Tapping Our Parental Power (In a Nutshell)

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For example, a group of teachers in Boston, Mass. Throughout the nation, parents, educators, and community members are working together to boost student achievement.

Tapping Our Parental Power 1

Certainly, the mandates for parental involvement contained in the No Child Left Behind NCLB Act have spurred many schools to better employ the contributions of parents and community members. To seek input from a broader range of stakeholders, the member team includes representatives from parent groups, higher education, and community agencies, as well as teachers, administrators, and central office personnel. The team meets every month to look at issues and help determine how to address those concerns, says Avallone. Now in its second year, the team has become "a very important, viable force," which most recently helped shape a student suspension policy, now up for review by the district's board of education.

Parents, teachers, and students work together to set and achieve goals that lead to student success. Teachers and administrators "talk to kids and ask them to pledge to do five or six things that will help ensure success for all students. In New Haven, as parents and community members learn how they can best help schools create optimal learning environments, they must also adopt the mind-set that they will be working to enhance learning conditions for all students—not just their own sons or daughters, says Avallone.

The emphasis on all is important "because it frames education reform as a collective endeavor," says John Rogers, education professor at University of California, Los Angeles. When all stakeholders unite their efforts, it communicates the message that the whole community has a responsibility to advocate for better schools, Rogers states.

Dennis Shirley, education professor at Boston College, agrees.


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In many cases, poor, working-class parents aren't part of that long-established parent group. The hopes they have for their children's education won't be realized, Shirley explains, unless they have a coalition of people who have "a broader understanding of the public good"—those who know that their well-being is connected to the well-being of others. Both Shirley and Rogers have written extensively about community organizing for urban school reform.

The approach is effective, these scholars suggest, because it is rooted in democratic principles. In Los Angeles, Calif. Rogers describes Mary Johnson, Parent U-Turn's president and director, as an activist whose modus operandi is fueled by the premise that there is "strength in knowing. Parent power lies in being able to gather and distribute information as well. Parent U-Turn, therefore, regularly conducts surveys of parents and youth. The group then "uses this information to go back to a principal or district office [personnel] and say, 'We need to reassess what we're doing.

For educators and parents alike, accepting community groups as potential allies in school reform is an evolutionary process. He explains that community advocates cannot be wholly effective working from the outside. And, just as parents and community members may need to be educated in how they can advocate for the betterment of schools, educators may need to learn how to establish proactive relationships with different education stakeholder groups.

Using "public power" to ensure all students receive a quality education is a promising trend, says Rogers. Still, he adds, such collective action will not replace traditional forms of parental involvement; rather, it will enhance them. Higher levels of discipline and better communication by mothers were both associated with reports of lower frequency of conflict; ethnicity did not moderate this association.

Thus, respect for authority was most salient to group differences in conflict. Research on the nature of conflict within parent—child relationships has traditionally focused on two developmental periods, early childhood and early adolescence. Similarly, early adolescence is often a time of increased emotional and physical distancing from parents e. But what is happening between parents and children during middle and late childhood? Research investigating conflictual interactions between parents and their children during this developmental time period is sparse at best.

In addition, despite a growing literature on families of different ethnic and economic backgrounds e. In the present investigation, we specifically examined parent—child conflicts in African American, Latino, and European American families to determine whether conflict varies among families characterized as having different cultural traditions and belief systems. Children who enter adolescence with more conflictual relationships have been found to be at greater risk for more severe parent—child problems and poorer child outcomes during adolescence Steinberg, Because mothers and daughters typically experience close, interdependent relationships, this dyad may be particularly prone to conflict when attempts to integrate individual goals and behaviors while maintaining the close relationship are put forth.

However, very few investigations have examined mother—daughter interactions among families with different cultural contexts, especially among preadolescent girls. If conflict in parent—child relationships is linked to autonomy and perceptions of parental authority, then conflict may have a cultural basis Fuligni, It has been suggested that within African American families, an extremely high value is placed on respecting, obeying, and learning from elders in the kinship network and community Willis, In contrast, the young adolescents primarily viewed conflicts as issues of personal jurisdiction, that is, personal issues or individual concerns.

Thus, different perceptions of conflict by parents and adolescents may have contributed to conflict in these families; however, consistent with prior studies of European American adolescents, these studies revealed that conflicts were relatively frequent, were low in intensity, and occurred over everyday, mundane issues.

Other researchers have noted that African American adolescent girls and their mothers reported conflicting expectations for autonomy and closeness that stem from the hope that daughters will grow up self-reliant yet retain the expected loyalty and attachment to family and community Cauce et al. The Latino culture also has strong connections regarding family that tie together people from various Latin American cultures such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban.

