Familiar and strange fathers in education

They say ethnographers are supposed to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. That, however, can be a difficult task since we tend to be ignorant about our own customs and ideologies. For instance, research on parenthood has often taken traditional gender roles for granted. In most western cultures, mothers’ unpaid educational work has been seen as natural, something that educational researchers have reproduced by talking about parent involvement instead of the more accurate term mother involvement. Prominent feminist scholars, such as Miriam David and Dorothy Smith, have for long called attention to the considerable amount of educational work that women carry out on a daily basis. But what about men’s relations to their children’s schooling and education? My article published in the forthcoming Gender and Education 23(5) addresses this question.

I wrote the article during a yearlong visit at the Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), University of California, Los Angeles. My colleagues at CELF were very kind to let me use their unique ethnographic database, which consists of thousands of hours of video-based observations and interviews with dual-income, middle-class families in greater Los Angeles. It was of course a luxury to have access to already coded and transcribed data. But it also gave me a rare opportunity to explore issues that I had previously been studying in my home country, Sweden. And this is where issues of familiarity and strangeness are brought to the fore. As a Swede studying US families, I’ve probably been able to notice things that an American colleague would have overlooked. But it also has caused me to reflect on issues in Swedish society that I had not thought of before.

Sweden is internationally often described as the paradise of gender equality. Both mothers and fathers are offered paid parental leave and access to high-quality public childcare. Fathers are portrayed as equally involved. Certainly, research—including mine—suggests that Swedish fathers are somewhat more involved in educational work than their American counterparts. And certainly, the breadwinner ideology is stronger among men in the US than among the Swedish middle-class men that I have studied. But—and I would argue that this is more important—the American and the Swedish families’ experiences of their educational systems are very different, which has implications for gender relations.

Most Swedish children have homework several times each week, and when the extent and level of homework increase, parents need to spend time helping their children. But compared to children in LA, Swedish children have relatively little homework. Educational extra-curricular activities are unheard of in Sweden, but common among middle-class Angelinos.

Swedish elementary school is free, including so-called ‘free schools’ (private, but publicly financed schools) where middle-class parents increasingly put their children. There are good public schools in Southern California, but many have bad reputation among middle-class parents. Those who can afford it, send their children to private schools or move to school districts with better reputations, but where real estate is more expensive. Both the Swedish and the American parents value higher education, but while the Swedish argue that their children should decide for themselves if they want to go to college, higher education is expected by most of the US parents. And, with increasing tuition fees, they worry about affording to send their children to university. While they start college funds when their children are young, Swedish parents still enjoy free higher education.

These different educational systems and circumstances provide different conditions for fathers’ involvement. The fact that many of the American fathers see endowment as one of their main tasks in relation to children’s education may not merely be about them accepting a breadwinner ideology due to its advantages for men. It also relates to how investing in their children’s future is about financial resources as well as unpaid educational work. The mothers help out with homework, volunteer in the classroom, and make sure their children attend the necessary extra-curricular activities. Most fathers help out in this educational project, but in many families their primary duty is to work so that their partner can be involved.

At the same time there are increased expectations on fathers to be involved in their children’s everyday lives, including their schooling. This imperative forces fathers to balance between a relatively traditional breadwinner model and a model of ‘involved fatherhood’. When asking them about their educational involvement, they cannot portray themselves only as breadwinners. In order to ‘fit in’ they also need to display their direct involvement, that they take responsibility for their children’s everyday life and schooling.

Lucas Gottzén


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