Helicopter Parenting, Snowplow Parenting, Lawnmower Parenting - these are all forms of intensive parenting. Dr. Jessica Calarco joins us to discuss the impact of this type of parenting in our school communities.
Intensive Parenting - helicopter, lawnmower, snowplow, free-range - is often pursued by white and privileged parents as a way to protect kids from failure and to ensure that they end up on the “winning” side of the vast economic inequality in our country. However, the ways that white and privileged parenting norms impact entire school communities often end up perpetuating existing disparities.
We’re joined by Dr. Jessica Calarco, Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, who studies inequity in family life and education. Her recent book, Negotiating Opportunity: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School, highlights many of the challenges that come with socioeconomically diverse schools.
How we show up as integrating parents, how we navigate the line between asking-for-assistance and asking-for-(expecting?)-accommodations, and how we parent our own children has an impact on the other students and families in the school.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a white dad from Denver.
Courtney: I’m Courtney, a white mom from Los Angeles.
Andrew: This is “Parenting to Win: Who Pays for the Helicopter?” We're joined today by Dr. Jessica Calarco, a sociologist from Indiana University who studies inequalities in family life and education. Dr. Calarco’s research has really focused on schools that have desegregated, at least socioeconomically, and her work highlights the challenges that can come if we only think about this as desegregation and not integration. Her work, reminds us that how we show up matters.
Courtney: Yes. So this conversation is really about how parents think about parenting - the way white and privileged parents think we're supposed to be a good parent. It matters in how we interact with teachers and staff, but it also affects how our kids interact too, right? White and privileged parenting norms have a very real impact in the whole school community. And we are using white AND privileged here for a very specific reason. The work that Dr. Calarco shares with us in this conversation today is really about privileged white parenting.
Andrew: Yeah. Her recent book, Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle-Class Secures Advantages in School is an ethnographic study of an unidentified suburb in a large Eastern city. She spent about five years there talking to parents, students, teachers, and the book is a result of that work. But it is worth noting that, while the area she studied was socioeconomically diverse, it wasn't particularly racially diverse. And you know, she notes in the book, class is not the only cause of classroom inequity, race, gender, ethnicity, all intersect with class in important ways and also matter independently for students and their outcomes. So while this work is really looking at class differences and how they show up and are reinforced in school, we have to acknowledge that that race differences often exacerbate these issues, probably exponentially.
Courtney: Yeah. Or logarithmically or something, but, but also not identically. And, and I think that, while we are not explicitly digging into race in this episode, there's a lot in the mirror that Dr. Calarco holds up that we as parents can kind of use to think with in our racially integrating schools. And of course we generalize a lot in this conversation, but this was the research that Dr. Calarco conducted and is based on the ethnographic study that she did. And I think that the trends she identifies in her work are worth being aware of.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And we can also dig in deeper on our Patreon page. So sign up, become a patron for this podcast, Patreon.com/IntegratedSchools. If you're not familiar with Patreon, it's a platform that allows you to support this all volunteer effort while also engaging with us and other listeners and getting access to message boards, our podcast happy hour, transcripts, facilitation questions, et cetera.
Courtney: And it keeps us from having to take breaks to sell you sustainably sourced yoga mats.
Andrew: Yes. Which is good. You know, it's probably worth saying before we jump into this also, that Dr. Calarco points to a number of places where these sort of structural inequities show up. And quite often that shows itself in the classroom. And, you know, there's no question that teachers have a big role to play in addressing some of these inequities, but we also recognize that teachers are working within a system just like parents are.
Courtney: The point here isn't to bash teachers, but rather help us all be a bit more aware of some of the really insidious ways that, you know, our tendencies to get what's best for our kids comes at a cost.
Andrew: Yeah. All right, let's take a listen.
Dr. Calarco: I'm Jessica Calarco. I'm an Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.
Courtney: Great. So I really want to talk about your book, Negotiating Opportunity: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School, but before we do that, can we kind of set the stage a little bit? Cause I know , you've talked, , in places about intensive parenting. And there's a lot of terms out there, right? Like helicopter parenting and lawnmower parenting and free range parenting. So I don’t know if we can just set out some definitions ...
Dr. Calarco: Sure. So those kinds of parenting, whether we're talking about snowplow parenting or intensive parenting or helicopter parenting, what those discussions often miss is that those kinds of parenting are closely linked to social class and to privilege - especially white affluent parents being the ones who are pushing kind of parenting and engaging in that kind of parenting and setting that as a standard. And typically that kind of parenting involves, at least in some way, trying to protect kids from failure and trying to make sure that kids had every possible advantage, and that it's not leaving success to chance, but intervening from small ways to big ways. Everything from the kinds of neighborhoods that you live in, to the schools that you send your kids to, to whether or not you write an email to the teacher excusing your kid from homework if they didn't get it done. Those kinds of small and big ways that oftentimes white, affluent parents intervene in their kid's education to make sure that they are not going to fail.
Courtney: What happens if you fail?
Dr. Calarco: I think there's a huge fear around that. And I think it's not just failure in the sense of economic failure, because most of these especially affluent white parents have the means to literally pick their kids up out of failure. To make sure that they have a place to live if they don't have a job, to make sure they have a place to stay during graduate schools so that they can get the education that they need, or as we've seen with recent scandals buy their kids into college, if need be. But it's also about emotional failure. It's about protecting kids from the feeling of failure from feeling like you haven't been good enough or that you're not as successful as possible. And I think it's in part rooted in this idea that especially privileged kids should be able to be whatever they want to be and should feel entitled to have whatever job they want to have and have the kind of life they want to lead, and parents feeling like they have to protect that at all costs.