Harwood, Miller, and Irizarry proposed the concept of proper demeanor , which encompasses an understanding of courtesy or behavior appropriate with others of a particular age, sex, or social status, that has similarities with conceptualizations of respect. For the most part, these investigations have been descriptive and qualitative in nature and involve infants and young children. In one of the few studies to address these issues with older children, Fuligni asked adolescents of different cultural backgrounds whether they thought they should argue with their parents when they disagree.

Non-European teenagers Mexican and Philipino were the least willing to openly contradict their parents; in addition, Latino adolescents felt that it was inappropriate to argue with or talk back to parents. Despite these attitudinal differences, adolescents reported similar levels of conflict and cohesion with their parents.

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Hypothetically, mothers and daughters in Latino and African American cultures may have different experiences regarding conflict than do European American families. However, prior studies have not demonstrated group differences in the number or frequency of conflicts among young adolescents and their parents. Notably, the Fuligni study was limited to adolescent reports of conflict.

It may be that ethnic differences in conflict, if they exist, are more likely to occur for parents as they may place greater value on obedience and respect for authority than children do. Authoritarian parenting practices have been found, in many studies, to be more common among ethnic minorities, while not showing associated negative child outcomes typically found with European American children raised within the same parenting style e.

A limited number of investigations have considered how maternal practices influence parent— child conflict among families with different cultural traditions. In the current investigation, we examined respect for parental authority, parenting practices, and conflict in a diverse sample of girls and their mothers. First, with the current study, we specifically focused on the middle childhood age period to examine parent— child conflict within a developmental period that has virtually been ignored.

Second, the focus of the current investigation was on parent— child conflicts in African American, Latino, and European American families so we could examine whether conflict varies among families characterized as having different cultural traditions. Third, we examined whether child characteristics such as respect for parental authority play a role in mother— daughter conflict prior to adolescence.

It was expected that associations between respect and mother— daughter conflict would be moderated by ethnicity. Finally, because previous research has yielded mixed results regarding ethnic differences in parenting behaviors e. Because a variety of factors such as socioeconomic status, family structure, and maternal age can either directly or indirectly affect the quality of family relationships and, more specifically, parent— child relationships e.

A convenience sample of African American, European American, and Latina third-grade girls 45, 65, and 23, respectively and their mothers were included. Girls and their families were from racially integrated, working- and middle-class communities in a large metropolitan area. The demographics of the families enrolled in the study are comparable to census tract data on families in these communities. Girls and their families were recruited via public schools in their communities when the girls were in third grade.

Girls received flyers and mothers were instructed to have their daughters bring back to their classroom or mail to the project office a card with their name, address, and telephone number if they were interested in getting more information on the study. Girls provided their assent for participation. Home visits were conducted with two data collectors one of the same ethnicity as the child whenever possible. Mothers and girls also completed survey measures in the 3 days following the home visit.

Institutional review board approval for the study was obtained from the sponsor institution Teachers College, Columbia University. During the home visit, girls and their mothers were given a checklist of conflicts and were asked to identify which issues they had had disagreements about in the past. Girls completed the checklist via interview with a data collector.

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Mothers completed the checklist on their own. Data collectors chose two items that were endorsed by both mother and daughter for use in the subsequent discussion. Mothers and daughters were instructed to discuss these two issues for 5—7 min using the following questions as guides in their discussion: The order in which coders scored mother or daughter was counterbalanced. The gold standard coder was of Latino descent Sara Villanueva Dixon.

Coding was conducted prior to developing this research project. This measure has been used among parents and children ages 9 through 16 years and covers commonly occurring issues e. The intensity variable was scored by taking the mean of the conflict intensity rating for each item that was endorsed.

Indicators of listener responsiveness included physically attending or orienting to the speaker; showing interest in what the other person is saying via eye contact, head nods, and so on; and acknowledging and validating the speaker. Indicators of defiance were actively disobeying or ignoring the parent, engaging in activities contrary to the request of the parent, and so on.

As indicated, the Defiance Scale measures the extent to which the child actively ignores or disobeys the parent and the Listener Responsiveness scale measures the extent to which the child attends to, shows interest in, acknowledges, and validates what her mother is saying. The two scales are summed such that high listener responsiveness and low defiance reversed scored result in high scores for respect. This measure has demonstrated reliability with ethnically and economically diverse samples of mothers e.

Communication Graber et al. A score of 3 characterized the relationship as being between the two extremes, neither excessively negative nor positive. A positive rating characterized the relationship as open, satisfying, pleasing, communicative, and warm. Mothers provided background information on themselves and the family. However, to be certain, we reran all analyses involving the use of covariates while including a dichotomous high—low income variable. Results were no different and the analyses therefore remain the same. Ethnicity was determined using self-report information provided by mothers during their interview.

Sample sizes, particularly when comparing ethnic groups, yielded cells that were too small to allow us to use more sophisticated statistical analyses such as structural equation modeling or other latent variable models. Analyses first examined ethnic group differences for child characteristics, maternal behaviors, and the conflict variables using ANCOVAs controlling for demographic variables.

