From “philosopher” to “negotiator” – these parental roles help kids thrive

jean schweitzer, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Jean Schweitzer, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Harvard economist Ron Ferguson explains the different approaches used by parents of highly successful children. Together with journalist Tatsha Robertson, he identified eight parental roles that turned out to be particularly important.

Jack Graham: What are the key parental roles in a child’s early years?

Ronald F. Ferguson: I call the first role the ‘early learning partner’. That’s the parent who spends a lot of time with their child, in activities the child experiences as play but which are really hooking them on learning. It often entails problem-solving, where one way or another the parent is inviting the child to figure things out and experience what that feels like. So by the time they start school, these children can read, they are used to thinking, they are used to having conversations with adults.

Beyond that, in the first five years, what I call the role of the ‘philosopher’ is getting started sometimes, where the child is asking questions and the parent will give very thoughtful answers. Sometimes it’s a question like: why do people die? It’s responding to the child in ways that support the child’s thinking.

Another parental role that emerges in the first five years is the ‘negotiator’. Some of these really bright people are very strong-willed children – they’re not easy to manage sometimes. The parent has to figure out how to help the child develop self-control, without killing their sense of initiative. You don’t want the child just to become fearful. You want the child to still be curious, still reach out and experience life – but also know when to hold back.

JG: You and Tatsha Robertson just released a book, “The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children“. What is it about, and how did you come up with the ‘formula’?

RF: We used a “grounded theory” approach. You start with a question – ours was “How were highly successful people parented?” – then look for patterns. We were not trying to test any particular hypothesis.

Tatsha called me in 2014 to see what I thought about her idea for a book. She had interviewed 60 highly successful people beginning in 2005, when she was a journalist at the Boston Globe. She had no idea that I had organized the How I was Parented project at Harvard, which had interviewed 120 students in 2009 and 2010 and provided more material to start with. Since we were asking the same basic question, we decided to become an investigative team.

“The parent has to figure out how to help the child develop self-control, without killing their sense of initiative.”

About half of the two-dozen high achievers whose lives we profile in the book are Harvard graduates whom the How I Was Parented project interviewed first as students. It was five or six years later when Tatsha and I re-interviewed them and most of their parents, too. Outside Harvard, both of us found people who impressed us at conferences, concert halls, and through an online outreach that Tatsha did. Combined with people Tatsha came across during her journalism work, including President Obama as a parent, that’s how we found the people for the book.

Doing and reviewing the interviews together helped us finally discover the pattern. There were eight parental roles that we were hearing about over and over in these stories, and it turned out that almost every story included all eight roles. Later we went back and found that there was science to help explain why each role was important.

JG: How did writing this book affect your understanding of child development in the home?

RF: It gave us more examples of what highly effective parents do to give their children intellectual advantages during those early years. They’re students of their children, always looking for ways to engage the child, but still not overdoing it.

One mother is a social scientist who studies metacognition – thinking about thinking. When her children asked her a question, she would give them an answer which wasn’t quite right. As a three-year-old, her daughter asked her “mummy, how do you spell happy?”. The mother said “h a p y”. And the daughter said “are you sure?”, and the mother said “I think so”. Three months later the daughter came back and said “mummy, happy is h a p p y.”

“When it comes to poor parents, we need to be sure that we provide resources in communities, so that when parents do all that they can do, that there’s others to help fill in the missing pieces that rich parents find more easily.”

One family was homeless most of the time from when the kid was about three years old to six years old. They went from shelter to shelter but they always got books from the library. They always spent a lot of time reading books and discussing them, and riding the bus around town, looking at the dilapidated buildings and people standing around. The mother would tell the child: “When you start school and if you do well you don’t even have to see things like this”.

JG: So how does poverty hold parents like these back?

RF: Poverty affects the ways that people play these roles, not whether they can play them or not. For some of these roles it means the family has to find an ally: other people to help. For the family I just told you about, the minister from the church ended up being an important ally.

The rich parents can pay somebody for helping, and pay their way into the best neighbourhoods, get the better music teacher, or enrol their children in an extra-curricular activity. But when it comes to poor parents, we need to be sure that we provide resources in communities, so that when parents do all that they can do, that there’s others to help fill in the missing pieces that rich parents find more easily.

When the parents that ended up in our book – we call them “Master Parents” – looked for help, they actually found that help. If you had their high-achieving children in a room today, as adults, you would not have any way to know which ones were poor or not when they were kids.

Ron Ferguson, faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, and journalist Tatsha Robertson released their book “The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children” in February 2019. The book features interviews with hundreds of high-achievers and their parents, including never-before-published insights from Harvard’s “How I was Parented” Project.

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