Andrew: I mean, all kids should be able to have the kind of life they want, right? But I guess when parents feel that they need to protect that, and maybe the structures in society aren't really set up to allow everyone to protect that in the same way that, I guess maybe that's where things get complicated. But, I guess, before we jump into that, could you sort of step back and tell us how you came to care about this. how you came to start thinking about this, why you have devoted your academic career to this area and why you care.
Dr. Calarco: Sure. I was primarily interested in educational inequalities and specifically I came into - what became my book - going from the perspective of what happens when we put middle-class kids and working class kids in the same classrooms in schools. A lot of the research that's been done, on social class in schooling more generally has looked at middle and upper middle class kids in more privileged schools and poor and working class kids in very poor and working class schools and looked at differences in teacher /student interactions, looked at differences in parental involvement, looked at differences in kids outcomes. But didn't really try to understand what happens when we put these kids into this same classrooms? Do we see them learning from each other? Do we see patterns of inequality being reduced? That was one of the questions that sort of led me into the field and to try to explore with my research. And what I found, sadly enough, was that just putting those kids in the same classrooms was not enough to overcome inequalities, in part because of the countless ways that privileged kids, middle and upper middle class white kids, had been coached at home by their parents to try to create opportunities and often unfair opportunities for themselves. Asking for extra time on tests, asking teachers to check their tests for them before they turn them in, talking their way out of homework, talking their way out of trouble when they got in trouble. And poor and working class kids feeling like they couldn't ask for those same advantages. That it wasn't that they didn't know how to ask, but that it was that they didn't necessarily trust the schools and the teachers enough to believe that they wouldn't get in trouble for trying to ask. Based on their own experiences, based on the things that their parents had told them about their own interactions with institutions. They just didn't trust the school enough to feel like they could put their foot out there and say, I demand those advantages too.
Courtney: So in your book, you talk about the ways that we secure advantage for our kids, which seems, you know, kind of like a reasonable thing, but I think that the interesting piece is that we fail to account for all the ways that this isn't free, right? There is a cost to doing that.
Dr. Calarco: Yes. Very much so. And they think about it - the privileged parents who are doing that kind of coaching, certainly don't see it in terms of the downsides for other kids. They just see it as I want my kid to have every possible advantage is something I heard over and over again in interviews. But they never stopped to think about, well, advantage is a relative term. So advantage over whom? And advantage relative to what? And so not being cognizant to the fact that if you're bending the rules to get your kid into the gifted program when they didn't actually qualify, what does that mean for the number of slots that are available? And should we be pushing for just your kid to get in? Or should we maybe be rethinking whether we have gifted programs at all, or whether we should be thinking differently about the kinds of ways that we qualify students for gifted programs, if we're going to have them, that are more inclusive and more cognizant of the long standing history of inequality around those kinds of programs and the way that they've been used to create segregation within integrated schools and to systematically exclude marginalized kids from opportunities for deeper learning.
Courtney: Right. You could argue that it's one thing to talk about gaming the system to get your kid into a gifted program, right? But is that materially the same thing as me teaching my daughter to ask for help when she needs it? Ask for clarification if she feels confused? Because those don't necessarily seem like the same things, but I think in the long run and in the big picture, they produce the same effect.
Dr. Calarco: I mean, I think they all contribute to a level of entitlement, but I do think there are differences. And I do think it is okay to teach kids to ask for help when they need it, but I think there's also value in encouraging kids to be willing to work hard first and to struggle first before immediately asking for help. And I think there's also a line between - and I try to talk about this in the book - the line between asking for help and asking for accommodations or sort of extra stuff. So it's one thing to say, “I don't understand the directions to this assignment, can you clarify it for me?” And it's another thing to say, “I got caught running in the hallways and I wasn't supposed to be doing that and so now I'm going to explain to you why I was running in the hallway so that I don't get in trouble.” There's an example that I talked about in the book of a student who didn't get her homework done and she tried to talk her way out of it by saying, “I didn't do my journal homework because I couldn't find my journal and so I, so I don't have it, and so do I have to stay in for recess.” And so the teacher was sort of telling her like, you should've just written it on a piece of paper and then put it in your journal when you found it. But she eventually managed to talk her way out of getting in trouble for not having her homework done. And there were plenty of other kids, especially working class kids who would come in without their homework done and would never try to talk their way out of it in that way. But I think that kids are learning from their parents writing excuse notes for them or talking them out of getting in trouble when they do something wrong or trying to ask for things like, will you check my answers for me on this test before I turn it in? There's a line there between what's appropriate and what's not. And even the working class kids, when I talked to them in interviews, they saw that line. There were, there were some kids that I would, I would sort of ask them about, I see these things happening in class. Like the kids will line up at the teacher's desk to ask him to check their test for them before they turn it in. What do you think about that? And they would tell me, “I see that happening. I would never do that because I think that's cheating.” And so drawing a moral line around sort of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. But I think that becomes a solution on the part of teachers in creating conditions where they're reaching out and offering support to students. And making it okay for all kids to ask for help. And not just kind of teaching working class kids to say, you should ask for help, but creating conditions where they trust teachers enough to be able to do so.
Because help-seeking is important and getting help and getting support and making sure kids have the resources that they need to be successful is critical. It's hard to create entitlement among kids who aren't inherently privileged, but I think at least creating conditions where teachers can offer them the support that they need. It can help them trust more that they won't be punished or judged for asking.
Courtney: I mean, the way that we talk about white and privileged kids as being entitled is also these ways that get them stuff. Like these material things that come out of that… can you give us some stories of how that plays out in the classroom?
