by Timothy Rarick
In Dr. Seuss’ classic book Horton Hatches the Egg, we are introduced to Mayzie, a lazy bird who is also an expectant mother. She loathes the work and responsibility that come with taking care of her developing baby within the egg. She eventually convinces Horton the elephant to take care of her egg so she can take a short vacation. As Horton nurtures the baby bird through many difficult circumstances, it becomes clear that the lazy Mayzie had no intention of returning any time soon. When their paths crossed again a year later, the egg burst open and — to both Horton and Mayzie’s surprise — the baby appeared to be part elephant and part bird.
On the surface, this story is amusing but unbelievable. An adoptive parent’s influence cannot alter the physical DNA of their child. But if we look deeper, we discover some profound lessons for parents today. These lessons might be put in the form of questions, such as:
— How much influence does a parent really have over their child’s development?
— Who should be the child’s primary educator and influencer?
— What and how is the child being taught from that primary source?
Of course, these ideas and questions did not originate with Dr. Suess. For decades, research and theory have explored similar questions about child development. The eminent developmental theorist Urie Bronfenbrenner, posited that a child is influenced, or socialized, in multiple contexts or sources. The primary influencers being the immediate environment such as the home, schools, neighborhood, etc. In a 1992 interview, Dr. Bronfenbrenner made a profound statement that appears to offer an answer to the first two questions above. “The more we study human development,” he wrote, “the more it becomes clear the family is the most powerful, most humane and, by far, the most economical way of making human beings human.”
His theory was developed at a time when schools and parents were much more in sync with one another. Today, there appears to be growing discord over whether parents or the state (i.e., public schools) should be the primary influencer and educator of children. Although many parents today are not as irresponsible as Mayzie, how a parent answers these questions has never been more critical.
These questions relate not only to parental responsibility but also parental rights. Parental rights expert, Dr. Melissa Moschella, posed the questions this way:
Do the right and the responsibility to educate children belong primarily to parents, or to the state? And who should win when parents and the state disagree over educational content, methods, and goals? Disputes about parental rights are ultimately disputes about authority. Either child-rearing authority fundamentally resides in the political community (which partially delegates that authority to parents), or parental authority is natural and pre-political, based on the nature of the parent-child relationship.
Virginia: Ground Zero
The past decade in Virginia is a model for addressing the tension in these questions. In 2013, a Virginia law was passed that protected the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of their child. Since the 2021 election of Virginia’s first Republican governor in more than a decade, the push for parental rights has been moving forward. Governor Glenn Youngkin’s efforts, such as allowing parents to opt their children out of assignments that contain sexually explicit material, are an important step in getting parents actively involved in their children’s education to be the influential source that Bronfenbrenner asserted they are.
Despite these improvements, there is still a lot of work to be done. The following example illustrates a path forward.
A Mother’s Experience
As a mother of five children who all attend public school in one of Virginia’s most populous counties, Ashley felt she was adequately involved in her children’s schooling. She checked their grades, helped them with homework, and even attended parent-teacher conferences. But this was before March of 2020. Like thousands of other parents in the United States, through her family’s experience with virtual learning during the pandemic, Ashley realized her prior efforts weren’t enough. She needed to do more.
So, at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, Ashley reached out to her children’s middle school principal several times for clarification on certain topics. For example, she wanted to understand:
— The implementation of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and what was in the curriculum.
— Students’ inability to choose their seat at lunch.
— The overall transparency of the school toward parents.
As she shared with me, Ashley discovered that extracting information from the school’s leadership was like pulling teeth. She was civil, yet persistent in seeking answers, and eventually, she learned that although an SEL curriculum was not set to be implemented for two years, it was still being taught every week to students. If that wasn’t enough, the additional work Ashley had to put forth just to gain access to those weekly lessons felt like a slog through thick mud.
If parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children, as Bronfenbrenner and Moschella assert, shouldn’t it be easier for parents like Ashley to receive answers to questions about curriculum and school policies? Of course. In an article published on the Institute for Family Studies blog, Dana Mack addressed this tension between parents and public schools, writing: “Educators may have forgotten that as the foundation of civil society, families are the core institution by which culture is transmitted.”
Yet this relationship is a two-way street. Not only should schools be more willing to include parents in the child’s education, but Ashley’s experience illustrates why parents need to be more proactive in their child’s schooling beyond checking their grades. Here are a handful of important principles she learned through her recent efforts to work with schools in her area:
Initiate Daily Conversations About School with Your Kids
It’s crucial to have chats about school with your children. Ask them to share their perception and understanding of what they are reading, their homework, and classroom discussions. Move beyond simply checking grades and find out how they feel about what they are learning. Of course, this is more effective if parents are already a consistent positive influence.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Searching out information is vital. Read applicable county and state websites regarding what is being taught in your schools. A simple Google search for school standards, with your county’s name included, will reveal the basic documentation that is used to guide what your schools are teaching.
Contact school administrators, board members, and/or teachers by phone or email if you have questions. It’s best to be bold and direct but not overbearing.
Parents should be curious about classroom instruction, but not quick to assume the worst. Substantiate all claims for accuracy before making allegations.
This includes being actively engaged at school board meetings. Attending or viewing your county’s school board meetings is essential to staying informed. Respectfully voice your questions first and then your concerns during the time set aside for public comment.
Join or Start a Parents’ Coalition
Support from other parents is valuable. There are many groups around the country that are dedicated to supporting the basic right of parents to be the primary educator of their children. See if there are any parent groups in your area or start one of your own. But keep in mind, the goal should not be to create a “parents versus schools” mentality. It is better for parents to have a “working-with-schools” approach instead.
Don’t Give Up
Most importantly, be persistent. Review past conversations with school officials to ascertain if your questions have already been answered. Continue to ask the questions that matter most to you. When feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, remember that your child’s development depends on it.
Timothy Rarick, Ph.D., is a professor of Marriage, Family, & Child Development at Brigham Young University, Idaho. This column was originally published by The Institute for Family Studies. It is reposted with permission.