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What have you taught your child today?

The circumstances facing different families vary a great deal – as do the resources with which they are equipped. So when it comes to organising learning activities in the home, some families are far more able to live up to the demands of childcare centres than others. But why don’t we just let the professionals deal with these learning tasks, instead of assuming responsibility for their agenda?

Four-year-old Emil lives alone with his mother, who is currently on a job activation programme because she is unemployed. Emil has language difficulties, and the staff at his childcare centre say he makes a lot of noise and causes problems for the other children. The staff feel that Emil’s mother doesn’t give him enough clear guidance, and that she fails to set limits for him at home. So they have asked her to change her behaviour. They have also asked her to give Emil language training using a technique called dialogic reading. Emil’s case has also caught the attention of social workers from the local authority – he is simply not thriving at the moment. They have told his mother that it’s important to try and create more harmony in the home.

“So this is a mother who is already under pressure. And now the childcare centre is telling her to set limits for her son, while the social workers are telling her to create a harmonious home where there are no conflicts. You simply can’t do both at the same time! This increases the pressure on her, and her parental skills are being evaluated all the time.”

Says Pernille Juhl, PhD, an associate professor of educational psychology at Roskilde University. Emil and his mother are part of her research, which focuses on the relationship between childcare centres and life in the home. More specifically, she is involved in a new research project dealing with learning activities at home. Families are increasingly expected to focus on these learning activities.

Based on her research, Juhl believes that local authorities and childcare centres need greater understanding of the effect of their demands on the lives of the families affected:

“Families might not have the skills needed to organise learning activities in the home. Parents are expected to organise particular activities for their children – for instance reading practice using particular methods,” she says, underlining that these demands generally increase in proportion to the vulnerability of the family concerned.

She sums this up in no uncertain terms: “When these demands are made on parents who are under increasing pressure, they do more harm than good.”

Stereotypical thinking

Denmark’s latest revision of the ECEC (early childhood education and care) curriculum underlines the importance of young children’s early learning across the home and the ECEC center. But the ambition to enhance children’s learning at home fails to allow for the huge differences that exist between different families, says Pernille Juhl. She feels that the plan is designed for middle-class parents equipped with plenty of useful resources. She comments:

“The plan contains stereotypical advice such as ‘When you prepare food with your child, just let your child weigh out the ingredients for you’. This might be a relatively familiar activity for the middle class, but it’s not the kind of thing that happens on a daily basis in all families. So the plan implies that there is a right way to prepare food – and a wrong way, too. It tells us that home-made food is good, while frozen pizzas and other kinds of fast food are bad. In other words, the plan makes very narrow assumptions about what families are like.”

Juhl believes that the political ambitions behind the idea of learning in the home may have an enormous social bias:

“The plan says that it contains learning activities for families of all kinds. But there’s a big difference in the effect of these learning activities in different families. Families with plenty of resources are well equipped to pursue a learning agenda and carry out the learning activities proposed by childcare centres. The parents in these families can make their own decisions and will reject any activities which they regard as meaningless or out of sync with what they regard as a good family life. But it’s not quite so easy to do this if the local authority is aware that there are problems in your family,” she says.

“Parents who have difficult lives are often highly motivated to do a good job as parents – a better job than their own parents did. But this is a huge task. They often have to deal with it on their own, without the kind of network that could offer them some support. Instead of support, they often encounter instructions and increasing pressure.”

The early bird doesn’t always catch the worm

The tendency to focus on pre-school children and learning activities involving their parents started with the legislation Barnets Reform by Denmark’s National Board of Social Services. There was a general consensus that the earlier learning started, the better, explains Pernille Juhl.

“The new buzzwords were early detection and early action – including the dogma that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life had a vital impact on their entire future. This resulted in a variety of educational tools, an increase in the number of evaluations, and a vast amount of data,” she says.

The huge focus on taking early action by encouraging parents to carry out learning activities with young children is also an expression of what the researchers refer to as ‘parental determinism’. This concept underlines the importance of parents for the welfare of their children and for their long-term success in life.