Dr. Calarco: Sure. So I talk about in the book, there's sort of three different places where these social class differences were most apparent. It was in asking for assistance or help asking for accommodations or sort of extra stuff, and then asking for attention, sort of one on one interactions with the teacher. And so in terms of asking for help, I mean, certainly in a lot of cases, these were places where, help was warranted. That was kids asking teachers to help them with a project if they didn't understand the assignment. Middle-class in an upper middle class, white kids saying I physically can't get this project to stay together, can you help me glue it? Or, my rocket broke when we're launching a rocket outside on rocket day, can you help me tie a new parachute on so that I can get through it to launch my rocket again? And even in those kinds of situations where the help was clearly warranted, poor and working class kids didn't feel confident and comfortable approaching their teachers to ask for help. They worried about how is the teacher going to judge me? How am I going to be perceived? Am I going to be seen as too demanding, too lazy, too kind of needy if I don't try to do this myself. And so they tried to work through problems on their own instead. And so sometimes they were successful. And the teachers would often complain about the, the sort of privileged students being too quick to rely on the teachers, for never being willing to problem-solve or never being willing to work through a hard problem on their own. Poor and working class kids in the context of having to work through those problems on their own, they weren't always successful. They tried really hard and they cared a lot. But oftentimes they just didn't get the support that they needed to be able to overcome those problems. If it was, especially if, say for example, they missed a day of school, which was common among the working class kids, they got sick more often, they often miss school, they didn't always have the same level of healthcare that the privileged kids did, and so then they would come back after missing a day or two and be behind or know what they were supposed to be working on, they didn't necessarily understand the projects that had gotten started in their absence. And sometimes the teachers would remember, but in a class of 25 kids, if that kid didn't speak up and say, “Hey, I was absent yesterday. I don't really know what I'm supposed to be doing on this project,” there was a good chance that they were going to either do it wrong or not be able to do it or not finish it in time. And kids would often get in trouble for that. And so teachers would often mistake poor or working class kids not asking for help for them being off task or being lazy. So it's sort of compounded this problem of them not being as willing to ask for help in those kinds of situations.
But it wasn't that we just needed to encourage them to ask for more help because when I talked to them in interviews, it was really about just not feeling like it was their right to ask for help. That they, they knew that they, in theory could go to the teachers. They saw other kids going to the teachers and asking for help, but they worried on a deep kind of psychic level about what the consequences might be if the teachers felt like they were demanding things that were not owed to them in those kinds of situations. Whereas the middle and upper middle class white kids had no qualms at all about saying, “Hey, I was absent yesterday, can you talk me through what I missed?” Even if it took the teacher 10 or 15 minutes to walk them through what they missed in that circumstance, just for that one kid. The poor and working class kids didn't feel entitled to the teacher's class time in that same way.
Andrew: Mmm. The expectations that teachers communicate about kids, right? . What sort of message teachers send about what they expect kids to achieve or not achieve? Is that, is that some piece of this?
Dr. Calarco: Yeah, absolutely. And also teachers aren't always consistent in their own expectations. With homework, the teachers would tell me in interviews that they, they want kids to be independent with homework, that they get frustrated with parents who are doing homework for kids. But at the same time, when push came to shove in the classroom, they would ultimately privilege kids who got more help from their parents at home. If the kid forgot a project, for example, and left it at home in the morning, the teachers would allow the privileged kids essentially to be able to call home, to have mom drive back over and drop off the project for them. Whereas that’s something that most of poor and working class kids would never even think to ask? Can I ask my mom to bring it in? And most of them didn't have parents who were able to do that anyway. And so, they'd end up getting zeroes on their projects or having to stay in for recess because they missed the assignments. Whereas privileged kids were able to take advantage of their parents' help to get ahead in those kinds of situations. And teachers didn't necessarily see the inequalities in those kinds of judgments or decisions that they were making around who got punished and who didn't get punished, especially around things like homework.
Andrew: We think of all these ways that what we imagined the life trajectory of these kids as is different. The kid of color who doesn't bring his homework that's like, well, this is to be expected, and the white kid doesn't bring in their homework. I'm like, well, something must be going on, let's try to figure this out.
Dr. Calarco: Exactly. It's about the default assumptions that we make about affluent white kids versus kids of color and low income kids in the sense of which parents we assume to be good parents, which kids we assume to have good motivations, to be hardworking and smart and coming from a good place in their choices. I mean, I saw that all the time in classrooms with teachers making assumptions about kids off-task behavior. Like if kids weren't paying attention, if kids were distracted, if they were reading a book under their desk, if they didn't get their homework done, and how the assumptions about kids' behavior differed based on which families the kids came from and how teachers interpreted their behavior differently on the basis of whether kids immediately jumped in with an explanation, which was often something that the privileged kids do and the role that those explanations played in changing teachers default assumptions about which kids were the “good kids” and which kids were the “bad kids” and which kids deserved leniency and which kids deserve punishment.
Courtney: You write about, what parents expectations of teachers and staff are and how those things can be really different between working class and middle and upper class families. One stands out, where you were sharing a story from, I believe, a cafeteria worker who would regularly get calls from parents saying, can you go look for my kid's iPhone that they left in the cafeteria? Because the way that we think about, our role as parents vis-a-vis the school also is a really different cultural exercise, right?
