Mind the parenting gap

After three years in the classroom, I knew that the heroic efforts of hard-working teachers would be, at best, a Band-Aid. Enter Tumblon: the only web 2.0 service bridging the gap between parents and schools.

July 17 th 2009

Every morning when I leave my home in Harlem, I pick up trash that others have thrown on the sidewalk and in the flowers that my five-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, planted with me. On one of these occasions, my daughter asked me, "Daddy, why do people throw their trash in front of our house?" After some reflection, I answered, "Because their parents didn't teach them not to."

Is it really that simple? Am I just oversimplifying in order to provide an answer that my five-year-old can understand? I don't think so. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch describes how parents set the horizons of possibility for their children: "In one family's culture it is 'impossible' for people who love each other to argue with one another; in another family's culture it is 'impossible' for people who love each other not to argue with one another. . . . Family is culture at its smallest—and its most powerful." My explanation to my daughter itself demonstrates this truth.

The cultural power of family became clear to me in an elementary school classroom. Seven years ago, I left a rewarding position in the financial services to teach in the New York City public schools. I have lived in the bush of Africa, and teaching in New York was harder. I don't think that I had ever yelled at anyone in my life until I began teaching. In a chaotic classroom (which on at least one occasion exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit) of 32 third grade students, fewer than a third of whom were prepared for third grade—and less than ten percent of whom came from families with a mother and father who were married to one another—my own inadequacy and sinfulness was painfully evident.

After three years in the classroom, I knew that the heroic efforts of hard-working teachers would be, at best, a Band-Aid. So, with my childhood best friend, Jonathan Dahl, I set out on an entrepreneurial venture to address the achievement gap and the educational crisis in a way that challenges the prevailing assumption and addresses the core issues. The prevailing assumption is that children can achieve grade-level performance if they have a sufficiently small class size, adequate school funding, and quality teachers; however, achievement gap between lower-class children and their middle- and upper-class peers emerges before children enter kindergarten.

So, not surprisingly, parent involvement is the single best predictor of a child's educational achievement. Parents exercise their greatest influence during the first five years of life, during which a child's brain grows from 25% to 90% of its adult volume. During this window, brain development is "activity dependent." In the terminology of neurologists, "neurons that fire together wire together," and those that don't are "pruned." Even more importantly, the lens through which a child sees the world is formed during these critical years. From her parents, a child forms assumptions about what is real, what is true, what is good and what is beautiful.

So in June 2007, Jonathan and I sat at a table in the office of his web development company in Minneapolis and began the long process of defining precisely what it is that we were setting out to do, and how we would accomplish it. From my experience in education and my wife's training in pediatrics, we knew that parents needed simple, timely, reliable child development information in order to know what was normal for their children, understand how to engage them—and know when to get help. Jonathan's background in web development provided the capacity to deliver simple, customized information to parents of young children. This vision set us in motion to develop Tumblon.

Obviously, the parents who most needed this information were those who were least likely to access it, for a number of reasons. Low levels of parent literacy rendered most child development information incomprehensible, so we deliberately wrote our content at a third grade level in order to make the content accessible.

Many parents simply assume that it is the responsibility of schools to educate their children, and so do not take a proactive role in nurture. Recognizing this, we contacted organizations that were already reaching and engaging parents in order to listen to what was working for them and offer our help. Among them, the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College (Columbia University) has been a champion of our concept. The Director of the Institute proposed to me a brilliant idea: There are grants available for teaching parents computer literacy. What if we wrote a grant to teach parents computer literacy? Not only would parent gain technological ability, they would be learning about their own children's development, and exploring simple, fun ways that they could engage their children every day.

Another problem was the relative lack of Internet access for parents in poverty—a problem that has been most creatively and effectively solved by our partners. In a meeting with a principal in Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone (in which I live), the principal proposed, "Why don't we open up the school computer lab for parents to access Tumblon?" He recognized an existing resource in his school that could bridge the gap to the parents in his community, knowing well that if parents informed and engaged early that his school would reap the benefits.

Almost exactly forty weeks after the first line of code was written, we launched Tumblon as the only web 2.0 service that provides interactive developmental milestones to parents of young children. We had known from the start that in order to succeed as a business, we would need to capture both the motivated parents, who were already solving this problem in more complex or expensive ways, and the disengaged parents, who didn't yet see the problem. So we developed a fee structure that would enable us to reach a very broad parent audience, while providing the core service for free.

We quickly found that motivated parents of toddlers and early preschoolers—the potential premium subscribers—were already entrenched in other solutions, including email subscriptions and print materials. So we adjusted our strategy to engage pediatric and obstetric practices in order to reach parents at the time that they most keenly felt the need: when they were expecting, or had just given birth to, their first child.

Like any small business, we must carefully listen to our customers and make sure that our service clearly meets a need. However, the nascent stages of Tumblon's life have also forced us to ask a host of hard and important questions that are often not considered "business questions." How does one build a business that embodies the gospel for the world, and not simply for those who have already embraced it? How can we pose the questions that unmask the false assumptions of our culture? How can we address the very core of cyclical poverty without leading parents into slavery to wealth? Perhaps the most pressing question is the central question of Lesslie Newbigin's work Foolishness to the Greeks, "What would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking and living that we call 'modern western culture'?"

For an entrepreneur (rather than a pastor or professor) to consider this question is itself an unmasking of the division that runs through our culture between public and private, fact and value, knowledge and belief. Newbigin phrases it this way:

"From whence comes the voice that can challenge this culture on its own terms, a voice that speaks its own language and yet confronts it with the authentic figure of the crucified and living Christ so that it is stopped in its tracks and turned back from the way of death?"

During the first years of parenting, parents are often more sensitive to questions of meaning, exploring how they can nurture character in their children. So, in addressing a critical social need, we have the privilege and opportunity to learn how to bear witness to the ultimate meaning of history—the only path to true virtue. Tumblon represents our humble attempt to engage the most powerful unit of human culture (the family) during the most sensitive window of development (birth to five) using the most versatile technology (the internet). It may be, by the grace of God, that one day I will walk out my door to clean streets and a more just society because parents have encountered Christ, and by grace are fulfilling their parental responsibilities.

 

Graham Scharf is a father, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, and the author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone. He has worked in team development, taught early elementary grades as a NYC Teaching Fellow, co-founded Tumblon.com, and is full-time dad to his 8- and 3-year-old daughters.

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