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Wendy S. Grolnick Headshot

Coddling, Competition and the Common Core

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Arne Duncan's "white suburban moms" comment has stirred up a great deal of controversy, precipitating those for and against the Common Core standards to weigh in. On the one hand, Frank Bruni has taken this as an opportunity to highlight the trendy theme that the current epidemic of "coddling" by overbearing parents (for which there is virtually no evidence) is fueling anti-Common Core sentiment. On the other, the comment has led parents already skeptical of the Common Core to believe that the Obama administration cares more about beating other high-performing countries than children's well-being and motivation.

This detrimental rhetoric appears to reflect different construals of the Common Core initiative on both sides. If the choice is between a "get tough, build grit, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" approach versus an approach that is child-centered and facilitates child motivation, what caring parent wouldn't choose the latter for their child? If the debate for and against the standards is constructed as settling for low expectations and letting children be deficient and unprepared for college versus giving children the skills they need to be ready for the future, what self-respecting educator wouldn't choose the latter?

As a researcher of parent involvement and motivation for three decades, this debate is very familiar. Parental control has been discussed as "good for children" and "bad for children" depending on how the term is conceptualized and juxtaposed. If parental control is compared with child input and autonomy, control is negative. However, if the term refers to serving as an authority and having clear rules and expectations versus no structure or guidelines, control is good.

High expectations can be completely consistent with a supportive parental framework. In fact, we have found that when parents set high expectations but do so in a way that includes allowing input into those rules and expectations, opportunities to disagree and clear rationales for why they are in place, children are most likely to internalize the values underlying the rules and willingly follow them. They also are most likely to feel competent and in control of their own behavior.

Having a set of expectations says nothing about the way those expectations are conveyed.
Not being an expert on educational standards, I'm largely agnostic on the Common Core. But the rhetoric about the standards has victimized children and parents. Parents feel that they are pawns in a race to outperform other countries. Parents don't care about how their kids are faring in relation to Finland or South Korea. They care about the education and well-being of their children.

We need to change the rhetoric. Rather than telling parents how the Common Core is going to help us beat out our global competitors, we must present evidence on how the standards can help parents reach their own unique goals for their children. Parents must be assured that having standards does not mean pressuring children to hit proficiency at all costs. They must see evidence that there will be support for both children and teachers without blame or derision when together they meet the challenges put forth.

It is time for a respectful dialogue around the Common Core that embraces parents' input. And while we are addressing false comparisons, I might add that equating "coddling" with parent involvement and "non-competitiveness" with lack of value for educational excellence are two that are especially unhelpful.