Dr. Calarco: Yeah. The parent that you're talking about, Ms Campatello, I called her in the book. They had moved to the district , that I called Maplewood or Fair Hills, from a very working class district. And so in the interview when I was talking to her, she was comparing life in her old school district, which was very blue collar and that the kinds of parents that she knew there and the way that kind of family life worked there to the way that she saw things working in Maplewood. And she essentially said like where we came from and the way things were when I grew up, like parents would never challenge the teacher. Parents would never try to fix the kids problems for them. If kids left their backpack in the cafeteria or left something on the school bus, the parents would never think to ask someone else to fix that problem for them. The kid would get in trouble or that would be the kid's responsibility. And that was very much the way she parented her own kids was sort of, if you mess up, it's your responsibility. Because the working class parents, they really stressed kind of respect and responsibility and resourcefulness as key skills that their kids needed, not only to be successful, but also to be not judged by society. I mean, it's very consistent with the way that our society stereotypes marginalized groups and especially sees lower income people in our society as too dependent on society. And so they were pushing back against those stereotypes by stressing to their kids, the importance of being respectful and responsible and resourceful and the way that parents like Ms. Campatello sort of talked about privileged parents. She talked about these privileged parents creating these sort of entitled kids who felt like they had the right to ask somebody else to solve their problems for them, whether that was a cell phone left in the cafeteria or a backpack left on the bus, or whether that was, not getting their homework done. And she talked about it in, in terms of, teachers being afraid of privileged parents, and kind of being afraid of the power of privileged parents. She didn't talk about it in class terms. Almost none of the parents or teachers that I talked to talked explicitly about social class. But she talked about the parents here, and it was clear that she was talking about parents who were not like her in terms of sort of social status, the teachers are afraid of them and afraid of what those parents might do to them.
Andrew: It's like all the ways that the system is just set up to cater to and be responsive to the white and privileged parents.
Dr. Calarco: Yes. And she was, I don't know if she was referencing this in this instance particularly, but the summer before her son had started fifth grade, a bunch of the affluent white parents had started a letter writing campaign to ask that their children not be placed in Mr. Fisher's class -one of the fifth grade teachers. Essentially, they had decided that they saw him as “unresponsive” to parent requests and to student requests. He would set hard line rules around things like snack policies. He was generally more willing than most of the other teachers to push back against potentially unfair requests. Things like parents trying to get their kids out of homework because they had a dance recital the night before. And so the privileged parents were very much not happy about this. And so a number of them requested that their kids not be placed in Mr. Fischer's class. And one parent even went so far as to, when she found out that her son was placed in Mr Fisher's class, talk to the principal and had him pulled out and moved to a different class one week into the school year. And Mr. Fischer was just devastated. I mean, he personally and professionally just felt like this was a blow to his credibility, to his sort of sense of self as a teacher. And given I spent a year in his classroom and certainly never got the sense that the things he was saying no to were in any way going kind of beyond what was appropriate. That if anything, he was setting a clearer set of standards to make it fairer for all students in his classroom, but the, the privileged parents were not very happy about that and, and made his life miserable in some ways because of it.
Courtney: Yeah. So we see this one teacher who's trying to do his part to push back, and that's being shot down by white privileged parents. You know, I'm thinking about how these white privileged parents relate to teachers as colleagues, and that might be really different than looking at teachers as professionals, You know, I don't really question my neurosurgeon, but I'm definitely going to have a philosophical discussion, pedagogical discussion with my kid's teacher. And I think that relationship is going to take time in a different way. We have that entitlement to their time.
Dr. Calarco: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Privileged parents, they see themselves as, “I could do this job,” that this teacher has the same level of qualifications to some extent that they do or that they know as much about their own kids and probably more in some cases, or at least that's the assumption on the part of privileged parents. It's a very individualistic approach to learning that privileged parents tend to have in the sense that like, I know my kid best and I know what's right for my kid and the teacher knows the education stuff, but we can have a conversation about how to apply that education in a way that is best for my individual kid. Whereas the working class parents that I talked to tended to take both a more respectful or sort of deferent approach to teachers, but also a more collective approach to learning in the sense that they saw the teacher's responsibility as not just helping their individual kid, but looking out for what was best for the class as a whole. And so, if there was a problem, like if parents were worried , they would sort of think through like, okay, I want to make sure I talked to the teacher about this, the teacher is the one who knows best, I'll defer to her judgment on this. And when they talked about it, especially coaching their kids to ask for help, they talked explicitly about not wanting the teacher to focus too much on their kid, and understanding that the teacher has 25 kids that they have to deal with. And understanding that their kid is not the priority.
And I think that's just a very different mindset between sort of privileged parents and, and the sort of more marginalized parents. And thinking about what is the teacher's role in school? Are they there to serve their individual child or is it more about the class as a whole? And I think that does, it has implications for the way that the teachers kind of face pressures to have to respond to individual parents and for the kind of education that happens in classrooms.
Andrew: It seems like the problem starts from this sort of sense of entitlement, right? Like the, the pushback that comes when we try to remove privileges becomes very strong. And I guess I'm wondering, has this always been a problem? Like it feels to me like this is new in some way.
Dr. Calarco: I think it's newISH. I mean, I think that there have always been privileged parents who've been able to manipulate the system in their favor. But I think if anything, the number of parents who have that amount of privilege has expanded in recent years. It's not just the uber-elite parents who are able to manipulate systems in this way. In that we have this growing sort of middle to upper middle class of people, kind of professionals, that may have grown up sort of very blue collar kind of lower middle class themselves, but have come into a relatively privileged existence and are able to, by virtue of things like the way that our schools tie funding to property taxes and the way that white flight has amplified the links between race and class in terms of schooling, and the way that our communities are set up and the opportunities that exist in our society. It creates more opportunities for a larger group of privileged white people to people to negotiate these kinds of opportunities for themselves.
