The importance and challenges of involving parents in the value-based education of children

The European Wergeland Centre is promoting education for democratic citizenship, human rights and intercultural understanding. They have a so-called EWC Statement Series in order to highlight recent and ongoing research activities. They are regularly inviting scholars and other education professionals to publish their views on topics related to their work. The statement are published both online and in a printed booklet each year. Following up to the much applauded keynote and workshop of Zakia Akkouh from EWC at the EPA conference in Bucharest in December 2014, they have invited the president of EPA to write such a statement on the role of parents in citizenship and human rights education as well as intercultural understanding.

For children living in their families parents are the primary educators and they have major impact in determining the future behavioural patterns, attitudes and sets of values. Research clearly shows that the first three years are crucial in every aspect, and even later on, when other education forms and the effect of their peers is becoming more and more important, parents’ behaviour and values remain influential. However it is very clear that not all parents have the necessary skills and knowledge – even if their intentions are good and they have the desired attitudes – to support their children in becoming independent personalities capable to live their own lives and constructively interact with others.
In this statement I will argue that although the task might seem challenging- or even impossible- it is perhaps more important now than ever to ensure the involvement of parents in the value-based education of children. EPA has been promoting the role of parents as primary educators and the importance of the involvement of parents in every aspect of their children’s lives for 30 years now. Although we have achieved a lot at the policy level in Europe and there are outstanding practices in some countries, many European countries have a long way to go.
 The value base of education in diverse societiesWhen we talk about freedom and rights, we usually say that the border of your freedom is the border of the other person’s freedom, namely that you can exercise your right to an extent that doesn’t harm the right of another person. This might be easier said than done, but as a parent you still should try and teach your children this golden rule. At the same time you have to try to equip them with tools to react when they feel somebody has crossed that invisible border. These tasks form a complete, nearly lifelong curriculum for both parents and their children.
There is research evidence and also legal basis for stating that anti-bullying and tolerance-building campaigns can only be successful if parents are involved[1]. From a perspective of empowerment and prevention it is clear that if a child can feel that there is a loving, caring and safe family (and school) environment for him/her, it is much more difficult to hurt his/her feelings. Children with a positive self-image are less likely to become targets of bullying – as well as bullies.
Being exposed to different influences from an early age can prepare children to encounter diversity later on. For this reason segregation in school or kindergarten can be problematic. Many families have a network, relatives, friends and acquaintances who resemble themselves in socio-economic and cultural regards. But all these micro-communities live in wider contexts which are more diverse. In a society there will always be people we don’t really know, people with different habits, traditions, religions, hair or skin colour. Be it at the playground, kindergarten or school, it is a very important educational goal to learn to live together in a diverse society.
Many parents choose schooling in segregated contexts; although it is usually not considered so (private or church schools are de facto segregated schools in most countries). This is the result of the best of intentions in most cases, parents want to offer the best education they can afford to their children. But do such homogeneous contexts offer the best conditions for what children need to learn? What do we mean by that? General schooling was established in a period when teachers and books – only available at school libraries - were the source of knowledge and the majority of people attending general schools were very likely to finish their education forever once they became ‘mature’ and took their maturate exams or when they left school at a much earlier age. But things become different in the digital age. Today, the assumption that you never will learn something, if you do not learn it in school, is a misconception. Schools need to prepare learners to meet lots of things to learn beyond the class room.
There seems to be a consensus that the role of today’s school should be to develop some key competences and skills, most of them transversal, not directly related to any traditional school subject. Research shows that 65% of today’s school children will have professions in 15-20 years’ time that do not exist today[2]. How can we train professionals for professions that do not yet exist? By building curiosity, a desire to know more, to learn new things, developing learning techniques, communication skills, openness, digital skills, and basic skills in sciences and arts. If schools become education institutions working for this, it will necessarily foster understanding and help prevent bullying, hate speech and hate crimes.
This all may seem utopian as schools are not (yet) like that and not all parents (and teachers) are conscious and open enough even to consider the above. There are however several good practices to learn from; a starting point is more focus on learning about each other, different customs, traditions, religions. The best thing parents can do is to become the allies of their children’S teachers, and to start a conversation involving children of different backgrounds and their parents, too. One challenge that is often underlined is the involvement of parents with lower socio-economic status. But this is just a question of approach. The research of Ramon Flecha in the Include-ED project show that “parents from little educated classes are open to education if approached respectfully” (at EUCIS-LLL Conference, 2010)[3]. Respect is not the only factor. According to Charles Deforges “all normal parents can perform as superior educators of their children. It is a matter of parental competence. Required knowledge, skills and attitudes can be trained.” (at EPA Conference 2009). There are good practices on involving them as early on as possible to build trust and cooperation that EPA is trying to spread.

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