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Working-class parents coach kids to problem-solve, middle-class promote asking for help

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Squeaky middle-class kid gets the grease?

The authors of a new study have discovered what many PTA-moms have known for years: Some middle-class children might be scoring an advantage at school because they've been encouraged by parents to "self-advocate" and bug teachers for extra help.

Working-class parents, meanwhile, coached their kids to avoid problems by trying to solve their issues alone, also emphasizing the importance of being primarily deferential to teachers.

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Lead author Jessica McCrory Calarco, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, interviewed parents and students a summer after the children finished Grade 5, and asked them about experiences they'd had since Grade 4. She found that their social class backgrounds shaped how they interacted with authority figures.

She found middle-class parents understood that teachers expect and reward queries from students, and taught their children that lesson: "Even very shy middle-class children learned to feel comfortable approaching teachers with questions, and recognized the benefits of doing so," Prof. Calarco said in a release.

"Working-class children instead worried about making teachers mad or angry if they asked for help at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and also felt that others would judge them as incompetent or not smart if they asked for help."

She pointed out that when working-class students did ask questions, teachers welcomed and answered their requests.

The study, titled Training Squeaky Wheels: Social Class and Parents' Development of Children's Self-Advocacy Skills and presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting last Sunday, posits that the self-advocacy skills taught by middle-class parents also help their kids down the road.

Said Prof. Calarco: "Youth who do not learn to advocate for themselves might have more difficulty interacting with social service providers, financial service providers, legal authorities and other bureaucratic institutions."

Have you seen this dynamic play out at school?

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Zosia More


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