And I'd argue that it's happening in schools, but it's also happening in other social systems as well. In the healthcare system, who gets to demand that's doctors be responsive to their kinds of concerns, and who doesn’t. In terms of things like paid paternity leave and maternity leave, which classes of workers have been able to demand that institutions give them those kinds of advantages. Or in the legal system with who gets in trouble for breaking the law and who doesn't, or who gets harsher penalties and who doesn't, who is able to talk their way out of those situations.
I think it's a bigger set of issues that taps into the power of privilege in our society. And how that power has expanded beyond just the people at the very top echelons of society to incorporate people at the what I like to think about is sort of more mundanely privileged people, kind of, doctors, lawyers, college professors…
Andrew: Mundanely privileged, I love that. There is some piece of this that has changed over time, right? I think about the study you did of New Yorker cartoons. You guys looked at New Yorker cartoons about parenting going back what, all the way to the 20s, and sort of what they say about our, our parenting narratives.
Dr. Calarco: I think certainly we've seen a push toward more individualistic parenting, at least in terms of the way that elites talk about parenting in society and the project you're talking about with the New Yorker cartoons is certainly very much directed at an elite audience of parents. And thinking about the role that, the way that parenting and good parenting is defined by kind of this very intensive parenting model of I'm raising this perfect little child to be a model of myself, and to be an indicator of my success and my worth as a parent, is certainly something that has become more prevalent over time, that it's less about sort of kids as a nuisance and more about sort of kids as this project.
Andrew: Do you think there's a piece of that that is also tied to the performative nature of parenting now the, the way that we share our parenting wins and hide our parenting losses. The online version of ourselves that we create that then creates this sense, well, like all these other people seem to be getting so much. I better make sure that I get mine too.
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely. And it's not just about my kids success is, is determined by their ability to compete in this increasingly competitive world. But my value as a person and as a parent is defined by whether my kid goes to the right college and gets the right score on the SATs, whether I'm able to post that picture on Instagram wearing the right college sweatshirt. And that those likes have become sort of the currency of this social media parenting world. I think it's sort of up to the product of the Mommy Wars to some extent, in the sense of competition between should mothers be working or should mothers be staying at home and how that competition has amped up the pressure, especially on mothers, but on fathers as well, to be sort of Pinterest-perfect parents and to be able to perform their parenting in a way that is consumable by other parents and by other people in their social networks that give them validation for the success, based on what they're doing for their kids, which is more visible things like, did you send them the perfect packed lunch
Courtney: Bento box? Yes.
Dr. Calarco: Exactly. Or did or did you just send them with a $175 to buy lunch at school? And then it also, the other visible thing is sort of how well your kids do. Are they in the gifted program? Are they going to the right schools? Are they going to the right colleges? Are they participating in the right clubs and activities that you can post videos of on Facebook? I think you're right, that that kind of performative aspect of parenting has certainly amplified the pressures, especially within privileged parenting circles. And I think that's part of the problem is that our schools and our neighborhoods are so segregated, that privileged parents feel like they're only competing against other privileged parents, and so they don't realize the consequences of their actions for larger patterns of inequality. What they don't realize is that they're essentially making it harder for other kids who don't have those same opportunities and same resources to be able to achieve those same levels of success. And I think that's, that's dangerous to some extent. When we allow parents and especially parents with a lot of privilege to use their kids as their own marker of self worth, because that means that they're going to be even more empowered to use the resources that they have to perpetuate their own kids' perfectness or their own kids’ success. In a world where, where opportunities for success are completely unequal from the beginning.
Andrew: Yeah, I guess I would argue that our schools respond to that by, the people with privileged creating schools that provide more of those things that we think are actually important and not really addressing some of the more emotional-level, making-good-citizen kind of questions.
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely. I mean, the working class parents that I talked to, I mean, certainly they wanted their kids to do well in school, but it wasn't the same kind of ideas about this is what defines a good person. What they stressed to me over and over again in interviews was the importance of respect and responsibility and hard work, and just being a good person who doesn't try to cheat or lie or steal their way to the top. And kind of thinking about those values and how undervalued they are in a school setting and how our schools, if anything, reward the kind of kids who are able to manipulate the system and bend the rules or try to find ways around the rules to get ahead, as opposed to really thinking about how do we encourage respect? How do we encourage kids to work hard and be willing to fail and be willing to struggle through tough problems, while still making sure that they get the support that they actually need?
Courtney: You talk about the Mommy Wars as influencing the idea of what a good parent should be, but, you know, there's something too about the changing construction of childhood, you know, how we, how we think about our kids and their vulnerability versus their resiliency and how that has changed over time. And then how that changing over time is related to, you know, what our jobs as parents are and how those have changed over time.
Dr. Calarco: Yeah. And sociologist Viviana Zelizar has a, it's a book that's almost 30 years old now, it's called Pricing the Priceless Child. I think it actually is one of the most powerful books in terms of understanding where modern helicopter parenting came from and that it started in the early 20th century. And so more and more pressure got put on parents to make the right choices for their kids and kind of push the scientific parenting movement that, that I think has ultimately evolved. And, and certainly her book was written before modern helicopter parenting was talked about in the way that it is today, but I think it's certainly the precursor to what we see in terms of helicopter parenting today coming out of this idea that we see children as priceless. And we see parents as having the primary responsibility to protect their kidshealth and wellbeing, and even kind of over time beyond just their health and wellbeing to their emotional wellbeing and their financial success and their status in society as well.
Courtney: You know, I also feel like, there's this individualistic approach piece. Right? But then there's also this anxiety piece and I'm thinking about the, thousands of parenting self-help books. How does this constant pressure of experts play into the conversations around parenting and particularly around intensive parenting?
