Parents Aren’t Teachers—They’re Parents

By Kent Pekel, Ed.D., President and CEO, Search Institute

At the start of the current school year, I was struck by the number of superintendents, principals, and other educational leaders across the country who called on parents to get more involved in their children’s learning. I also noted that many of them promised to make family engagement a key component of their efforts to support students and improve schools. Now that the time for parent-teacher conferences has arrived and parent advisory committees are beginning their work, however, I bet that in many schools it is only the usual suspects who are showing up.

As a former classroom teacher who, despite my best efforts, experienced low levels of parent involvement, I know it’s tempting to interpret this tepid response as evidence that most parents are not deeply concerned about their children’s education. But the work that I am now doing at the nonprofit research organization Search Institute has led me to believe that a different, more important, dynamic is at work.

As educators, we often emphasize the wrong things when we urge parental involvement. Rather than asking parents to reinforce what we do in schools, we need to find ways to reinforce what parents can do to be effective parents.

Most family engagement efforts focus on getting parents to help with homework or to participate in a range of activities at school. For example, the U.S. Department of Education tracks parent involvement based primarily on the following indicators: did parents meet with their child’s teacher, attend a general school meeting, volunteer at the school, serve on a committee, or attend a school event at least once during the school year.

All of those are potentially valuable endeavors, but many parenting adults don’t have the time, skills, or desire to serve as their children’s first teachers or to help improve the curriculum or climate in their schools. In contrast, almost all parents are ready, willing, and able to influence something that really matters to their children’s success: the quality of their family relationships.

It is not particularly novel to say that parent-child relationships matter, but it is new to suggest that schools should help families strengthen them. Evidence for adopting that approach comes from a just-released Search Institute study, Don’t Forget the Families. Based on a national survey of a diverse sample of 1,085 parents of 3- to 13-year-olds, our research underscores the powerful role that parent-child relationships play in children’s learning and development.

When parenting adults (including foster parents, stepparents and others) reported building relationships with children that feature high levels of five actions, they were also significantly more likely to report that their children have developed key character strengths, including perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and the ability to work well with others. A growing body of research demonstrates that such character strengths are as influential as IQ in determining life outcomes not only in school, but also in the workplace, and in areas such as health and criminality.

The five relational actions that our study finds positively influence young people’s social and emotional development are: expressing care (showing the child that you like and want the best for him or her), challenging growth (helping the child continuously improve and stretch), providing support (helping the child complete tasks and achieve goals), sharing power (hearing the child’s voice and letting him or her share in making decisions), and expanding possibility (broadening the child’s horizons and connecting him or her to new people and opportunities).

Our study shows that the degree to which children experience these relational actions in their families is ten times more predictive of their development of key character strengths than demographic factors such as income, race or ethnicity and family structure. At a time when much of our national discussion about young people seems to suggest that demography is destiny, that is a hopeful finding.

Our study also finds that parents from all backgrounds are very interested in receiving support that helps them strengthen family relationships. There are many ways that schools could begin to provide that support. Some are simple, such as sharing tips for building strong relationships at parent-teacher conferences and school events. For example, a number of the children and teenagers who participated in focus groups we conducted for our study told us about times when an adult learned that they were struggling with something and then periodically checked in to see how things were going. Because the adult did not wait for the young person to bring the issue up again or for circumstances to prompt or force another discussion, the young person felt powerfully seen and deeply supported. The act of proactively checking in on a challenge might sound obvious to some, but the young people who told us that action is influential also told us that it is relatively rare.

Some schools will want to go beyond providing simple tips to launch more ambitious efforts to help families strengthen developmental relationships. For example, at Search Institute we are working with a group of middle schools that are helping parents understand and apply research on motivation and academic mindsets. We are finding that providing parents with tools and techniques that help their children view intelligence as something that can grow with effort not only increases motivation at school, but also strengthens relationships at home.

The vast majority of American children spend only about 15% of their time in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. If we are to influence the other 85%, we must find new ways to engage parents in the effort. Parenting adults from all backgrounds have the capacity and the desire to build developmental relationships with their children, and the evidence suggests that helping them do that more intentionally and effectively would do much to help their children succeed in school and in life.

Visit the Don't Forget the Families page to access the full report, a summary of the findings, a reproducible booklet of relationship building activities, and more study resources.


Publish Date: 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Respecting time

Good article! One of the ways the educational community can help build relationships is simple. LESS HOMEWORK. Children come home stressed and overwhelmed and then have to sit down and do more work, sometimes way into the evening. How can we respect family time by diminishing homework assignments? How can we respect children's time to explore other endeavors?

