Opinion: Mexican-American Kids Have Better Social Skills, Misunderstood by Institution

We're still miffed by why these tough-love parents don't vote Republican, after discovering quite traditional child-minding inside a score of Latino households.

Their preschoolers lent a hand clearing the table or clutter, even changing diapers of their youngest siblings. Accented by daily chores and Sunday rituals, these Mexican-American youngsters learned the sanctity of family obligations. Rare displays of misbehavior brought quick reprimands and the occasional spanking, as we watched over a 14-month period.

Turns out that this rather conservative upbringing "“ mixed with ample affection "“ yields kids who enter school with remarkable social agility and emotional maturity, a finding we identified in a study published December after tracking more than 4,700 young children nationwide. These results corroborate other recent studies -- Mexican-American kindergartners display robust cooperative skills, respect adults, and eagerly participate in classroom tasks, whether their behavior is judged by parents or teachers

(RELATED: Highly Social Mexican-American Kindergarteners Weak in Other Areas)

Gaps in cognitive and preliteracy skills remain wide: the average Mexican-American 4-year-old is seven months behind the average white peer. Yet we could detect no differences in social competence, despite the yawning chasm in economic status between the two groups of families. Almost two-fifths of the Mexican-American sample fell beneath the poverty line.

Take Andres, age 4. He spends much of his days trailing after his mother, Fernanda Ortíz, and their pushcart, selling fresh cheese to help make ends meet. Back home, Andres readily aids Ortíz, cleaning the house, drying the dinner dishes. Another mother, Luz Mireles, insisted on respect from her young children, especially with visiting kin. "Es mala educación interrupir a los adultos [it is bad manners to interrupt adults]," she would scold her preschooler.

This rich tough love initially helps lift school performance. We know, for instance, that Mexican-American kids with stronger cooperative skills display accelerated math learning during the kindergarten year. What's not well-understood is how language or insensitive teachers, later in elementary school, appear to swamp the early social-skill advantage.

The Obama administration's hawkish position on standardized testing "“ along with dodging debate over whether classrooms should host bilingual instruction "“ further discounts the importance of social agility and self-confidence inside classrooms. Kindergarten now enforces plenty of drill-and-kill, with 5-year-olds lined up in rows of lone desks prepping for multiple-choice tests.

All this serves to detract teachers from recognizing the robust social skills of Latino kids, and ensures that only proficiencies lodged in a kid's head, not his heart, will be advanced. So, the very skills that would bolster our economy globally "“ social agility and bicultural proficiencies "“ are barely recognized in many American classrooms.

More broadly, it's becoming clear that poor Latino parents don't necessarily raise "disadvantaged" children "“ a liberal mantra for the past half-century. Educators often fail to recognize these cooperative "soft skills" as expressed by Latino youngsters. This, at the same time that economists and popular analysts, like New York Times' Paul Tough, have rediscovered that  it's such "grit and character" that drives success in school and later in jobs.

Educators and policy thinkers must first recognize and build from the cultural strengths of Latino families. Instead, policy makers and practitioners on the ground too often assume that quite kids from poor households must be slow, a pobrecito with limited potential, or that the welfare state must endeavor to fix the practices of poor families.

We have intervened into households since the Great Society via Head Start and home-visiting programs, the latter sharply expanding under Obama's health care reforms. But again, well-meaning activists try to fix families they don't well understand. Federal home visitors now ironically urge better nutritional practices "“ even though immigrant Latinas display even healthier prenatal and early feeding practices with their toddlers than the average white mother.

We certainly must work harder to narrow early learning gaps before they emerge. Millions of toddlers and preschoolers like Andres eagerly attend to household tasks, but then fail to benefit from rich oral language and exposure to colorful children's books at home before entering kindergarten.

But let's get clear about what the problem is when it comes to early learning in Latino communities "“ before the imperial bevy of policy thinkers and local practitioners tries to fix households about which they assume much and know quite little. Shining a bright light on how pro-family Latinos raise their children and exercise these cultural strengths would be illuminating for us all.

Bruce Fuller and Claudia Galindo are sociologists at Berkeley and the University of Maryland, respectively. Alma Guerrero is a pediatrician and professor of medicine at UCLA.