The Parent in Education

Written by Ray Girn on August 1, 2021

What is the relationship between parenting and education?

  • What are the proper goals of parenting? What are the proper goals of education? How do the two relate?
  • Is education an expression and extension of parenting, or an entirely different kind of function? If the latter, what type of function is it?
  • How, when, and to what extent do the custodial rights and responsibilities of parents impact the nature of the education offered to the child? How, when, and to what extent is it a proper function of the state to guide and/or intervene?
  • Is childcare a part of education? If so, in what ways do the responsibilities of childcare relate to the responsibilities of supporting development? If not, in what ways are the responsibilities of childcare distinct from the responsibilities of supporting development?
  • Is moral development a proper goal of education? If so, in what ways do schools provide for moral education separate and distinct from the guidance provided by parents? And what happens when there are clashes between the desires of parents and of educational institutions?

Education as a State Function vs. Education as Delegated Parenting

Since ancient times, the education of the young has generally been seen as the purview of the state. At least in the west, this is true whether we look at Plato and Aristotle, or whether we fast forward to modernity. Even the founding thinkers of America, otherwise so emphatic about limiting state involvement in personal matters, saw education as a proper function of government. (See, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s arguments for the establishment of the University of Virginia.) While there has been violent disagreement about the proper approach to and content of education, the idea that it is for state, society, or community to decide has largely been uncontested through human history.

What does this suggest regarding the role of the parent? Speaking historically, with respect to content at least, it simply reflects the fact that the question simply didn’t arise in any major way prior to the mid-twentieth century. Aside from the issue of religious propriety—i.e. whether and which religion is taught, and how content is presented consistently with such religion—there has over the centuries been little widespread awareness that parents may have some concern with the specific content and methods of education. There have not, for example, been contentious sweeping mainstream movements and debates in earlier centuries about how parents are best positioned to decide how their children should be taught math or grammar.

The first major cultural awareness that the interest of the parent may be different than the prevailing social interest came in the second half of the twentieth century. The rise of homeschooling in America, for example, was co-extensive with concerns about differences and dangers of world ideologies that clashed with particular beliefs of parents, as well as an increasing distrust of large federal systems as such.

Parental concern with the content and methods of education increased over the latter decades of the 20th century, in parallel with a general increased understanding of and elevation of the role of the parent in development as such. It wasn’t until the 1970s that “to parent” fully appeared in common language as a verb; until then, “parent” describes a state of being rather than something one proactively does.

Human beings have always been concerned with educators “corrupting the youth”. What is historically new is the circumstance of such concerns arising not as a social or communal or state critique of a particular school or method of schooling, but as parental concern about the practices of society or state

With the advent of homeschooling, of parental choice programs such as vouchers, and more generally of the increasingly proactive role of the parent, a fundamental latent question has emerged: is education at root delegated parenting—the customary but in principle chosen assignment of a specific aspect of raising children to professionals, the same way one would delegate one’s legal defense to an attorney and with the same kinds of professional expectations—or is education at root the means by which society ensures a citizenry that meets a certain national or social standard irrespective of parental concern? Is education a species of parenting, or is it the means by which the state delimits the scope and impact of parental discretion?

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: the question is increasingly arising, and modern times demand a robust cultural account.

Education vs. Childcare

What is the role of childcare in education? This is a very important practical question arising directly from a view of the relationship between parenting and education. And it is particularly important in light of COVID, which brought the issue of childcare of school-aged children to the foreground.

At the early childhood ages (infancy through preschool), there has been longstanding tension between the developmentalist approach to early education, and the daycare/babysitting function. With exceptions, daycare operators tend to focus on the needs of working parents first and the educational needs of children second, whereas educators and pedagogues—developmentally focused practitioners such as Montessori or Reggio or RIE—focus on the needs of the developing child primarily, and address child-care needs secondarily if at all. The former try as they can to adopt the veneer of being developmentalists, and the latter try as they can to explicitly reject any accommodation of the childcare function.

At the elementary level, the tension manifests differently. Primarily it arises as a stated denial or an avoidance of the fact that school provides a childcare function, paired with a quiet reliance on exactly that function. Few parents actively and explicitly express the childcare need as a criterion for their children’s schooling, and yet as COVID has shown us, parents do in fact need childcare and count on schools to provide it. Indeed, the overwhelming reaction to online schooling in large part reflects an unstated recognition that such programs do not solve the pressing childcare need.

