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Maia Cucchiara on the Hidden Curriculum of Parenting Education

  • Maia Cucchiara
  • June 17 2021
  • PC97-2021

Maia Cucchiara
Maia Cucchiara

For this episode, we hear from Maia Cucchiara, a professor of Urban Education at Temple University. She talks about low-income mothers’ experiences with parenting education courses, which are designed to teach parenting techniques and about things like child development. They might be offered in schools or community settings and participation is sometimes voluntary, sometimes included as part of participation in other programs, and sometimes mandated as part of a court decision, for example. The interview draws on a paper she wrote on the hidden curriculum of parenting education. We hear about what was taught in the classes she observed, what wasn’t, and why that matters.

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Chancellor: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode we’re going to hear from Maia Cucchiara, who’s a professor of urban education at Temple University. We’re talking about low-income mothers’ experiences with parenting education classes. As Professor Cucchiara will explain, parenting education is usually built around a curriculum designed to teach parents or expectant parents parenting techniques and about things like child development. These courses are widespread and often seen in a very positive light. They might be offered in schools or community settings, and participation is sometimes voluntary, sometimes included as part of participation in other programs and sometimes mandated as part of a court decision, for example. In the interview, we talk specifically about a paper she wrote on the hidden curriculum of parenting education, and we hear about what was taught in the classes, what wasn’t, and why that matters. So, let’s turn to that.

Hi, Professor Cucchiara, thanks for being here. We’re talking about a paper you wrote with Erin Cassar and Monica Clark called “I Just Need a Job, Behavioral Solutions, Structural Problems and the Hidden Curriculum of Parenting Education.” So, to start out, can you just kind of describe what parenting education is and why we should be paying attention to it?

Cucchiara: I think that parenting education is important for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it’s a popular intervention that involves hundreds of thousands of people a year, millions of dollars. It’s something that is that is touching a lot of people and consuming a significant amount of resources. So that’s one reason there is a lot of talk about this as a way of addressing some really chronic problems related to opportunities and outcomes of low-income kids. So often there’s kind of a discourse that says, well, if we could just change something about the way low-income parents raise their children, we will then the kids will have better outcomes. And so that’s another reason why it’s important, because it’s sort of positioned as the solution. And then I think finally, it’s important because and this is an argument I was making in the paper is it represents a way of thinking about addressing poverty that is emblematic, that’s very American in that we talk about changing people’s behaviors and that we can educate them to do things differently rather than actually trying to address inequality or our social safety net. So I think that to look at this is a way of getting insight into both the kind of promises and limitations associated with that particular strategy for addressing social problems.

Chancellor: Is it true that there hasn’t been much research on parenting education or at least not in the way that you’re approaching it here?

Cucchiara: It’s not that there hasn’t been a lot of research, there has been it’s just that there’s been a lot of a particular kind of research. Research has identified the outcomes that parenting programs are supposed to promote. So, for example, research has documented the extent to which mothers who participate in parenting classes are less likely to use corporal punishment or the extent to which they are more likely to engage with their children or read to their children or any number of outcomes that the programs are meant to promote. And there’s a ton of research, actually. It’s fairly complicated because the programs are different. There’s such a variation in programs and in populations. So it’s one of the things that was hard in doing this work was to kind of wrap my head around what we knew about the efficacy of the programs. But in general, and it’s hard to make any general statement. But you know, what I would say in general is that the research is pretty mixed. Some programs do something maybe cause parents to be less likely to use corporal punishment or maybe cause parents to engage with their children more. Some programs have no impact. Some do this, but the effects on children are small and they vanish over time. So that means that when it comes to outcomes that, you know, more lasting outcomes that might matter in terms of children’s behavior, school readiness, other issues, they have not been shown to have a very big impact. The exception here is home visiting programs where with the ones that have a highly trained nurse visit or those have been shown to have more positive outcomes. But I think that the critique that I would offer of this research, and certainly it’s really important, but the critique that I would offer or what I would like to add is that what’s been missing, I think, is a real understanding of how parents experience it. And so what we don’t really know whether or not the content of the courses resonates for parents, whether or not it fits with how they think about what they need and then whether or not it feels relevant to them or connects with their lives. And then I also think that what’s missing from this research is a kind of critical lens that says, wait a minute, what are the assumptions about poverty and about poor parents that are informing this? And how does that how does that shape the programs? Right? Some work in Canada and the United Kingdom has done that. But what are we saying when we say that poor parents need to learn how to parent differently? What is what are the assumptions about what makes for a good parent? And how did those assumptions surface in in the program? What I was trying to get at was not so much does the program work or does it have the expected outcome? But what are the actual lived experiences of people in the programs,

Chancellor: In the papers, you see you’re drawing on these two frameworks. One, the idea of scarcity that we’ve heard a lot about in the last decade or so and to this idea of a hidden curriculum. You’re not doing impact analysis on these classes, but something else here, can you explain how you’re drawing on these concepts and what you’re actually doing here?

