old Harry Rocks.  One student commented to me, after shedding some tears, that this walk had been the ‘hardest thing he’d ever done in his life’.  Many students that weekend tried activities they’d never done before.  They left the weekend believing in themselves a little more, their horizons broadened, a bit more resilient, a bit more confident.  I reflected on the fact that I had taken my own kids up mountains and on camping trips from about 3 years old – and that they would have classified this particular walk as a fairly short stroll!  For students who have not had these opportunities via their parents, school is the place they need to get them.

Gladwell quotes psychologist Lewis Terman who conducted an extensive study of children who had demonstrated exceptionally high IQ and who were categorised as geniuses at an early age.  He then closely followed their progress through school and adulthood.  Later in life he took a sample of 730 and divided them into three groups according to their ‘success’ in life.

  • Top 20% fell into A group: these were the success stories.

  • Middle 60%: those doing satisfactorily – the  B group.

  • Bottom 20%: college drop outs, unemployed, struggling in  low paid jobs.   All 150 of them had together earned 8 graduate degrees.

Terman looked through every conceivable variable but found that only one thing mattered: family background.  The A group were middle or upper class.  The C group were from poorer backgrounds. That is, the difference lay unquestionably in those who had been ‘schooled by their parents to present their best face to the world and those denied that experience’.

The point is they all had similar starting points as far as raw intelligence is concerned. As Carol Dweck (Mindset) has also shown, raw intelligence is NOT the most significant factor affecting future success.

Gladwell surmises: “What the Cs lacked was not something expensive or impossible to find, not something encoded in DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains, they lacked something we could have given them if only we had known it: a community around them that prepares them for the world.”

The key point here is that in preparing young people for life, we must give due consideration to their varying starting points: their culture, their family background, their aspirations, their confidence, their social skills, their motivations; NOT simply their academic progress to date.

Which is why I disagree with the Government’s recent move to reintroduce selective Grammar Schools.  At 11 years old there is still so much ‘concerted cultivation’ that we can do to bring out the best in a child or make up for a tough start in life.  There will be many who miss out on a Grammar School education, not because they don’t have the ‘raw intelligence’ but because it has not been adequately cultivated.

After parents, teachers have arguably the most significant shaping impact on a child’s life and many students from more disadvantaged backgrounds only have their teachers to help foster and cultivate that sense belonging, confidence and the skills with which to effectively navigate life.  And it is these which will, according to all the evidence, be the single most decisive factor in their future success.