Dr. Calarco: That's actually something I'm trying to get at with a new project that I have in the field right now where I'm doing surveys and interviews following pregnant women from pregnancy through the first year and a half of parenting. I'm looking at who they turn to for advice, how they make decisions like vaccines and breastfeeding and screen time, and kind of trying to understand some of these pressures. And who are they looking to for advice? Who do they see as a model parent. How does that vary across race and across social class? How might the networks that you belong to and the kinds of sources that you turn to for information be reinforcing those class-based and race-based, inequalities in the kinds of parenting that we see happening, and especially the kinds of privileged entitled parenting, kind of reinforcing this idea that privileged parenting, is okay, through the networks that you belong to. I know that's not your question exactly, but it's certainly a question that I've been thinking a lot about. Especially for privileged parents, they seem to be the ones who are most interested in those kinds of expert opinions and expert advice.
Courtney: You know, not only are white privileged parents more interested, maybe even dependent on what the science says and more likely to make those, make parenting decisions based on that. But you know, as you were talking about in your essay on free range parenting, there are also things that society allows white parents to do that parents of color are not allowed to do in the same ways. Right?
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely that white parents are given a level of freedom to navigate institutions to give their kids freedom and aren't judged for those choices in the way that parents of color and low income parents are judged for those same choices. I think that the free range parenting movement, I don't see it as a way for parents to increase equality. I see it as another way for parents to make sure that they're doing what's best for their own kids, in many cases, at least, maybe not across the board. But certainly as a way for privileged parents to say, oh, I see what's really important. I see that free play and creativity and independence is really important for my kids' success.
Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen have a new book about feeding practices in the United States. And it’s interviews with, lower income and higher income mothers across a number of different states. One of the things that they find with their interviews with low income moms and mothers of color are essentially the, the pressures that they feel when they go to the doctor's office, and get their kids weighed, and that they feel like there's so much riding on, is my kid at that right mark on the weight charts? Because if they're not, there's a good chance that the doctor's office will call social services. And so the level of scrutiny that marginalized parents face on a day to day basis and in every interaction with institutions. That the risks that they put themselves at when they interact with teachers or interact with doctors or interact with other social service providers, there are huge risks for them that middle and upper middle class white parents just never have to think about and are given so much more leeway in those kinds of decisions. Whether it's about, what their kids look like or what their kids are eating or how their kids are behaving in public, that they just don't have to worry about those same kinds of things.
Andrew: So it feels like the pendulum has sort of swung from maybe a more relaxed kind of parenting into this hyper-involved helicopter kind of parenting. But I guess I'm wondering, do you get a sense at all that maybe the pendulum has started to swing back the other way? I get a sense that there are more people saying I don't want to do this. the way that it looks like parenting was done 5, 10 years ago doesn't look like something I want to jump into.
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely. Even the parents that I talked to when I was doing the research for the book, they didn't want to be labeled as helicopter parents. Oh, I'm not one of those helicopter parents- I only check my kid's grades online once a week, I don't do it every day. And so I think there is increasingly a stigma around that kind of helicopter parenting and not wanting to be perceived as one of those parents who is doing too much or is intervening too much. I think some of it comes from recognizing the real problems with that kind of approach, both for parents in the amount of exhaustion and anxiety that it can create to try to parent that way all the time. And also for kids in terms of the parents recognizing the value of failure to some extent, and the value of letting kids struggle and work through problems on their own and not have someone constantly there to pick up the pieces. I do worry that some of it is about, sort of parents not wanting those potentially stigmatizing labels.
Andrew: Right, right. It can't just be about sort of changing, changing labels or doing the same things, but not getting called a helicopter parent for it. If the pendulum is gonna swing, it's gotta be actually about like a, a new direction for parenting.
Dr. Calarco: And so I think it's about making sure that whatever new directions parenting goes in, that changes are oriented not just toward, I'm going to pick the parenting strategy that is going to maximize my kids economic success and emotional happiness, but what are those parenting strategies that are going to ensure that all kids have a chance to have an equal shot at having everything they need and also having the same chances to get the things they want, as well.
Andrew: I was thinking about the study recently, sort of linking economic inequality in countries to the degree of intensive parenting. And I think that the idea was , the greater the economic inequality in the country, the more intensive parenting becomes because when the potential outcomes for your kids diverge so widely, there feels like much more pressure to make sure they end up on the “good” side of that gap.
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely. And I think that's certainly - that, that kind of anxiety about maintaining kids class position and maintaining kids' success. It's, it feels ironic because of the level of resources that these privileged parents have to protect their kids from failure. But they certainly feel like there is a lot riding on, certainly the parents that I talked to in interviews, felt like there was a lot riding on getting into the right college and getting the right kind of degree and getting the right kind to job down the line and living in the right kind of neighborhood. And I think it wasn't just about economic security. It's also about the kind of lifestyle that they lead and that they want their kids to be able to lead. And it's about wanting their kids to be comfortable and to not have to worry about things. That it's not just about having enough money to get by, but about having enough money to live a very comfortable life and to just never really have to worry about much at all.
Courtney: And you know, I think this is a really good tie in too, to think about, you know, how white and privileged families kind of think about sending their kids to integrating schools and, how we often talk about that as if it is a risk. And when we're thinking about all of these pressures around what it means to be a good parent in these very, very specific ways. You know, we hear a lot like, why on earth should we take this risk to go to an integrating school? You know, how would you talk about this perception of risk?
