American Sociological Association

‘‘I Just Need a Job!’’ Behavioral Solutions, Structural Problems, and the Hidden Curriculum of Parenting Education

Parenting education programs aim to teach parents, often low-income mothers, a set of skills, behaviors, and attitudes believed to promote improved opportunities for their children. Parenting programs are often offered in schools, with instructors teaching pregnant or parenting teens about child development, attachment, and discipline strategies. Despite the large numbers of participants and significant public and private funding going to parenting education, sociologists of education in the United States have paid little attention to the topic. Existing research, by scholars in other disciplines, has found parenting education to be a relatively weak intervention. Yet this research focuses exclusively on individual-level processes, paying little attention to social context or other factors. This study uses extensive observational and interview data from parenting education programs in two schools and one social service organization to examine what is taught, what is not, and the intersections between program content and the structural realities shaping parents’ lives. The results show that although they were designed for low-income mothers, the classes were silent on the issue of poverty, treating poverty-related concerns as irrelevant to the task of parenting. Furthermore, when such topics did emerge, instructors redirected the conversations to personal behaviors and characteristics. Thus, the ‘‘hidden curriculum’’ of parenting education conveyed the message that good parenting should be unaffected by the challenges of poverty. The mothers, however, struggled to provide for their children in conditions of extreme scarcity, making it difficult for them to focus on other parenting issues.


Maia Cucchiara, Erin Cassar, and Monica Clark





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