Cucchiara: I mean, I think one of the things about ethnographic research is that you go in with a set of kind of sensitizing concepts. And when you’re in the field and doing your analysis, which takes a very, very long time, you then realize you start to draw from other kinds of concepts. I think a good ethnographer will have a rich toolkit of theoretical constructs that can help them make sense of what they’re seeing. So certainly I didn’t go in necessarily thinking about scarcity, but it became really apparent as I was talking to the mothers about their lives and talking to them about how they were processing what they were getting from the classes, that they just weren’t able to focus on the kind of content that the instructors might have hoped they were focusing on. And then as I started to read the literature on scarcity and tunneling, it just really helped me understand what was happening there. That’s why I draw from that framework. And then the other concept of hidden curriculum also really emerged out of my findings and to me explain what hidden curriculum is.

Chancellor: Yeah. Can you give us the simple version?

Cucchiara: So hidden curriculum is a classic sociology of education concept that goes back decades when scholars were trying to understand schools as agents of socialization and what they’re really teaching in addition to regular class content like math and history or whatever. And the idea is that schools teach. All sorts of things in the ways that they’re set up, the routines, the kinds of interactions teachers and students are having, the rules, even things like our classroom is set up, that they’re always teaching, sending messages to students about, you know, about the students, about their lives, about society. And another way that the hidden curriculum shows up is in what gets taught and what doesn’t. What counts as legitimate knowledge or information for a school to teach and what doesn’t? And often the kind of messages that schools are sending have an ideological bent. Things like how students should understand power, how students should understand inequality, how students should think about competition or structures of opportunity. That’s the idea of the hidden curriculum. And as I was doing my work, you know, I went in thinking that there was something there about the assumptions that were underlying the programs I wanted to understand. But it wasn’t until I got in there and was really looking at what the programs were actually teaching and the contrast between what the programs were teaching and what the mothers were dealing with, that it became clear that there was these kind of underlying messages that were that were being sent.

Chancellor: Is there more background we should know about parenting, education, or how you’re thinking about this?

Cucchiara: I mean, I think the other piece of background that’s important is that a lot of times parenting programs. Are based on assumptions about what counts as good parenting, and I think that those there’s not always enough recognition of the ways in which our notions of good parenting are socially and historically contingent. What counts as good parenting now is different from what my count is good parenting at a different moment. What counts as good parenting for me might be different from what counts as good parenting for someone else. And so, whereas a lot of the research on parenting education says, OK, good parenting is, you know, not using corporal punishment. We want to see the extent to which that gets parents are less likely to use corporal punishment because that will mean that the programs are successful. I kind of went in saying, well, there’s not really any such thing as good parenting in the way it often gets defined. I want to understand how the mothers themselves think about these issues rather than the extent to which they take up practices or beliefs that someone else is saying are good parenting. I think I think that’s a and that really comes out of my training as a sociologist to understand the ways in which norms, values, practices are all contingent on particular historical moments.

Chancellor: In the paper. You said that you were connected with three programs, three sites. Can you talk about these programs and how you got connected with them?

Cucchiara: I did my research on a large northeastern city and in that city there were about 70 or 80 programs that offered parenting education of some sort. And they were, for the most part, funded through an umbrella organization that received funding through DHS. What I did was I had a contact with someone in that umbrella organization, and I went and met with them and said, I’m looking for programs that are that are offered regularly, consistently, that are high quality and where the majority of the parents are not involved in child protection cases, child welfare cases.

Chancellor: Can we talk about these moms, these mothers that were in these classes? What were their situations like?

Cucchiara: I was in three different sites and the mothers were in sort of different places in the sites, in the two schools, they were over aged under credited. The mothers were like late teens, maybe early 20s. And at Morris, one of the schools, they had very young children and usually just one at second. The school I call second chance they had. I don’t completely know why this was the case, but some of them had older children as old as five, and some of them had had more than one child. And then at the program I call Sutton, which was a social service agency. There was much more diversity in the age of both the parents and the children. But I focused on because I was really interested in parents who were new to parenting and how the programs affected them or how they experience the programs. I focused at Sutton on the young mothers who were attending the class as a part of their participation in a housing program. So they had experienced housing instability and Sudden had a transitional housing program like a group home, and mothers who were living in the group home with their children were mandated to go to parenting class and they were usually in their late teens, early twenties, with one child.

