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18th September 2009 at 01:00
Pushy parents can strike the fear of God into even the most confident teachers, but getting them on side could yield results

In the late 1960s, Stanley Ann Dunham and her son lived in a small apartment on the outskirts of Jakarta in Indonesia. Although she took a job teaching English at the US Embassy to support her family, she was unable to pay the extortionate fees at Jakarta's elite international school, and often worried that her son wasn't challenged enough. As a result, she rose every day before dawn to give him English lessons from a US correspondence course.

Stanley Ann Dunham was Barack Obama's mother, who died 13 years ago. Her highly ambitious approach to child-rearing is quite possibly one of things that drove Obama to pursue his goals with such determination in later life.

"Pushy" parents such as Ann Dunham strike the fear of God into teachers. Derided for taking their children on an endless round of extra-curricular activities - from Suzuki violin classes to Mandarin lessons - their constant scrutiny and high expectations make many perfectly capable teachers feel insecure. In fact, stress caused by demanding parents has become such a problem that teachers in some state schools have received specialist training to tackle their complaints.

Chemistry teacher Jane Setchfield knows only too well how demanding these parents can be. "We've had incidents of teachers having homework marks queried by parents and having false allegations made about them," she says. "I have had parents demanding that their child is entered into a higher exam paper when they are not at that level. There are an increasing number of cases of teachers suffering unreasonable demands and behaviour."

But instead of posing a threat to teachers, by working with them rather than against them, pushy parents could be the answer to improving pupils' life chances. Earlier this year, the Government came out in favour of aspirational parents when Alan Milburn's report on social mobility found that "parental interest has four times more influence on attainment by the age of 16 than does socio-economic background."

Mr Milburn said that he wanted "more pushy parents, not fewer". Andrew Adonis came to the same conclusion last year after 10 years as an education adviser to Tony Blair and as schools minister. "I want every parent to be a pushy parent. It is a jolly good thing," he said.

In his most recent book Outliers, the journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell attempts to define how and why people become successful. He agrees that pushiness is a good thing, detailing extensive research following the academic achievements of children of various socio-economic backgrounds. The statistics suggested that all the children did remarkably similarly during the academic year - it was in the holidays that some gained an advantage. Those whose parents read and played games with them had leapfrogged their peers by the end of the summer.

Gladwell also describes a series of studies conducted by the sociologist Annette Lareau, who followed a number of families in their daily routine. After several months, she found that parenting approaches divided themselves almost perfectly along class lines.

According to Professor Lareau, the wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children's free time, shuttling them from one activity to another, while this kind of intense scheduling was completely absent in the lives of the poorer children.

Professor Lareau terms the former, middle-class parenting style "concerted cultivation" - the attempt to "actively foster and assess a child's talents". According to the research, low-income parents seemed to follow a strategy of "accomplishment of natural growth" - where the parents assume that their offspring will spontaneously grow and thrive. The more advantaged children tend to have a sense of entitlement, Professor Lareau concludes, brought on by nudging, prodding and encouraging on the part of the parent. It is this that gives the child a cultural advantage.

But where is the line between outright pushy and just supportive? Parents who engage with their children and take an active interest in their academic progress may be construed as "pushy". But what of those mothers who fill their child's every waking hour with enriching activities and do not accept failure as a part of learning?

There is a spectrum of types of aspirational parents, says Dr Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, professor in the Department of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "There are a number of different styles in the way that aspirational parents conduct themselves, two of which are the most prominent," she says. "On the one hand, you have the parent that doesn't want their child to fall behind and therefore makes learning a purely academic experience. Research suggests that children don't learn as well in those kinds of environments."

Then there is a second type of aspirational parent, which Dr Hirsh-Pasek refers to as the "Mary Poppins mum". "The Mary Poppins mum engages with her children and provides contexts in which they can immerse themselves in `purposeful play'," she says. "Research suggests that these children will fare better in the long term. Human beings learn better in social contexts, they learn better when active, and when they concentrate on the process of learning."

There is compelling evidence that this form of "pushiness" - in other words measured parental involvement - can improve children's attainment at school. Whether it be helping children with homework, joining them in everyday activities or simply talking to them, these forms of involvement have proven beneficial for children's academic progress. This is exactly what Every Child Matters, the Government's manifesto for the wellbeing of children, has attempted to foster. It states that "parents are a child's first and enduring teachers. They play a crucial role in helping their children learn. Children achieve more when schools and parents work together."

But how can teachers and parents work together to achieve this? Liz Tagart, a chartered educational psychologist, feels teachers should work in close co-operation with parents in order to raise attainment and achieve the best outcome for children. "For the parents to know and communicate with the teacher, to insist on attendance, and to do homework and reading practice are all positive factors," she says. "Correlation does not prove causation, so parents with high levels of involvement may simply be the type of parents who read more with their children. It is this which raises the attainment."

Although academic activities can be beneficial for children, starting early is not always the way forward. Parents who rush primary schoolchildren into intensive academic activities do not appreciably help their youngsters, and may even do some harm, suggests Dr Hirsh-Pasek. Taking children on an endless round of extra-curricular appointments could do more harm than good - depriving them of childhood pleasures, while leaving no lasting academic advantage.

