Harvard Educational Review
  1. Growing Each Other Up

    When Our Children Become Our Teachers

    Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 296 pp. $27.50.

    In the field of developmental psychology, scholars have long explored the roles of nature and nurture in the changes that humans undergo across a life span. While, at first glance, the study of development may seem to be primarily focused on the time between birth and adolescence, scholars such as Carl Jung, Erik Erickson, and Robert Kegan remind us that humans continue to grow beyond adolescence. In the contexts of both pre- and postadolescent development, researchers often identify parents, particularly mothers, as the prominent figures in children’s lives and thus as the figures who most influence their development. Given their proximity to the child, adult caregivers are responsible for nurturing and stimulating children’s healthy development. More recently, rather than designing educational interventions by solely targeting child outcomes, some scholars have expanded their focus to simultaneously target adult developmental outcomes. This dual-generation approach to development reminds us that perhaps we should consider how to successfully capture the learning and growth that adults have been experiencing through parenting for centuries.

    In Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot uses her storytelling skills to challenge the common conception of the unidirectional parental influence on development. She begins by drawing readers into “the wreckage” (p. 3) of her own mother-daughter relationship and then presents portraits of other parents to illuminate the ways in which adults develop through their relationships with their children. This makes for an engrossing read that challenges readers to reflect on their own parent-child relationships and to make connections to teacher-learner relationships more broadly.

    Throughout the book Lawrence-Lightfoot presents parent portraits using her methodology of portraiture, which combines aesthetics and empiricism to highlight the complexity of human life (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). A tenet of portraiture, understanding the “strange in the familiar” (p. 15) matches exceptionally well with the central aim in this book to understand the impact of parent-child relationships on parental growth (p. 15). Developmental-contextual theories have emphasized the role of reciprocity in relationships for healthy development for decades (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). Here, Lawrence-Lightfoot masterfully presents a refreshing and much-needed illustration of reciprocity in action. Even though her focus is on the growth of the parent, she also provides a glimpse into how children and parents grow simultaneously. Portraiture allows her to delve deeper into the experiences of parents and children as they navigate often-tenuous relationships. Across differences and variation in the individual stories, she manages to find similarities that resonate with readers’ experiences with their own parents. Her choice of methodology also provides her the space to layer on her own experience as a mother, which enriches the themes she puts forward.

    Lawrence-Lightfoot contends that more research is needed to elevate the voices of parents, especially after their children have grown and they have had time to reflect on what they have learned from their children. Employing snowball sampling, she interviewed dozens of mothers and fathers with children between the ages fifteen and thirty-five. She chose to focus on parents of older children in order to explore how parents learn from children who are attempting to find their places in the world and in relation to their parents, arguing that adolescence and beyond is a unique period because “developmental expectations are shifting . . . and the dynamics of authority are being reshaped” (p. 11). The fifteen portraits in the book represent a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including parents of disabled children, adopted and severely traumatized children, and children with vastly different identities from their parents. There is, however, one similarity shared by all the parents portrayed in the book: they all have high levels of education and career attainment.

    Through interviews and artifacts, such as photographs, Lawrence-Lightfoot sets out to understand how parents grow as they raise their children and how the lessons they learn from their children alter their own identity and self-concept. She is interested in studying the relationship between parental growth as a result of the parent-child relationship and the societal changes that take place across time and in demonstrating how the lessons learned within parent-child relationships are applicable to broader contexts, particularly to teacher-learner relationships. She aims to extend our knowledge about developmental psychology and education using four themes that speak to children’s roles as teachers, mentors, and facilitators: witnessing, growing, intimacy, and acceptance. These overarching themes describe “children’s pedagogy” (p. 17) and are ways to understand the stories told by parents rather than “discrete categories of parental learning” (p. 18).

    The book is organized into chapters around each of these themes. For witnessing, or the ability to “listen and observe, not to intervene or fix” (p. 17), chapter 1 highlights the ways that learning to witness helped parents in the study become more introspective. Four narratives of parent-child relationships represent a spectrum of characteristics. For instance, we learn about a scientist and mother who learns how to listen from her artistic and often-confrontational daughter and about a divorced mother with an eighteen-year-old son who teaches her to act on her values. Beyond demonstrating how parents learn to step back in order to observe and listen, Lawrence-Lightfoot also utilizes this chapter to introduce parents’ experiences navigating the tension between “letting go and holding on’” (p. 55), which is a theme that runs throughout the book.