Because examinations of all three ethnic groups resulted in small group sizes, orthogonal contrasts were also used, treating ethnicity as a three-level factor. Hierarchical regressions were used to determine if child and maternal variables predicted the conflict variables after accounting for demographic characteristics. The interaction of child and maternal variables with ethnic group was also included to test if ethnicity moderated these associations.

In initial analyses, we examined group differences on demographic variables. Significant differences were also found in marital status, with Educational attainment did not differ across groups. Intercorrelations between all variables are shown in Table 1. Correlations among variables are generally low to moderate. A few other associations were significant. Mother and daughter reports of conflict were also compared using dependent-sample t tests.

Analyses indicated that mothers and daughters did not have significantly different reports on conflict frequency. See Table 2 for means and standard deviations. Number of issues, frequency, and intensity ranged from a minimum of 0 to Nurturance and communication did not differ by ethnic group. The mean scores on relationship quality for the dyads indicated moderately positive scores across all three ethnic groups with no significant group differences see Table 2. Separate hierarchical regressions were conducted to examine whether maternal behaviors i. When examining respect as a possible predictor of conflict, results indicated that two models were significant; both were for maternal reports of conflict see Table 3.

The interaction term did not add significantly to this model. For maternal behaviors, none of the overall models were significant for maternal or child reports of conflict frequency or intensity. In two models, individual variables were significantly associated with one of the outcomes.


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  • In the present investigation, we considered specific maternal and child behaviors in an effort to uncover possible associations with parent—child conflict during the middle childhood period. There were undoubtedly variations within ethnic groups that were not directly examined given our focus on group differences. At the same time, many cultures emphasize respect for elders and connectedness in family relationships, and, hence, these issues can be examined in part via group comparisons.

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    In the current study, we operationalized the construct of respect by using observed behaviors during a conflict interaction between mothers and daughters. Such controlled observations of family interactions among different ethnic groups have rarely been done. Both sets of behaviors have been identified as components of respect for parental authority e. Although the inclusion of observational data was a major strength of the current study, using both observations and self-reports on familial respect would likely prove to be of great heuristic value and would further advance research in this area.

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    In the present investigation, there were significant ethnic group differences in the level of respect that children have for parental authority. African American and Latina girls did indeed show more respect toward parental authority than European American girls did, supporting the idea that within African American and Latino families, children follow a cultural tradition that places value on respect for parental authority and respect for elders.

    As Smetana and Gaines pointed out, respect, obedience, and cultural traditions are seen as important social conventions that parents and children within particular ethnic groups abide by. First, we found a main effect of respect on maternal report of frequency of conflicts. This finding demonstrates the importance that mothers place on being treated with respect by their daughters. Second, the interaction effect of respect and ethnicity indicated that African American and Latina mothers report significantly more intense arguments when respect is low than do European American mothers.

    These findings are similar to those of Fuligni ; in his study, despite holding different beliefs about respect for parental authority and individual autonomy, adolescents from various ethnic backgrounds reported strikingly similar amounts of conflict with their mothers. It should be noted that there are several methodological differences between the Fuligni study and the present investigation. We use an observed measure of respect whereas Fuligni used a paper-and-pencil report, and our sample was preadolescent whereas his comprised young adolescents. Most important, though, both mother and daughter reports of conflict were examined in the present investigation.

    Inclusion of maternal reports clearly extended the delineation of the role of respect in parent—child conflict. In this case, stricter or harsher disciplinary practices as reported by the mothers were associated with lower frequency of conflict as reported by the daughters. Thus, findings were in line with prior reports that parents who emphasize restrictive behaviors have children who display fearful, timid, and conforming behaviors Baumrind, It should be noted, however, that although specific coefficients were significant, the overall regression models that controlled for demographic variables were not significant.

    The regression coefficients were essentially the same as the weak correlations reported in Table 1 , and the association was not moderated by ethnicity. At the same time, results indicated that African American and Latina mothers engage in more restrictive, disciplinary behaviors than do European American mothers. However, it is important to remember that no group differences were found in maternal nurturance maternal report or relationship quality observed ; both scores were moderately high across groups in this study. Findings for maternal nurturance should be interpreted with caution, though, given the lower reliability for this scale and the fact that it was not associated with any other constructs in this study.

    Moreover, these findings are consistent with other studies that indicate that ethnic minority mothers exert more control over their children when they use parental control and restrictiveness as protective factors Mason et al. Other more general findings in this study warrant discussion. Results of the current investigation indicate that mothers and their daughters do not significantly differ in their reports of the frequency of conflicts. This finding seems to contradict the prevailing view that children generally report more conflicts than do parents, at least during early adolescence Smetana, However, girls in the present investigation were in the middle- to late-childhood period.

    Moreover, mothers and daughters in the current sample did significantly differ on how heated they reported conflict to be, with girls reporting more intensity in conflict than mothers.

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