Peter Lyons: Market society breeding pushy parents

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The culture of wanting every opportunity for children is obscuring the value of lessons learned at home.

Parents want the best for their children and will fight to get it. Photo / Getty Images
Parents want the best for their children and will fight to get it. Photo / Getty Images

We live in the age of the uber parent. It is a relatively recent phenomenon and particularly middle class in nature. Some parents have become obsessed about giving their offspring the added edge. Choice of school often dominates dinner party conversations. Parental behaviour on the sidelines of sporting fixtures is sometimes an ugly reflection of the need to raise a winner.

This was not always the case. My generation generally went to the local school with little thought as to whether it was better or worse than others. We took ourselves off to sports practices where the coach was usually a father or mother. Their motivation was altruistic with no thought of remuneration.

Mr Riley, in his old gumboots, making us do endless sit-ups and laps of the field was amateur in his approach but very generous with his time and effort.

Nowadays schools offer sporting academies with semi-professional coaching staff.

They use these as marketing tools.

Many principals obsess about projecting their school as a winner school. Their role has become dominated by the need to be a marketer as much as an educator.

This is a particular feature in urban areas where competition between schools is fiercer.

It is interesting to observe how this social and cultural change of the uber parent and winner schools has come about. It is no coincidence it has coincided with the huge economic changes in our society over the past 30 years.

During the 1990s market principles were applied to our schooling system. Schools were encouraged to compete for students as this ensured additional funding. Parents and students as consumers were encouraged to closely monitor school performances and vote with their feet when necessary.

This accountability was meant to improve school efficiency. What it has led to is an obsession with image and marketing by many principals and boards. It has also heightened parental concerns that their child must attend a winner school.

Although the application of market principles has declined with the reintroduction of zoning, greater parental awareness of potential differences in the qualities of schools has remained.

The advent of the uber parent is likely attributable to several trends in developed societies. From a broader historical context having children is a far greater financial commitment than it ever was. The loss of potential earnings as well as the higher costs of raising a child has contributed to the decline in family size which is a hallmark of economic development. Parents therefore lavish more attention on their fewer offspring.

Economist Robert Franks identified another feature of our present version of a capitalist society. He calls it the Winner takes all Society. Small differences in talent or opportunity can make enormous differences in potential earnings and material success. Many parents intuitively appreciate this and want to give their child every opportunity.

"Uber parents are a natural product of an uber-competitive economic system."
Peter Lyons

As more parents seek to give their child an edge in what they perceive as the competitive struggle of life, other parents feel compelled to do likewise.

Unfortunately the result can often be a parent transferring their own frustrated ambitions to their children.

The barbecue season can be hellish for us teacher types with a tendency towards gluttony. Our beer and chop consumption can be curtailed by an earnest parent eager to gain inside knowledge about the best school to send their child to.

They are disinclined to hear that their child's success in life is likely largely dependent on the learning opportunities and values acquired in their own home. They want their child to mix with other winners.

Our former egalitarian ideal of equality of opportunity is now a quaint historical myth.

Our schools should be the epitome of the concept of equality of opportunity but we have long abandoned this ideal.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peters College and has written several economics texts.

- NZ Herald

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