Chancellor: How about the instructors, what were they like?

Cucchiara: Yeah, I mean, I think the instructors were all people who cared deeply about the mothers and who were really invested in trying to help them. So that’s a very important thing to start off with. There were four instructors that I encountered regularly at the school that I call Maurice, the instructor. I call her Mama Odette in the classes. She was mama something else. But the “mama” came from her and she was an African-American woman in her 50s, mother of three. She was very maternal. She had raised children in poverty herself. She felt like she really identified with the mothers. She told them she loved them. She hugged them. She was very interactive with the children. She was the most she really was this kind of maternal, motherly woman. She was the one who I thought of at the three sites who connected the most with the mothers at the school. I call second chance. The instructor, Miss Naomi, was an African American woman from a sort of lower middle class family. She was younger. She was in her twenties. She had not had children. And she was adhered much more closely to the curriculum than Mom Oded, who tended to rely more on her sort of life experiences. And then in the final site, Sutton, there were there was one regular instructor and then the program administrator who came and went sort of sometimes chimed in. And the regular instructor I call Mr. Michael, he was an instructor, a professor in human services at a local college, and he had two children and had been teaching the parent classes for years. And then the administrator who supervised him in the program itself is a man I call Mr. Shawn. He was probably in his 50s or 60s. He had been in prison and was very involved in programs for was very involved in programs for former felons. All of the all the instructors are African American and as were most of the parents.

Chancellor: And what were they actually teaching, what was in the curriculum?

Cucchiara: At each site, they used a curriculum that was supposedly research based here differently to the program, to the curriculum. But the curricula covered things like engaging with your children, being positive, lots of emphasis on not criticizing your children, avoiding punitive discipline, especially corporal punishment. Some about some talk about reading with children, giving them kind of positive feedback, spending time with them, some emphasis and in some of the classes on healthy eating. Those were the kinds of topics that were covered. They’re fairly typical of what I’ve seen in the literature on parenting education. Essentially, they were trying to promote positive parenting. Parenting that is emotionally responsive to children, that tries to promote cognitive development, social development and kind of strong self-esteem.

Chancellor: You said that they weren’t really following the curriculum all that closely in all cases. So what did the actual instruction look like?

Cucchiara: I think that the classes varied in structure. They always involve the mother sitting around in some sort of way that they could talk to each other and to the instructor. Although most of the dialog was between the mothers and the instructors, there was often an official topic of the day, whether that is discipline strategies or child development or, you know, temper tantrums. But and that was often the official topic. And sometimes there would be activities around that. Sometimes there would be an activity that was planned, but then the conversation would go off somewhere else in Mama Odette’s classes. She would kind of answer questions from the mothers and then talk about her own experiences. That was the least structured. It was less didactic than I thought it would be. But there was still content that got delivered just in a less kind of explicit, direct way. So when I was going through my Field Notes, trying to figure out, well, what were these classes actually teaching, I would see these topics come up again and again. But it wouldn’t be in the way that it might look in a curriculum where it says, you know, the objective for the day is X. It wouldn’t come out in that same way, but the information would still be conveyed.

Chancellor: In the paper, you write that one of the things you didn’t see was much of an emphasis at all on these women’s economic situations. So as you’re doing your observations, when did this kind of become apparent to you?

Cucchiara: It’s really interesting, I think it didn’t become apparent to me for a long time, because in a sense, I think I was. Adhering to the same belief that the instructors were adhering to, which is that parenting is about skills and attitudes and behaviors, and that has not. And that’s not connected necessarily to the conditions of people’s lives, so it didn’t occur to me until almost like towards the end of my study as I was in what I was doing the second round of interviews, and I was going back and looking at my field notes and my interviews and trying to make sense of what I was seeing. And I realized that the mothers were concerned with these really intense things around feeding their children, housing their children and keeping them safe. But the but the instructors just weren’t talking about any of those issues. And so then when I went back. In my second round of interviews, I would ask mothers, well, what do you wish the classes had done? You know, if you were in charge, what do you wish that they would that they did? And that was when I started to think to understand this incredible disconnect between what the mothers were concerned with and what they needed and what the programs were teaching.