According to Dr Hirsh-Pasek, this parental obsession with extra-curricular activity is part of a general movement towards the demise of free play. "Many parents have become so demanding that they have wiped all free play out of their children's lives," she says.

"Children learn a number of important skills during free play such as social skills and time management. By thinking that we have to manage their time, we are losing important skills that children will need upon entering the workforce."

A recent study, conducted by a prominent children's drink brand this summer, confirmed this trend. According to the report, children now take part in far fewer games than their parents did - of more than 4,000 adults surveyed, 94 per cent had skipped "often" as girls, while only 24 per cent of contemporary girls do the same. This may be due to increased pressure from parents to channel their children's energy into prescribed activities, or the rise in children spending time in front of the TV or computer games.

"When parents become overly involved in the lives of their children, what they tend to do is take over for them like the CEO of a company," adds Dr Hirsh-Pasek.

"CEO parents often don't allow their children to explore and discover because the philosophy is that children are pails to be filled rather than discoverers on a journey. Parents need to become guides rather than commanders."

If you sense that this is the case with some of the parents of pupils in your classroom, it is your role to step in, says Margaret Morrissey of the Parents Outloud campaign group. "Any teacher with this problem should call a meeting for all the parents and explain very clearly what the school day entails and how children benefit from time at home after school to relax and recharge," she says. "The teacher should make suggestions on how many activities it is reasonable to arrange after school."

If the extra-curricular activities interfere with the child's education, it is important to make the parents aware of the consequences it might have. "Too many activities can make children feel tired and listless the next day," says Ms Morrissey. "If this is the case, the parents will be informed and it will be suggested that the activities are cut down. This often works well as these parents also want their child to be seen as the brightest and the best."

However, she appeals to teachers to try to understand the parents' position. "Although this behaviour can be quiet unbearable, parents sometimes do not even realise they are being difficult," she says. "In some cases they are trying to compensate for all the things they missed as children through their own offspring."

Being too pushy with young children does not necessarily mean they will fare well in adult life. Although we must view high attainment as an important goal, we must also consider the long-term repercussions of increased parental pressure, says Eirini Flouri, lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Education.

According to a study she conducted in 2007, mothers' expectations have a significant effect on their daughters' sense of control in later life. Since their expectations reflect their involvement and interest in their children's lives, the study found that pushiness could improve girls' sense of control and ability to do well at the age of 30 and beyond. However, boys did not respond as well. "Mothers' expectations had no effect on sons' adult outcomes," she says. "This may be simply because low-status parents invest more in low-status offspring." In other words, mothers invested more in their daughters because they could identify with them - when it came to their sons, this was not the case.

Interestingly, though, Dr Flouri's research suggests that pushiness has positive effects, even after controlling for confounding factors such as socio-economic disadvantage, family structure and ethnicity. Further to this, it suggests that the link between pushy mothers and attainment is even stronger in children from lower socio-economic groups - which could have interesting implications for social mobility.

That's not to say that higher income families don't have certain advantages. "Middle and upper middle-class children get a lot of exposure to academic settings because there are books in the home," says Dr Hirsh- Pasek. "It can be more difficult for the lower income families, where 25 per cent don't have age-appropriate books in the home. These families will therefore have to make a conscious effort to create academic settings for their children."

According to the professor, low-income families must make an effort to provide environments in which children are seeing print and are engaging in problem-solving. "We must help poorer families to provide these environments by using resources such as public libraries and children's museums," she suggests.

Regardless of income bracket, parents can strike a balance between sustaining high expectations and engaging with their children, argues Paul Dix, lead trainer at Pivotal Education. "Accepting failure as part of learning, giving children choice, autonomy and responsibility for their behaviour, teaching resilience and self-efficacy can give every child the roots for development," he says.

And far from being a threat, the close co-operation of teachers can only help parents achieve their dreams for their children. After all, they are all working towards the same goal.

Dealing with pushy parents

  • Try to work with the parents instead of against them - remind yourself that they only want the best for their child.
  • Set boundaries - let the parents know when and how often they are allowed in the classroom.
  • Encourage parents to help in the classroom at specific times - they will appreciate being able to see what is going on in their child's daily life.
  • Communicate with the parent - this is a critical element in the pupil's development.
  • Let them know when enough is enough - if parents are being too pushy and thereby hindering their child's education, voice your concerns to them.
  • If you suspect that several children in your classroom may be suffering under increased parental pressure, call a meeting with all the parents and inform them of how many extra-curricular activities are appropriate.
    • Examples of pushy parents

      • Rebecca Adlington - the British freestyle swimmer who won two Olympic gold medals - has an ambitious mother. She drove Rebecca to practice every day at 5am in her youth.
      • Lindsay Lohan's mother was famously pushy - she has been her manager from the age of four and has organised her singing and film career.
      • The Williams sisters' father, Richard Williams, became their coach in their teens, and had great influence over his daughters' career from that point.
      • Tom Daley's father is also his coach - ever since he won gold at the 1998 Commonwealth Games at the age of 13.

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