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Understanding the Role of Parents and Families in Arts Education

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of students who had been enrolled in a music education program in middle school, and who had gone on to continue making music in high school. In the course of our conversation I asked students to reflect on their experiences in the program: how they felt when they first began playing their instrument, why a certain teacher was their favorite, and so on. At one point I asked students to tell me what their parents had done to support their participation in the program. Without hesitation, the students answered, “Nothing.”

I observed that one could only hope the students’ future children would not display similar levels of ingratitude and then proceeded to ask a series of follow-up questions. Why had they initially joined the program? Why had they continued to participate in the program as the demands on their time increased throughout middle school? Who had ironed their dress shirt for the concert? Invariably, the answer to these questions was “my mom.” Moreover, with the exception of the ironing, students observed that while they resented their parents’ influence at the time, they were grateful for it in retrospect.

The point of note is that even for these highly-motivated students — who had persisted in their music education — the initial growth in that persistence during the first years of their involvement with the program was built on a scaffold that was erected and maintained by their families. It is clear that if we want to fully understand what sustains students’ involvement in the arts, we must take a broader systems perspective that encompasses all aspects of a child’s developmental ecology and pays particular attention to the positive elements of that ecology, none of which are more important than an involved and supportive family. This begs the question: what can organizations do to encourage family involvement in their programming for children?

Different organizations have devised ways to do so. At the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums in April, I presented an evaluation of a program created by the National Steinbeck Center that sought not only to engage children in the arts and humanities, but also to reach parents through their children. The results of the evaluation were encouraging: parents whose children were involved in the program were significantly more likely to attend events at the Steinbeck Center than parents in a matched comparison group. In New York City, The New Victory Theater creates programming designed to appeal to both children and their families. As Allison Mui, Director of Public Relations at New Victory put it, “We don’t put anything on New Victory stages that the very grown-up Artistic Programming Department staff didn’t enjoy as much as the 6-year-old sitting next to them.”

As researchers and evaluators, our challenge is to develop methodological approaches that capture not only parents’ contributions, but the contributions of adults across the range of diverse family structures, if we truly want to honor the innovative programming efforts of arts organizations and understand how arts education can foster children’s development.

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