If you love your children, set them free

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Expanding the role of parents in education has become a key government policy. HMIE in The Journey to Excellence describes an excellent school as one where there is a "strong partnership with parents".

Everyone seems to assume that greater parental involvement in schools is a good thing. That's common sense, isn't it? The parent is the child's first teacher and can play a crucial role in helping him or her to learn. The interest some parents play in their children's education later on can give them the edge in examinations over others whose parents are less interested.

But Kevin Rooney, who published an essay about the partnership between parents and schools on the Institute of Ideas website recently, asked some interesting questions. Is increased parental involvement in schools an intrinsically good thing? What constitutes good parenting? Does it involve being prepared to immerse yourself in every detail of your child's education and life? Good questions, and we could go a step further and ask: how important is parenting?

In The Nurture Assumption (1998), Judith Rich Harris claims there is no proof that parents have any power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence or the way they behave outside home, particularly when they reach the teenage years.

The last bit will strike a chord with many. But, needless to say, Judith Rich Harris's view on parental influence has been strongly challenged by psychologists. Oliver James, in How to Survive Family Life (2002), appears to claim the opposite, namely that differences in psychology in most respects are not much influenced by the genes. But, interestingly, he only makes the claim that parental care is critical in the first six years.

Maybe he, too, has doubts about parents' capacity to influence teenagers.

The ancient debate about nature versus or via nurture will go on. But, in the meantime, who are we to believe?

In my view, not Ms Rich Harris. Nurture does make a difference - the question is how much and when? In fact, that's her point: the ways in which parents shape their children beyond genetics is little understood by psychologists. She believes parenting may have been oversold. The idea that we can make our children turn out the way we want them to is an illusion.

We should give up trying.

Ms Rich Harris's message is one that those who are into hot-housing their children need to hear. Many parents are obsessed with their children's educational performance well before they go to school. She is not denying that the relationship between a parent and a child is crucially important, but it's important in the same way as a relationship between partners. It is where one cares about the other and derives happiness from making the other happy. It shouldn't be a relationship in which the partners' central goal is to modify the other's personality. Nor is it about living your dreams through your children.

They may be our children, but they are not our possessions. They don't belong to us any more than our partners do. They are capable persons in their own right from the day they are born. We should be pleased and sad for them, rather than proud of them or disappointed in them.

So has The Journey to Excellence got it wrong? When you look at how HMIE actually defines what a strong partnership with parents is, they talk in measured tones of parents helping their children to engage with learning, sustaining their attention and developing their confidence.

This does not describe or require hothousing. And that's the way it should be.

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