Because there is a deep resistance to the idea that a critical function of schools is to provide childcare, there is a lack of open exploration of the relationship between education and childcare. There is little acknowledgment and respect of the centrality of the childcare need for families of elementary-aged children. Amongst other things, this prevents an otherwise natural unbundling (and potential rebundling) of the two functions in ways that could conceivably massively improve both.

Further, it could be argued that the pervasive and problematic divide between early childhood and K-12 education is itself a reflection of a particular view of the relationship between education and parenting. Starting school at 4-5 years old is an expression of the view that formal education begins where maturity allows a child to transcend a certain type of reliance on parenting. A whole host of practices flow from this basic distinction, including how many public resources are provided to support certain programs, massive differences in educator pay for those working in early years programs, differences in regulatory bodies governance and oversight, etc. If instead we thought of practical childcare needs as extending from birth to adolescent independence, and the same with intellectual development, it is unlikely we’d have the broad and sweeping global distinction between early education and elementary education.

Ideology in Education

As it is increasingly becoming apparent, there seems to be an irreconcilable clash between the right to free expression and the institution of public education. However one slices it, there does not seem to be any credible rationale to say that a person has freedom of thought and expression, and then to compel that individual to have his children study, practice, and demonstrably internalize ideas contrary to his or her views.

In the American context, the separation of church and state has been distinctly noted and defended, but little analysis has been done regarding whether the same inherently ought to be true of education and state. In fact, it seems that any argument against mandating saying prayer at public school ought to apply equally to all intellectual content. If a parent has some discretion over what religious practices his child is exposed to at school, then on what basis does he not have the same discretion regarding the carb-centric food pyramid.

In the west, there are generally limitations on the state’s role in legislating truth. Certain things, e.g. religion, are seen as private and not the function of policy. Other things are seen as properly a matter of vote. Where does educational content and programming fit?

There may be legitimate arguments that the first amendment (in the American context) should not extend to parental rights. But such arguments have to be articulated, and embedded into coherent frameworks. If parent custodial rights are bounded in certain ways, what are the contours and conditions of such boundaries? Clearly there are some boundaries—a parent in the United States does not have custodial discretion to beat or starve his children. One could similarly argue that freedom of expression does not apply to parental discretion about the ideas their children are required to learn—that such prerogative properly belongs to the state. The point here is simply that if one believes the right to a parent’s free expression extends to discretion about what ideas his children encounter, then there is a need to relate that fact to the fact of public schooling.

The Future of Parenting and Education

The big present-day need is an account of the relationship between parenting and education. As that theoretical work is done, it may suggest a different social structure to schooling (or it may affirm that current structure of almost entirely centralized, state-administered education).

Whatever the practical implications, it is critical to do theoretical work to ground approaches to schooling (from public school to unschooling and everything in between). Unless there is a deep understanding of the relationship between parenting and education, we risk normalizing a system that at least a large minority of people, if not a majority, believe is dysfunctional and inconsistent with known facts of human development.

The purpose of this project is to explore and facilitate explorations and discussion of issues pertaining the proper relationship between parenting and education, and ultimately to propose a thoughtful account of such relationship. Given the increase of school choice, the politicization of education, and most importantly the increasingly opinionated views of the role of parents in childhood development, there is an urgent need for such exploration.

Ray Girn

Ray Girn received a BSc with honors from the University of Toronto, with a focus on philosophy and neuropsychology, as well an Association Montessori Internationale teaching diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego.

Prior to founding Higher Ground, Girn had a 13-year career with LePort Schools. Working at LePort’s K-8 lab school, he helped lead a team of educators in architecting LePort’s upper school curriculum and program. In 2010, he took over as CEO, expanded the team, and implemented an ambitious growth strategy. In five years, Girn and his team took the company from a small, local family business of three schools to the largest Montessori operator in the United States.

In March 2016, Girn founded Higher Ground Education with the vision of greatly accelerating the growth of Montessori education globally. Higher Ground aims to create a comprehensive international platform to deliver high-quality, high-fidelity Montessori programming everywhere, as well as to conduct the research and development necessary to extend Montessori principles to new, innovative models of secondary education.