Dr. Calarco: Absolutely, I mean, just from an evidentiary perspective, going to a “good” school, has a much bigger impact on a marginalized kids outcomes than it does on the outcomes of a privileged white kid. They are the kids who have the resources at home to act as a buffer. To make sure that, and possibly through some of the ways that their parents intervene in schools. They are the kids who have the least to lose by going to those kinds of schools that are historically underperforming with the big air quotes around underperforming. And so I think that if anything, those are the parents who have the resources to take the risk. They're also the same parents who have the resources to avoid the risks. But arguably they're the ones whose kids should be asked or should it be called upon to take that risk because they're the ones who have the resources and the buffers to protect themselves from it.
Andrew: Our audience is largely white privileged parents. What do we do about this? How do we take this that seems sort of undeniably true and turn it into some sort of action. It's, you know, we're, we are individuals and this seems like a systemic issue, but it seems like there must be ways to interact with that system in more helpful ways.
Dr. Calarco: Yeah. And I think one of the big things that privileged parents can do is to check the way that they interact with teachers and with other institutions. So to give you an example, I have an almost five-year-old and an almost two-year-old, and about two years ago, my then three-year-old was, I picked her up from daycare one day and we were walking home from school and she told me how her teacher chased her on the playground and grabbed her and brought her back inside. And so the chasing part and the grabbing part, of course, my, like parenting antennas went up and said like, what's going on here? And certainly in that moment I could have marched back to school, demanded to know what was going on. Kind of gotten the teacher in trouble. But instead what I tried to do was to try to figure out, so, okay, look what might have actually been going on here. And so what I've found out by carefully questioning my daughter, was that what really happened was that my daughter, it was a warm spring day and my daughter didn't want to wear her coat. It was probably like 55 degrees outside. And the teacher said, no, the rules are, if it's under 60 degrees, you have to wear your coats outside to recess. And so my daughter being stubborn as she is, decided that she was going to run out the door of the classroom without her coat on, and it made a break for it and almost got to the streets. And the teacher obviously ran after her and chased her and grabbed her - rightfully so - to protect her from running out into the street and then brought her back inside to have her put her coat on. So after understanding more about the situation, I was perfectly on board with the teacher's response. I sort of said to my daughter, like, look, there are rules for a reason. And it might feel unfair in those moments that you have to do something that you don't want to do, but unfair doesn't mean not getting what you want, and that there are rules for a reason that she has to respect the teacher and respect the rules and listen to the teacher when she tells her what to do.
And so I think being willing to think about the way that we talk to kids and especially privileged kids about fairness. And about what fairness actually means. And that fairness isn't just getting what you want all the time. And that question of why can't they always get what they want and why isn't it fair for them to always get what they wants to other kids in our society? and to other institutions and to the adults around them as well. Expecting teachers to drop everything just to make sure that they get what they want, is not fair to the teacher just as much as it isn't fair to the other students as well. And so, kind of being willing to have those conversations with kids even from a very early age, and to help them understand the consequences of their actions, to help them think about why rules are important and why respect for authority, I mean, certainly not ultimate deference to authority and that people in power are never wrong, but the idea that there is value in that kind of respect, thinking beyond our, our individual kids and not always assuming that their interpretations are the right interpretations, or that there might not be something going on either that the teacher was contending with if something didn't go your particular kid's way, I think can be a really good, powerful first step, for privileged parents to take.
Andrew: Can you tie some of this to life after school for these different kids? Because I feel like there's a piece of it though, like low income but certainly, kids who are not white don't get to talk their way out of problems once they leave school, and seems like there's maybe a piece of what parents are desiring is asking the school to actually prepare them for the world that they're going to live in. And, and the white and privileged parents know that these things will continue on afterschool.
Dr. Calarco: Yeah. I mean, you're right in recognizing that there's very different worlds that these privileged kids and more marginalized kids that are going into when they leave school, and certainly that plays out when they move into the workforce, when they move into interactions with the healthcare system, with the criminal justice system. I mean, certainly there's huge implications there in terms of working class kids in some level, their parents, at least trying to prepare them for the world that they are likely to face. And I think we need to be cognizant to that when we think about how we change schools to try to address some of these problems. And I'd argue that the solution has to go beyond just schools and teachers and parents, that it really has to be thinking about how do we reduce the power that privileged people have to bend the system to advantage them in every possible way. And maybe that's things like decoupling school funding from property taxes or decoupling test scores from home buying websites to reduce the power of the privileged parents to say, “Hey, if you don't give me what I want, I can pull my kid out of this school and all of a sudden your funding is going to go away.” Or kind of making sure that teachers are paid decent wages and don't have to rely on parents and especially privileged parents to fight for them in fights with the school board over things like are they going to have benefits? Are they going to have adequate teacher salaries? Are they got to have adequate funding for the classes that they have? So I think to the extent that we can think about ways to reduce the power that privileged people, especially affluent white people, have in our society to make those demands, that's, it's a tough solution, but I think it's arguably one of the only ways that we'll be able to prevent privileged people from being able to demand that all of those institutions just cater to their needs.
Courtney: These institutions though, they're responsive to us, too, right? And with schools in particular, we ask the schools to cater to us because our vision of what a good parent is, is tied up in what we get from, from the educational system. And it seems like that system is unlikely to change unless we can change what it means for us to be a good parent.
Dr. Calarco: Yeah, absolutely. What are alternative ways to think about what being a good parent means? Is good parenting it's about doing what's best for your individual kid or can good parenting maybe instead be about how do we ensure that all kids have access to the kinds of opportunities that you want for your kid? And kind of reframing that conversation to be about raising all kids to have success and opportunities and not just to be very focused on sort of individual kids as markers of parental success.
Andrew: That's great. Well, Dr. Calarco, thank you so much for your time and your expertise and sharing with our audience. We really appreciate it.
Dr. Calarco: I really enjoyed the conversation.
