New Research: Happiness-oriented parenting & school integration

Courtney Everts Mykytyn, my friend and late founder of Integrated Schools, always talked about the power of “playground” conversations in shaping the school choice decisions that parents make for their children. As a white person in our deeply segregated society, I’ve mostly had these kinds of conversations with other white parents. As you’d imagine, test scores come up a lot as well as parents’ concerns about whether a local public school will appropriately challenge their kid. Beyond stated concerns, though, there is a lot to say for the vibe of those conversations- the stress parents feel from the factors in society that push us to “get the best for my kid.” 

A new study from an all-star lineup of researchers contrasts this kind of school decision making with an alternative that foregrounds mental/emotional health, perhaps as a response to the anxiety that characterizes contemporary American parenting. Their guest post below includes analysis of “happiness-oriented parenting” and what it means for school choice, illustrated by quotes from a diverse group of interview participants. As they say in the post, this isn’t something specific to any single racial group and, relatedly, happiness-oriented parenting can be a vehicle for school integration. It’s a reminder that, especially for fellow white and/or affluent parents, maybe part of the answer to contemporary school segregation lies in resisting the pressures that cause stress and being led, instead, by what gives joy to you and your children. 

Choice and Diversity: An Alternative Perspective on Privileged Parents Choosing Schools by Allison Roda, Molly Makris, Judith Kafka and Mira Debs

School choice can be understood as a consumer-based mechanism that privileged parents use to shore up their advantages through prestigious, very often disproportionately white or high-income school settings. Research and media have shown how these parents leverage their various forms of capital to obtain spots in academically competitive or desirable schools and programs for the purpose of passing down and securing privileges for their children. Likewise, policymakers and leaders often assume that privileged parents who wield significant political power want more of these types of exclusive settings. 

Yet, in our recently published article in the American Journal of Education, Happiness oriented parents: An alternative perspective on privilege and choosing schools, we document a subset of privileged parents who are not following the trend of choosing schools to ensure competitive academic success. Instead, we identified parents who repeatedly spoke of prioritizing their children’s day-to-day happiness, whether they did so by choosing a school close to home instead of a more exclusive option across town, choosing a program with an emphasis on socio-emotional development rather than academic rigor, or seeking out programs focused on the arts, dual language, or other forms of enrichment. Our article draws on research from seven studies of school integration and school choice in New York City, Hartford, CT and a small East Coast City from 2012-2021. We conducted these studies separately, but after discussing our common finding of privileged parents choosing for happiness, we decided to pool our interview data and conduct a meta-analysis in order to better establish and explore this phenomenon. We call this group of privileged parents happiness-oriented parents and argue that understanding such parents’ school choices could aid policy efforts to promote school integration and equity. 

We found a happiness orientation in a racially diverse group of privileged parents (forty percent of the parents we term happiness-oriented in our article identified as Black, Latinx, Asian, or multiracial and the remaining sixty percent were white). Although these parents were choosing a range of school options in different contexts (local district schools, magnet schools, charter schools, moving to new school districts), and they identified different criteria as important to cultivating happiness in their children, they 1) centered their children’s happiness in selecting schools, 2) chose with social emotional and non-competitive academic factors as priorities, and 3) often chose racially and socio-economically diverse settings, either as a deliberate strategy or as a by-product of their other priorities. We recognize that the privileged parents across our samples are in a position to focus on their children’s day-to-day social-emotional happiness in selecting schools, a choice that is its own type of advantage.

We found that happiness-oriented parents had an expanded view of what a “good” school meant.  This happiness orientation led privileged parents to look beyond test score averages, exclusive admissions criteria, or other emblems of status, particularly for the 78 parents in the sample in New York City, which has a highly segregated and academically competitive choice context. As Muriel, an Asian American mother in Brooklyn explained, “Social-emotional was very important to me. I feel like [my daughter] can do the work if she was supported.” Similarly Tasha, a Black mother in Brooklyn who said her son had “top” scores in the state exams, did not prioritize test scores as an indicator of school quality when ranking their preferred middle schools. “When most people think about top schools, that’s how they think of them, in terms of test scores,” yet “we know test scores . . . [do]n’t really tell the whole story . . . I’m definitely more interested in social interactions in the school . . . diversity of the school, in terms of . . . race makeup, in terms of how they deal with social issues in the school.” 