Class differences revealed

The everyday life and circumstances facing Emil and his mother are very different from the situation of privileged families with plenty of resources living in North Zealand (a prosperous area north of Copenhagen). Wealthy families like these might well introduce learning activities at the dinner table by asking their child questions like: ‘How many peas have you got on your plate? And how many peas has Dad got on his plate? So how many peas have the two of you got altogether?’

These families take crosswords and sudoku puzzles with them on summer holiday. The amount of screen time allowed to their children is subject to strict control – and they should preferably be learning something along the way. There’s a globe in their room, and a world map hanging on the wall next to a poster illustrating the alphabet.

“Learning processes are evident all over these privileged homes – the parents are well educated and have plenty of time and resources,” explains Dil Bach, an associate professor of educational anthropology at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.

She has been studying privileged families in North Zealand for many years. This kind of family was also the topic of her PhD dissertation more than ten years ago.

But in recent years she has been focusing on families in West Zealand, who have been described as ordinary people’ by the childcare centre she has visited in the region. She wanted to gain insight into a different type of family, and to learn more about the kind of learning activities in the home that take place there. This enables her to compare families from two very different socio-economic levels of Danish society.

Desire for knowledge – or fit for fight?

Dil Bach derives her theoretical inspiration from the work of the American researcher Annette Lareau, who wrote the book Unequal Childhoods in 2003.

“The ways in which families tackle learning activities are based on different styles of upbringing, which depend in turn on social and cultural class. In her research, Lareau discovered that the middle class and upper class tended to bring their children up in accordance with the principles of their children’s school. In other words, they organised plenty of learning activities in the home and sent their children to recognised recreational activities (Lareau calls this ‘concerted cultivation’). Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, tended to leave academic activities to the school and base their upbringing on what Lareau calls ‘natural growth’,” explains Bach.

However, in her research, the Norwegian sociologist Helene Aarseth demonstrates that various forms of learning culture are also evident in the upper-middle class and the elite, and that concerted cultivation can be practised in two different ways: The cultural elite tend to favour what Aarseth calls ‘a passion for learning’, while the financial elite favour the ‘fit-for-fight’ style of learning, which focuses more on obligations and competition.

“The interesting thing is that the ‘fit-for-fight’ learning culture also exists in some ‘working class’-families,” says Dil Bach, adding that:

“I met many parents who didn’t have much success at school themselves and who never got the kind of education they now see would have been a good idea. I met a couple who focused a great deal on how well their children were doing at pre- and primary school. They practised sums, multiplication tables and spelling with their children from a young age.”

We don’t force our kids

In her own research in Danish families, Bach quickly realised that the process of dividing families according to social class and learning styles was even more complex in Denmark than it had been for Lareau and Aarseth in the USA and Norway respectively.

In the families she monitored in West Zealand (and previously in North Zealand), she found elements of both the natural growth philosophy and the passion for learning. Many of the parents made comments such as: ‘We don’t force our kids’, ‘We only do learning activities if our kids are keen’, ‘He just loves numbers and letters – we don’t force him’, and ‘We let our kids be kids – we let it all come naturally.’

However, there was a big difference in the way learning activities were performed in practice, depending on whether privileged families in North Zealand or average families in West Zealand were involved.

“The parents in North Zealand underlined that they based their practice on the passion of their children. But funnily enough, the children weren’t always interested in what could be called the ‘right’ kind of activities. For instance, one mother reported that her son loved to watch programmes on Discovery, while he switched to Disney Chanel.”

Doing your sums on the toilet

However, a lack of motivation in the children didn’t seem to cause many conflicts in North Zealand. If the children weren’t keen on learning anything, these parents had strategies to encourage their children to learn what they were supposed to learn at home.

“The parents in North Zealand didn’t give up easily. They had strategies to help them manipulate their children so they apparently really liked specific learning activities. One mother said: “I always give him sums to do while he’s on the toilet,” explains Bach.

By contrast, the more average families in West Zealand, who believed in natural growth and passion for learning, were more anxious about the risk of demotivating their children if they exerted too much pressure on them.

“Many of the parents in this region were worried that their children might associate school with negative connotations, just as they did themselves when they went to school. One mother reported that ‘He knows his numbers, but he can’t write his own name because he’s not interested in doing it.’ So the learning process stopped there,” says Bach.

