Review: Unequal Childhoods

When much of the blogosphere was freaking out over Judith Warner, Jody and I (and others) pointed out that Warner had interviewed a very narrow subset of upper-middle and middle-class parents in Washington DC and other major urban areas, and decided that they were representative of all American parents.  Today’s book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, by Annette Lareau, explicitly uses the lens of class to examine parenting practices.

Lareau and her field workers observed classroom interactions, interviewed parents in 88 families, and eventually conducted intensive home observations of a selected sample of 12 families with third graders.  The book is structured with each chapter describing a specific child and family, each one illustrating an aspect of parenting behavior.

Lareau’s basic argument is that middle-class* families use a parenting strategy that she calls "concerted cultivation."  This involves intensive verbal interactions, including explanations of the reasons behind decisions, lots of scheduled activities, such as sports and music lessons, and parental intervention with outside institutions, especially schools, to get them to accomodate children’s individual needs and preferences.  By contrast, working-class* and poor families use a very different parenting strategy, that of "the accomplishment of natural growth."  These parents see their responsibility as making sure that their children are fed, housed, appropriately clothed, clean and attending school.  (As Lareau notes, these are not small tasks, especially for the poorest families.)  The kids spend most of their time in unstructured self-directed play with relatives or neighbors, in mixed age groups, and watch lots of television.

Lareau bends over backwords to describe the differences between middle-class and poor and working-class parenting approaches without judging one as better than another.  She notes that the middle-class children were more likely to argue, whine and talk back to their parents, to complain of boredom, reject food offered and demand alternatives, and even to say they "hated" their siblings. She argues that both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, but that our society privileges "concerted cultivation" and rewards the skills it teaches more than the skills taught by "the accomplishment of natural growth."  For example, organized activities teach kids how to talk to and work with new adults, but unstructured time teaches kids how to entertain themselves.  But the first is more likely to be helpful in the job market.

Lareau’s criticisms of middle-class parenting styles hit home.  There are times I find myself on the verge of tears, wondering whether, just for once, D might do something just because I asked him to, without a fifteen minute discussion and explanation.  My children are too young to participate in the huge number of extra-curricular activities Lareau describes, but I definitely see it happening around me, and know it will be easy to get sucked in. 

At the same time, there are still good reasons to choose concerted cultivation. In particular, I’m thinking about the study that found that a middle class hears more than three times as many words per hour as a child in a family receiving welfare, and almost twice as many as a child in a working class family.  This is quite consistent with Lareau’s findings.

I want to think it about it some more, but there also appears to be a significant overlap between "concerted cultivation" as described by Lareau and the "nurturant parent" model of the family as described by George Lakoff.  (The overlap between "the accomplishment of natural growth" and the "strict father" model isn’t as strong, in part because many of the lower-income families were led by single mothers.)

* One of the problems in talking about class in the US is that just about everyone considers themself "middle-class."  I had an interesting exchange with Amber at Listening to Myself about this.  She commented that Warner doesn’t describe what she sees in her neighborhood:

"Around here, we tend to practice something I’ve heard described as "benign neglect". The moms I know read a lot to their kids, but they don’t play with them. The kids play by themselves or with their siblings, with minimal parental intervention (mainly for really out of bounds behavior). "

Since I was reading this book, I asked her about the socio-economic mix in her neighborhood.  She answered:

"I would say that these people are middle-class, but in the more realistic definition of it – not upper-class masquerading as "upper middle-class". These are mostly stay-at-home moms (like myself) who’s husbands are police officers, teachers, lower to middle level techies (generally not managers) and the like."

Lareau would probably consider that working-class, since the men aren’t managers or supervisers, or people with advanced degrees.  But I’ve hardly ever heard anyone in the US describe themselves as "working class."

17 Responses to “Review: Unequal Childhoods”

  1. Sara Says:

    I like Paul Fussel’s breakdown of class in the U.S: Almost everyone is middle class – broken down into lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle.
    Its funny – Americans do have a real aversion to being called something other than middle class. Yet within the middle class, everyone is aware that not everyone is *really* middle class.