Happiness-oriented parents prioritized a wide variety of pedagogies, school philosophies, and classroom environments, and they considered practical factors like convenience and commute times that they felt would be a good fit for their children and family. For Tara, a Black mother living in Hartford, a school with a Montessori model was appealing because it didn’t have homework, and “we liked that idea that you’re exploring the world, you come home, and you share experiences and that’s part of your education.” Karen, a white mother in a small East Coast City explained how she chose a local district school over other choice options, “I did the tour and I was so impressed by their music program. That was kind of what sealed it.” Kathy, a white mother in Queens, explained her decision to eschew other options such as gifted and talented programs or charters and enroll her child in the school across the street. Dropping “your kid off at school on the way to the subway, that’s fantastic!” She saw this decision as beneficial to the whole family: “You know, happy family, happy kid, happy parents, happy kid. You know . . . the health of the family dynamic is sometimes more important than whether or not your kid learns A squared plus B squared equals C squared a month before another kid.” Carmen, a Latinx mother in Brooklyn, viewed middle school as a unique time to develop nonacademic interests “where maybe my kid decides he loves an instrument or he loves singing or he loves the creativity of something whether it be art, whether it be rapping, music, poetry, anything. . . . Work on the whole kid. I wanted the school to expand my child.” 

Schools and school policy should never be organized around pleasing privileged parents. Yet based on our findings, we think there is a real opportunity for happiness-oriented educational decisions among privileged parents to lead to greater racial and socioeconomic school integration to benefit all children. Happiness-oriented parents often identified school diversity as a sought-after characteristic in school choice—although how they defined and prioritized diversity varied and was influenced by their racial identity. Parents of color viewed a diverse setting as affirming for their children while also exposing them to a broad spectrum of peers. Diana, a Black mother in Brooklyn, explained her priority was the demographic diversity of a school, not convenience or academic competitiveness: It’s “not walking distance, but the priority for me was that it was a really diverse population.” Similarly Tiffany, a Black mother in a small East Coast City, pointed out, “there’s a lot of value in having a diversified classroom.” For some white happiness-oriented parents, the rejection of academic prestige was closely linked to their willingness to consider racially diverse schools and avoid predominantly white settings because they believed in integrated schools, and some also argued their children would learn important life skills. Scott, a white dad from Queens, stated, “This is not just about my son, it has an effect on the community. Our choice of school is also setting an example, [our son] is with kids from all around the world now.” 

Our findings add to recent literature documenting variations in how privileged parents choose schools. In this study, instead of academic ranking or social advantage driving parents’ decisions, happiness-oriented parents’ primary concern was choosing schools that promote their children’s social-emotional well-being. The variation in cities, school choice contexts, and time helps to demonstrate the endurance and frequency of the happiness-oriented school choice phenomenon we document, and our findings have important policy implications for interrupting patterns of school segregation. We argue that while happiness-oriented parents might not all be active advocates for integration plans, they show potential as participants who are unlikely to oppose them. It is important for policy makers, school leaders, and integration activists to be aware of this group of potential allies and their happiness-oriented priorities while also centering the needs and desires of longtime residents, families of color and low-income families. We recognize that such an alliance may be limited by the fact that most happiness-oriented parents’ primary motivation for choosing schools remains individual, rather than collective, well-being, and we acknowledge that if happiness-oriented parents find that their children are unhappy, they may be quick to exit their school or program. 

Yet even with these limitations, happiness-oriented parents could function as partners in gentrifying communities or areas with regional school choice where demographic shifts or public policies have created new opportunities for school integration. Understanding that some privileged parents are less focused on academic programming could guide leaders and policy makers at a variety of types of public schools to expand noncompetitive academic offerings in programming, extracurriculars, and aftercare, and to highlight such offerings in school outreach and advertising. 

Privileged, happiness-oriented parents should not be the focus of, nor the drivers of, education policies, but they do show potential to form a critical mass in support of, or as passive participants in, efforts that can benefit all students. In most cases, the school elements they prioritize—caring educators, an emphasis on social-emotional learning, treating their children as individuals, physical health, exposure to the arts, and language immersion—can be beneficial for all children and thus part of more equitable and just school systems.

Allison Roda is associate professor at Molloy University; Molly Makris is an associate professor at Guttman Community College, City University of New York; Judith Kafka is a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York; Mira Debs is the Executive Director of Education Studies at Yale University.

2 thoughts on “New Research: Happiness-oriented parenting & school integration

  1. Pingback: Competing schools or competing families? The segregative effects of neighborhood racial change and a school lottery in Washington DC | School Diversity Notebook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s