They learn through play

Dil Bach also noticed a major difference in learning styles in different childcare centres. In West Zealand the focus was placed on the basic training of cognitive skills. But in North Zealand she registered a critical discourse about parents who were too academically ambitious for their children.

“The childcare professionals there had a very ambivalent attitude to academic learning. So – like the parents - they packaged it as play – the children were supposed to enjoy themselves and have fun. ‘They learn through play’, they said. But the parents were also expected to be prepared for any learning activities that had to be done. The professionals however didn’t encourage much academic learning at home, but they did encourage practising social skills – for instance by recommending that the children were given more duties in the home, or more play dates.”

The love of learning

Pernille Juhl has also registered the same tendency for childcare professionals to adopt a flexible attitude towards the home-learning agenda. She underlines that the professionals are also trying hard to retain the focus on the children’s perspective.

“The professionals have accepted the importance of including the parents. But they are also flexible – they are open to several different agendas. So we are also exerting quite a lot of pressure on the professionals with this new initiative. They have always collaborated with parents, but the introduction of home-learning activities and the evaluation of these activities with the parents are additional tasks being imposed on them. And I worry that this may steal time from other things that are also important,” she says.

For instance, she’s worried that people will fail to notice what children are actually interested in. Because we will destroy the love of learning if these home-learning activities involve reading specific books which don’t actually interest the children, who may be interested in other things.

Informal chat in the cloakroom

In our efforts to optimise and control learning activities in the home, the risk is that we forget all the other learning and activities that already take place in the home,” says Pernille Juhl. She comments:

“Most parents have plenty of ideas about what their children need to learn at home. And there is a danger that all these home-learning initiatives will interrupt the useful activities that already take place there,” she says. And she adds:

“People also forget the value of the kind of informal chat that takes place in the cloakroom when parents drop their children at the centre in the morning, or pick them up in the afternoon.”

In this connection, Juhl underlines the need to retain a focus on the knowledge of childcare professionals and parents about children’s everyday lives – knowledge which is essential in supporting the welfare and development of children both in their childcare centre and at home.

“I hope our research will help to demonstrate that we’re exerting too much pressure on families today – particularly vulnerable families. And we’re also pressurising the childcare professionals by asking them to perform these activities, which steal time and shift the focus from the core tasks of childcare centres.

Consequently, Pernille Juhl has a clear recommendation:

“Leave learning-related tasks to the childcare centres – instead of asking families to take responsibility for their agenda.”

Personal bios

Pernille Juhl is an associate professor of educational psychology at Roskilde University. Her research focuses on the development of young children in everyday life and at ECEC centres, and on early childhood and parenthood.

Dil Bach is an associate professor of educational anthropology at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. Her research focuses on the relationship between family, school and childcare in both Denmark and Singapore. She teaches on the Master’s degree programme in educational anthropology.

Various learning styles

‘Concerted cultivation’: The learning style adopted in the home matches the school or childcare centre of the child concerned. The parents are constantly aware of the importance of stimulating their child’s learning process, for instance by challenging them to do sums or play letter-learning games. They are also keen to ensure that their child has access to recognised recreational activities. This learning style is most common in the upper social levels – the upper-middle class or the elite.

‘Natural growth’: The parents believe that the school is responsible for their children’s academic development. So they don’t make any particular effort to stimulate learning processes in the home. They let things happen naturally. This learning style is most common in the working class or in the lower social levels.

‘Passion for learning’: Enjoyment is the key to learning. So learning has to be fun. If the children aren’t interested, the parents need to find alternatives or develop creative strategies to manipulate the children and motivate them for learning activities.

‘Fit-for-fight’: This learning style focuses on obligations and competition with a view to strengthening children’s academic skills and preparing them for school. Multiplication tables are practised constantly, and the children do homework at the dining table. It’s work before pleasure.

The cultural elite tend to favour the passion for learning, while the financial elite favour the fit-for-fight style.

But the fit-for fight learning style can also be found in parts of the working class, and when the child’s parents do not have much of an educational background themselves.