Want Your Child to Graduate? Follow this Advice

A single mom gives wise advice for guiding a child to graduate.

Posted Jun 08, 2014

It’s well established that the best predictor of a student’s achievement in school is parent involvement. [1] You want your child to be happy in school, do his or her homework, get higher scores on tests, make good grades, go to college, and graduate. How can you be involved without being a hovering helicopter parent? Here are some life-lessons from a single-parent mother. 

JoAnn is no psychologist. She’s a single parent who knows how to raise a child. Just like Hillary Clinton who recently reported in a Vogue excerpt from her upcoming book Hard Choices [2], JoAnn says that her mission in life from the first time she held her daughter in her arms in the hospital was “to give her every opportunity to thrive.” JoAnn thinks being an involved parent requires sacrifice and hard choices. 

In my view JoAnn’s formula fits much of the empirical, quantifiable, research-based theory I read in psychology today, but like all good advice from psychologists or from books, JoAnn tweaks the science with lessons from life. 

I wrote down tips from JoAnn who I met on a bus trip from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans which was one leg of JoAnn’s 1000-mile bus trip from Atlanta to San Antonio to attend her daughter’s college graduation. (Her daughter attended on a full scholarship.) Having learned that my travel companion was a single mom going to her child’s graduation, I congratulated her and asked what parents should be doing to help. In sharing her real-life lessons for how a parent gets a child from birth to graduation from college, JoAnn talked about love,struggle, play and hard work. 

Parents Don’t Know How to Parent 

A major reason JoAnn thinks more kids aren’t receiving a good education and graduating is a lack of parent involvement. 

“Many of the parents I observe are unconsciously incompetent. Parents need to realize that children live what they learn. That’s where parent involvement comes in,” JoAnn explained. Then she went on to share five tenants of good parenting that are worthy of consideration and empirical inspection. 

JoAnn’s 5 Tenets of Good Parenting 

1. Instill Values 

Joann believes that the core values that a child learns from a parent never stray. “Kids likely take your values with them. One of the ways I helped mold my daughter’s values was to start to instill them when she was a baby and a toddler. I raised her as a temple. She knew that she was loved and that she was special. I also gave her choices and I paid attention to her own goals and aspirations. Throughout her upbringing into adulthood we talked about ‘what are your goals?’ and ‘what do you want to accomplish?’” 

2. Keep the Flow of Conversation Going by Listening 

JoAnn believes that too many parents want their children to listen to the parent but that parents fail to listen to their children. “Children are people too,” she explained. “You have to give them a platform for communicating.”  

3. Association Brings Participation 

JoAnn advises parents to know who their children are associating with. “If you    don’t want your kids participating in gangs, stay clear of gang members. If you want your kids to be service oriented and compassionate to others, join them in   community help projects.” When I asked JoAnn how that rubbed off on her daughter, she said, “She now has my heart for service.” 

JoAnn believes parents should engage themselves in whatever their child is doing but take care not to stifle them. “When possible, I believe parents should     reward positive behavior and ignore negative behavior,” she said. “My parenting style might be summed up this way: Be into prevention—not intervention.”  

JoAnn places participation at the core of parent involvement: “I participated in all aspects of my child’s life. I always knew who she associated with, I knew her teachers, I knew how things were going in school, I knew what was happening in her life at church, on the playground, and in the neighborhood. If she wanted to  associate with other kids, I had to know the parents.”      

 “There were a few rules. I remember her first ‘sleepover’—I didn’t even know what a ‘sleepover’ was. She came home from her first sleepover all bleary eyed. What did you do?’ I asked. Exasperated by my naiveté she exclaimed, ‘Mom, you don’t go to bed on a sleepover!’ Well, that was enough for me. She never had another ‘sleepover.’”  

4. Be Your Child’s First and Best Teacher 

JoAnn knows that reading and writing are keys to success in school. She started reading to her daughter at birth. She recommends knowing all your child’s teachers and teaming with teachers to support your child. She told me that teachers often get blamed for students’ poor test scores or for not motivating      students, “but I found that when parents are present, teachers are present in the lives of their children.”  

Beyond that, JoAnn brought education into their home. She is a reader herself.   Additionally, “Mom did summer school!” she told me. “Whenever there was a  teachable moment, I would get her to write an essay. We explored topics together, like geography: ‘What’s this state? What’s this capital?’ There was a lot of positive conversation at our house.” 

“There was not a lot of TV time.” Even in today’s world JoAnn believes in hands-on parenting. Computers are a tool parents can be hands-on with.  

5. It Takes a Village 

JoAnn told me parenting is a big sacrifice: “Life is no longer about you. Good parents take parenting seriously.” She told me that parent involvement has changed from when she grew up—especially in poor communities. I asked her,“Why did that change?”  

“When I was growing up, everybody in the community had the same values. Not anymore. There seems to have been a breakdown in the family; drugs in the community; children having sex earlier; babies raising babies; the idea that “everybody else is doing it” makes it OK. For raising children, we need parents, teachers, community leaders, neighbors, politicians—everybody on the same page. 

What Books and Psychology Today Can’t Do 

In a recent New York Times column David Brooks tells us that he thinks books can’t do: “They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work.” Perhaps the same can be said about psychology—the theoretical scientific study of the mind.  

Brooks continues, “Books (and I believe, psychology today) can give you vocabularies and frameworks (and theories) to help you understand and decide, but life provides the education you need.”

JoAnn’s life lessons gave me an education on parent involvement. It was a great bus ride. 

1. According to Henderson and Berla’s 1994 mega-analysis of eighty-five studies and many subsequent studies, the most accurate predictor of a student's achievement in school is neither income nor social status but parent involvement. Henderson, A. T., & Berla, N. (Eds.). (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement (A report from the National Committee for Citizens in Education). Washington, DC: Center for Law and Education.

2. An Exclusive Excerpt from Hillary Clinton's Upcoming Book, Hard Choices http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/hillary-clinton-book-hard-choices/#1 

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.