Monday, December 10, 2007

School readiness

This was an issue that we struggled with on a project: how to measure school readiness which Judith Warner brings up on p. 231 of Perfect Madness:

While hyperparenting can induce anxiety, depression, and stress in older kids, among younger children it now seems chiefly to produce bad behavior. Educators complain that many children have trouble transitioning to preschool because they've been played with so constantly ahd have gotten so much of what they want all the time at home. The come to kindergarten overprepared intellectually and underprepared in social skills. As a result, wrote Judy Azzara, a recently retired school principal who topped off her career with an impassioned cri de coeur in Education Digest in 2001, teachers are having to deal with a "spoiled generation" of young children who simply don't know how to behave. "Some five-year-olds actually come to kindergarten reading, writing, talking with extensive vocabularies and capable advanced math," she wrote, "but many do not know how to share or play cooperatively and often demand continuous one-on-one attention and entertainment. Ironically, despite these obvious academic gains, educators see more and more children still lacking in important developmental gains such as basic social skills or even potty training." ... Azzara argued that many problems teachers face now in school stem from parents' inability to simply let go and let their children be. She mentioned mothers sobbing at the classroom door while their children entered kindergarten and said it is now an educational goal among teachers to get parents to "let go." She made a plea for larger doses of parental benign neglect ...

As much sympathy as I have with this view, I find the causal chain to be be weak: from hyperparenting to bad behavior. And even if it were the case, how does this translate into outcomes when they are adults? For instance, she tries to make the claim that in our parents' day, their style of parenting combined with the choices available to women from the women's movement led the women to become a generation of bulimics and other food disorders when when they went to college. (Actually, she doesn't actually say it was causal, but the implication is there.) And what parent doesn't feel a tug in the heart as they let go on the first day of school?

Here is another example of anecdotes (and a powerful one) trumping actual data. I wonder what the reality/truth is. I can't say I've observed these types of "bad" children or parents in our kids' preschools (and yes, we are in the Washington, DC metro area) although yes, there probably are parents (like me) who go into fits of anxiety and guilt over field trips, birthday parties, play dates and such. Although, our brother-in-law reports that he sees such "bad parents" in his school district in NJ.
The proof/effects of this causal chain will be in the future as on p. 233:

Others question whether our incessant coddling and cheerleading won't eventually lead our children to have weakened self-esteem by making them doubt both the veracity of our praise and their abilities to really accomplish worthwhile things. Too much focusing on themselves can lead some children toward the kind of self-obsession that shows up later in depression. And "selfism," some say, can lead children not to care about the outside world at all. "I think this generation will be totally self-centered," a veteran teacher in a Washington, D.C. nursery school told me. "I think they'll feel a real need to produce and have things. I don't think they'll have a clue about the human side of our lives."

Even so, I think it will be hard to prove causality. I can only point to Levitt's attempts to show how abortion leads to a decrease in crime as an illustration of the difficulties. The crux here is how individual decisions (hyperparenting/abortion or not) translate in to some aggregate outcome measure (percent of self centered people/crime rate). If we had micro data to show some of the above linkages then I may be convinced. My prior however, is on the side of Warner's text.

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