Chancellor: Can you give me some examples of that?

Cucchiara: So just as some examples, the mothers were dealing with extreme poverty, struggling to find employment, struggling to keep their children fed. A lot of them were dealing with a lot of the topic. The issue that came up a lot was around violent street violence. And it’s sudden. For example, they would always start the class with a check in with a mother to go around and talk about what had been happening for them that previous week and when that in these check ins, mothers would share what was going on for them. They would often be sharing things that had to do with, you know, trying to survive in a poor city, in a dangerous city. And they would talk about, you know, relatives being killed or their children having issues with violence in school or not being able to find a job. And sometimes these could be pretty. Pretty explicit, so in the paper I talk about one incident where a mother, a young mother, came to class maybe a few days after her nephew had been buried. And she is describing his funeral with great emotion and the fact that it was absurd, that it was about street violence, that he had been killed in an episode of street violence and how incredibly upsetting that was for her. Other mothers would talk about, you know, you should always tell somebody you love them before you leave the house, because it could be the last time you see them. Talking about lying, you know, throwing themselves to the floor because people were shooting, just talking about lives that were really profoundly shaped by violence in particular. So these were things that the mothers were dealing with that were very real, very immediate and very consuming.

Chancellor: How did the instructors respond?

Cucchiara: There were two ways that the instructors responded. First of all, they never brought up the topics of issues related to poverty themselves. They never asked the mothers, hey, you know, are you feeling concerned about housing or feeding your children or keeping them safe? They never talk to them about that. When in Sutton, when the parents raise these issues in the check in, the instructors always were very sympathetic and they would nod and look kind of pained and, you know, maybe make a comment or two. But it was always as though those things were a diversion or a distraction from the real content of the classes. The instructor would kind of listen and let people share, but then shift the conversation back to a particular topic that had to do with more with parenting, like treating children with affection or not having kids watch TV or something else that was unrelated. So that was one way that I think these classes really sent a message to parents that parenting was somehow separate and should be unaffected by. The conditions of their lives, the other ways that this happened was when the mothers would, in more instructional times, raise these topics related to poverty and the instructors would respond to this by highlighting individual behaviors and traits. And kind of foregrounding them instead of talking about the realities of poverty and the ways in which poverty could create challenges for people, so, for instance, there was an example when a mother talked about feeling frustrated that kids in her house ate food that she had been saving to for her children. And other mothers talked about, you know, needing to keep refrigerators locked because they were trying to protect their food. And the instructor. Instead of acknowledging this as a real issue in poor families, not all poor families, but kind of conflicts over food being a real issue for many folks and empathizing with them and even helping them think about strategies, she turned the conversation to one of respect, saying you shouldn’t be locking up food, we should have more respect for each other. The sort of message, I think, was that there was something wrong in the families of these mothers, that people weren’t respecting each other. And if the families did a better job respecting each other, then you wouldn’t have conflicts over food when in fact, the reason that they were having conflicts over food was that there wasn’t enough food, not because. Because families were not respectful.

Chancellor: So with all that you saw and learned here, what did you take away from this or what do you think we should take away?

Cucchiara: I mean, I think one of the big takeaways isn’t that parenting education is a bad thing or that folks are, you know, have bad intentions, I think a takeaway is if we want to provide programs to help poor parents, we need to really start with issues and concerns that the parents themselves are facing rather than starting with some. External notion of what people should be doing, so I think parenting classes that helped parents think about how to feed their children inexpensively, how to help their children feel safe, how to deal with their own stress. I think that could actually be quite helpful. So that’s one takeaway that that there is certainly we certainly need to do more to support parents. We just need to do it in a way that acknowledges the actual realities of their lives. That’s one takeaway. Another is, I think just that I think my findings offer a critique of a of a very American way of dealing with poverty, which is to think that we can sort of educate our way out of poverty and that if we can teach people things or have them do things differently, that that will significantly change people’s lives or opportunities when in fact, maybe what we should really be doing is addressing our social safety net, our sort of economic inequality. And so I think that while I’m not necessarily arguing that we shouldn’t have parenting education, I think that my findings and the real disconnections between what parents needed and what the programs offered and the scarcity that shaped parents lives really are an argument for more direct supports for poor moms.

Chancellor: Thanks so much to Professor Maia Cucchiara for this interview. If you want to read the whole paper, you can find it in the July 2019 Sociology of Education. This podcast was part as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin deBoerr. Thanks for listening.


Children, Children General, Education & Training, Education & Training General, Family & Partnering, Parenting


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