Courtney: Okay, so I have a ton of thoughts, but, what stood out to you?
Andrew: A lot. I, you know, I think, I think it's worth reiterating that this episode was not meant to be sort of teacher bashing, right? Teachers are by and large committed professionals who are working hard to educate kids. But, you know, I think when we don't talk about the ways that our assumptions can lead us to treat kids differently and, and we don't train teachers to push back on that, we, we see that the impact of our system is negative, sort of, regardless of the intent of it.
Right? But I think, you know, I think it's, it's worth pointing out as well, that we can't ignore the ways that teachers are responsive to parent demands and particularly to white and privileged parent demands. So we have to examine the role that we as parents play in perpetuating these things too.
And you know, I'm definitely reminded that this work is really about class and not race. And while these issues clearly affect low income students, even wealthy students of color are often subjected to the same types of expectations. Not to mention all the other ways that identity shows up in schools, but Courtney, what stood out to you?
Courtney: Well, okay, so I'm, I'm sure I must have said this a thousand times by now, but how we imagine our kids' futures is so integral to the choices we make in the day to day. And you know, Dr. Calarco talked about how white and privileged parents work to protect their, our, kids from failure ensuring that our kids live not only economically secure adult lives, but also just don't have to worry too much. You know, while that's understandable, how we end up reverse engineering that really does come at a cost to other kids. And I don't want my kids to win on the backs of other kids. I don't want my kids to win a dirty game.
Andrew: They probably will anyway.
Courtney: I mean, yeah, right. We have a long way to go, but there are things we can do. to push back and to live differently.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I think it's interesting here, you know, she's saying that maybe the pendulum is starting to swing away a bit, that, you know, helicopter parenting is kind of going out of vogue or, or at least like admitting that you're helicopter parenting is, but you know, trying to find that line between, you know, helicopter parenting and almost-but-not-quite helicopter parenting. Like, like what is that line? I think she talks about right, between accommodation and assistance.
Courtney: Yeah. And there's nuance in there, right? Like there's an interpretation in accommodations versus assistance.
Andrew: Right, right . It's impossible. It's an impossible thing to sort of get, right. But I think as a guiding framework, we have to try to find that line. We have to be thinking about that.
Courtney: Yeah. And I think we have to add to that question of accommodations versus assistance. What is the impact that I'm having, that my parenting is having, that what I'm teaching my kids is having and that, you know, is not easy to gauge, but it's, you know, critical reflection point to keep at the forefront of our minds. Because: fairness. Right. And that was something I found fascinating in her discussion, fairness, cheating, what counts as those…?
Andrew: Yeah. Right. though, those things are constructed right? They get constructed differently across class in the school where she is like, what does it mean to teach your kids to self advocate, to figure out their own problems in a context in which other kids see those same actions, you know, things like getting out of homework without getting in trouble or having the teacher check your test before you turn it in, other kids see that as cheating. Like what does that mean?
Courtney: -- That's back to the impact, right?
Andrew: Right? Yeah. I don't know. Maybe a place to start is, try to have conversations with my kids about what are the norms for all the kids in the classroom. You know, are our other kids asking for these things or, or is it just you or is it just the other privileged kids?
Courtney: Right. And getting our kids and ourselves observant to those things and what's happening around us is really important and, you know, I think that this is like part of my biggest takeaway here is how much we take for granted as true, but it's really belief. It's culture masquerading as nature. It's ideology posturing as common sense. Like what you're bringing up about fairness being defined differently and what it means to be a good parent and what does it mean to get the best for our kids? These are culturally constructed and the way we construct them and reinforce them has an impact. And science is not immune to this… Science, the science of homework , we need to do a whole episode on science and how we use science as parents to get what we want.
Andrew: Yeah. I think that's probably an order, you know, I think these kinds of conversations are what make me excited about the work we're doing on the podcast and the work that Integrated Schools as an organization is doing. But you know, I, I guess I may be a little biased, so we thought we'd take a chance to hear what one of our board members has to say.
Dr. Rooks: My name is Noliwe Rooks. I'm a professor of Africana Studies and the Director of American Studies at Cornell University, and I am the author of a book called Cutting School Privatization, Segregation and the End of Public Education. So, Integrated Schools, as an organization, when I first heard about it, I felt literally like a cartoon character, where the light bulb went off over my head because as someone who has written about public education from the 19th century on, one of the threads that I'm clear about is: it is the resistance of white parents to really entertain the idea of participating, of joining hands with, and instead of helping, instead of saying, yes, we now believe we have seen that integration is a good, and, you know, becoming warriors for justice, far too frequently, it's white parents who basically say, I support integration as an ideal, but not for my kid. So what I felt when I first came to know about Integrated Schools was here is, not just a group of white parents who want to do better, but who are almost evangelical in spreading that message to other white parents. And I think it's one of the first groups and so one of the first moments where we can really see some sort of organized resistance and pushback to white parental apathy.
And as is true with all organizations trying to do good work, we need funds. We, I'm saying we as a board member, I'm saying we as a parent, we as a citizen of the United States who understands that we have got to get this educational inequality issue, this intractable problem, fixed. This is one way. This is a new way. We are in election season, we hear about small donations and what it means for citizens to actually support democracy. This is one of those calls. This is as important a donation as any other that you can make in the support of equality and anti-racism and as a citizen in this democracy. Give.
Andrew: Thank you, Dr. Rooks. You can give on our website directly IntegratedSchools.org click the donate button or join our Patreon patreon.com/integrated schools. Help the volunteers and integrated schools continue with our work.
Courtney: And thank you for listening and for being with us as we try to know better and do better.