Thank you for this article

Hi! I'm a single mom and parent of two children (10 and 12). I'm also a librarian and work later than most people do. I sometimes feel awful that I can't make it to various school activities or parent-teacher conferences. I try to stay on top of things like my children's homework and I contact teachers via email. However, sometimes I still feel like I'm not doing a good job being involved with school and I feel guilty and awful. I'm so glad you wrote this piece. It gives me a different focus: one that I can control. I can't always have a ton of quality time, but I can work harder to make the time I do have quality-time and a space for my little family to be stronger. Maybe it will help make a difference... right now my daughter is just not turning in homework and all of the "traditional" strategies seem to be failing. Thanks again. :)

Agree whole heartedly

I agree my son who is in the 7th grade spends about 3-4 hours doing homework. He does not have any free time, fun time or play any of the sports he loves. On the other hand i have a 9th grader who would do homework if it was less stressful, time consuming and maybe a little more interesting. I have 2 wonderful boy's that are complete opposites when it comes to the homework dept. yet they both love sports and definitely love being teenage boy's. They are both in baseball and my oldest is on the high school wrestling team with the potential to be a freshman on the varsity team, only thing is his grades lack in qualifying him. He is a smart kid and his grades lack due to not being interested or feeling the its too easy for me syndrome I'm not doing homework today. My youngest completely does that what is required with moans, groans & a lot of why so much I can't even let my brain rest complaining. At the end of the day my boy's are mentally exhausted & have nothing left to give the family time any thought except whats for dinner & I'm showering first i just wanted to sleep and forget about today & don't want to think about tomorrow. I BELIEVE KIDS SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO 8 hrs of SCHOOLING A DAY & LIKE ADULTS WITH JOBS FORGET IT WHEN YOU CLOCK OUT & WALK OUT THE DOOR.

Being supportive on and off the field

Of the five specific developmental actions,I believe providing support (helping the child complete tasks and achieve goals),has made the most noticeable difference in my two children's (ages 10 &12) educational achievement as compared to their friends with parents who are less willing to pitch in and help when their kids fall behind and feel overwhelmed by homework.

Most of the time I can just provide companionship (or an audience) while they do their work. But there are times (especially with math) when I need to work problems side by side, step by step with them until they get the hang of it. We replaced the art in our dining area with a chalk board wall for this purpose. Coaching and cheering on a kid doing math on a Tuesday night for two and a half hours is not as fun as cheering for him on his football team, but it's just as important, and an opportunity to build our relationship as well.

Parents aren't teachers/ there parents

Finally! someone thinking of parents. I try very hard to keep up with my childrens education ages 15 (10th), 13 (8th), nine (4th) it can be overwhelming the hours they have for homework is unreal! Some days i can't even help them if needed because subjects are taught much differently than in my day and I only confuse them more which makes learning even more difficult :( kids are so tired when they come home from school adding this frustration and stress is not healthy. Our occupation is farming we do not have 8am to 5pm work day hours. I think the school systems sometimes forget that we pay them to teach and manage our school or schools not to judge or parent participation.

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Advancing Parenting, a nonprofit in Bakersfield, CA, is pioneering passive/public parenting education. Visit to see examples and the list of parenting tips.

Our motto is ...We take parenting education off bookshelves and put it in public where it belongs.

It's a combination

I work with kids from 1st-12th and have over 10 years of full time teaching experience. I can tell you that kids often come into a classroom or tutoring session with a bunch of preconceived notions about learning, instilled in them by their parents. While I wholeheartedly agree that parents need to seek out more effective ways to communicate love and guidance to their kids, it doesn't need to be completely outside the educational content the kids are learning. I.e. - reading books with them in the summer, encouraging the kids when they excel and bomb in classes. Keeping the kids accountable for their behavior at school and their priorities at home. Parents are the FIRST teachers children have, and the role models children look to THE MOST.


I don't like this article, it seems that is taking away what we all have done as students for a very long time. I say that homework doesn't have to be a problem or something that takes away family time, I say homework can be family time. I say that homework can be fun, can be part of a family time if is done in a fun way, in a way where at the end or the weekend can be celebrate it as part as a family accomplishment. I say that in that way the kid knows that her/his parent is involved in their school life, the parent understands the kid a bit more and the teachers see that homework is being done. It is imposilble for a kid to understand and get the knowledge of something, without practicing at home. Parents can make homework life a pleasant thing it is just up to them. Yes, families do need training on how to do this "Now, that is the problem. the problem is not how much homework kids have, the problem is the parents don't know how to make this "homework" a rewarding experience for the entire family.