    She begins chapter 2, the focus of which is growing, by engaging in current conversations about human development. She situates this work in the study of “parenthood itself as a mechanism of human development” (p. 66). The stand-out narratives depict the relationships between a mother and her paraplegic adult son and between a mother and her severely traumatized adopted children. For the parents presented in this chapter, the tension of letting go comes through in the way their children taught them to embark on a process of evolution, through which they learned to adapt to changes (often abrupt) in order to survive. Lawrence-Lightfoot tells readers that these parents learned through tragedy and trauma to be more open-minded in their perspective taking.

    The third chapter of the book looks at intimacy as it pertains to the tensions that arise from “the ever-changing dynamic and process of calculating closeness and distance, connection and restraint” (p. 17) of parent-child relationships across time. The narratives in this chapter depict the experiences of parents who have been touched in some way by immigration. Using metaphors of food, dance, and embroidery, Lawrence-Lightfoot shows how parents learn to adapt to their children’s ways of interacting with the world and creating space for themselves separate from their parents and to the joy that results from parent-child relational growth. Through these narratives she also shows how children in immigrant families can facilitate parental learning by supporting their parents in developing new identities. Parents’ narratives address the constant struggle of “learning to let go of their control” (p. 125), and Lawrence-Lightfoot uses this theme to emphasize the important roles of trust and respect in parent-child relationships.

    Acceptance is the theme of chapter 4, and all of the narratives present parents’ relationships with children who have identities that are unfamiliar and difficult to understand. This includes a mother and her autistic son and a father and his lesbian daughter. Lawrence-Lightfoot refers to the children in these narratives as “patient and generous pedagogues” (p. 170) who are aware of the sense of disorientation that their parents experience as they embrace their children’s different identities. Like the rest of the overarching themes in this book, acceptance is an ongoing process characterized by tensions and discomfort, with parents learning to understand, accept, and trust. Across the narratives, children are not only teachers and facilitators but also mentors for their parents throughout their learning.

    From a reader’s perspective, the progression of chapters follows the process by which parents learn from their children, the ways Lawrence-Lightfoot experienced her interviews with parents, and the ways readers might learn from parents’ experiences of children’s pedagogy.

    To end the book, Lawrence-Lightfoot provides five “cross-currents” (p. 223) that reflect additional themes found in the parents’ narratives: teaching and learning, generational ghosts and echoes, difference and deviance, culture and context, suffering and love. Her explanation of these themes helps readers reflect on the narratives in the volume and come away with a clear understanding of the book’s purpose. She also uses this conclusion to point out some of the surprises in her study. For instance, parents rarely mentioned learning about technology from their children. She also found that parents learned most from the children who were most different from themselves and that many parents reflected on their own upbringing when considering their relationships with their children. These surprises leave readers to consider the unexplored depths of parent-child relationships—both their own and those constantly affected by changing world contexts.

    Lawrence-Lightfoot explicitly tells readers at the beginning of Growing Each Other Up that she seeks to illuminate the experiences of parents from a perspective that scholars are just beginning to explore. Indeed, with her use of portraiture, her storytelling and analysis, this book serves as an excellent starting point for those searching for a new lens through which to understand development across the life span. And while outside the scope of this book, one discussion that can be extended from it is around early childhood and continuity in attachment that may have an impact on the process of parental learning within parent-child relationships.

    Growing Each Other Up is a captivating read that will inspire not only parents but also readers who wish to reflect on their own development in relation to the adults who raised or taught them. It is also valuable to researchers, practitioners, and policy makers who are interested in supporting child and adult learning. Lawrence-Lightfoot draws readers into stories of individuals who, at first glance, seem different from one another but whose experiences are remarkably similar. She demonstrates that relationships mold us all as individuals. And, especially as we seek to understand human development, she reminds us of the power of listening, via aesthetic and scientific inquiry, to the processes and lessons that are not usually at the forefront of the conversation.

    sarah a. rendón garcía

    References

    Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist32(7), 513.

    Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Davis, J. H. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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    Book Notes

    Growing Each Other Up
    Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

    Lower Ed
    Tressie McMillan Cottom

    Grit
    Angela Duckworth