  2. Maggie Says:

    I loved this post. I loved it in particular because I grew up in a working class household (with a SAHM, a dad w/o a college degree, and exactly the kind of ‘benign neglect’ parenting that Amber describes) and I’m now a parent in, I’m pretty sure, an upper class family/neighborhood, and with a peer group in my profession and my neighborhood that, in large part, grew up in a wealthy suburb/prep school/Ivy League environment. A lot of my personal tension about motherhood has come from the contrast between my gut instincts – formed, in large part, by my own upbringing – and what’s happening around me. My kids, including my almost 5-yr-old, haven’t yet been in organized classes (other than daycare). But my friends’ kids – most of whom have nannies or a stay-home parent, not daycare – have weeks full of little gym and little soccer and preschool picasso class. I’m seeing it in the birthday parties, too. I would never, ever have thought of getting “Reptiles Alive!” to come to a kid’s party, or to have a party at a theater with a professional puppet show, or at a taekwondo studio, or at a NASCAR track . . . but these are exactly the content of the last four birthday parties my son’s been invited to. What happened to pin the tail on the donkey and hot dogs on the grill?
    It is disconcerting. And I wonder, sometimes, if I moved too far from my socioeconomic roots too quickly – my siblings and friends from high school are teachers, nurses, electricians, social workers, police officers, military, middle managers . . . and a smattering of artists. My college friends are lawyers, doctors, Fortune 500 senior managers, journalists, screenwriters, producers, dot-com CEOs, doctoral students, professors . . . and a smattering of teachers (but at exclusive high schools or prep schools) and artists.
    I’d rather follow the benign neglect model. Ultimately, I think it keeps a kid more real, it keeps a kid’s expectations of what level of moment-to-moment support and entertainment s/he is “entitled” to more realistic, and teaches independence. But. But but but . . . and this is the most difficult part of it for me . . . academically, I was bored silly from age 7 to age 17. Luckily, I loved to read, and that was the saving grace for me. Clearly, looking back on it, there are things that my parents could have done, directions they could have pushed me in just a little bit, that would have opened up a lot of exciting opportunities for me, and maybe helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. In NYC, there are so many opportunities for bright kids, and I simply didn’t know about them or take advantage of them. Or, when, rarely, an opportunity presented itself (usually through the suggestion of a teacher at school) for me to go and use my mind in a new and interesting way, my parents didn’t tend to grasp the import of the opportunity and didn’t suggest to me that it would be something worth pursuing. One I still think about: having had perfect scores on the NY State biology, chemistry, and physics Regents exams, and having passed a city-wide test to get into a really exclusive (and free) summer science program for high school kids at Columbia University, I said to my folks that I didn’t feel like schlepping across the city – from Queens to the Upper West Side – 4 days a week all summer. They shrugged and said “OK.” If they had pushed back even a little, I’m sure I would have done the program – and who knows what would have happened next?
    This isn’t just about academics – my sister, who is now a successful modern dancer and choreographer, feels similarly about their ‘benign neglect’ of her clear talent. She feels like she could have used a little more encouragement and direction as a child, and that she’s lucky to have stumbled into the place where she’s supposed to be despite my parents’ cluelessness.
    So where does this leave me as a parent? Well, looking back on it, I think I would have loved to have gone to prep school academically. But it probably would have been awful for me socially. I like the person I am now, and I attribute a lot of “me” to having grown up in the midst of socioeconomic and cultural diversity, with time to read and daydream when I was a kid. But I wish I had gone to that science program, and I wish that I had been a little more prepared for the academic rigors of an ivy league college than I was when I got there. I wish I had had a little bit more of a clue about what my real interests were a little earlier in life.
    I’m not sure how I’m going to balance these two things as a parent. I’m not sure how to teach the balance, how to show my kids that it’s good to resist the pressures of the taekwondo parties and the semi-pro seeming soccer leagues for 6 year olds (where if you haven’t been in pee wee soccer for 2 years you’re already behind. Ridiculous.) but also to push them just enough that I help them find the things that are fulfilling for them – so that they’re not bored for 10 years of their childhood. Especially because boredom is so much more dangerous, it seems, today than it was 20 years ago. I vacillate between calling the soccer classes for 3 year olds ridiculous and panicking that I haven’t signed my son up for those very same classes. It’s a tough way to live. Thank goodness for daycare – at least they’re exposing the kids to arts and crafts and music and such!
    Wow, have I gone on and on or what? I should probably just go and read the book . . .

  3. jen Says:

    Elizabeth —
    How did you react to Lareau’s use of the term “entitlement”? Her repeated use of the term set me on edge. I felt she was offering only two choices: you’re either a bourgeois pig, or an oppressed member of the working class. I even e-mailed her afterwards, trying to learn more about the fate of the kids. One of my primary drivers for doing so was to determine impacts later in life — if you turn your back on the “bourgeous pig” approach, have you consigned your kid to unemployment? And indeed I found that in her sample group the kids pretty much either ended up at an Ivy, or having babies as teenagers/living at home in their 20s/struggling with addiction. There must be more choices than that.

  4. Amber Says:

    Thanks for the review, that was interesting. I feel like there should be a place for something in between the middle-class and working-class parenting styles she presents – I don’t feel like I, or many of the people I know would fit neatly into either one. We’re more involved than the working-class parents, but we don’t shuttle our kids to all the stuff that the middle-class parents take them to. We talk to our kids a lot, and tend to err on the side of over explaination, much like the middle-class parents the author describes. Just because the kids aren’t in art classes doesn’t mean that they aren’t still painting and such at home. For example, I don’t do structured crafts with my daughter (who is 3), but already this morning she’s painted and cut up some junk mail with her scissors while I watched and read blogs. So there’s a certain amount of involvement there, obviously, but it isn’t 100% attention either. And just because the kids aren’t super scheduled, doesn’t mean that they aren’t at least taking one or two classes or sports by the time they are 4 or 5… I could go on, but I have a head cold I just can’t get rid of and I’m not sure how much sense I’m making.
    I guess the main problem is that not only is it hard to to create meaningful categories that people generally fit into, it is hard then to take inviduals and families and shove them into the created categories.

  5. Suzanne Says:

    Very interesting discussion! I grew up in a “working class” environment (my father was a plumber), and my parents’ approach was very hands-off. Now that I’m a parent and have “ascended” to middle class, I parent much differently than my parents did, along the lines that you describe in your post. I don’t feel that I was neglected in any way, but the fact that my mother never played with me has always bothered me a little. As a result, I spend a lot of time playing with my kids. I wonder what approach they will use when they become parents?

  6. Jody Says:

    Great review here….
    I always find it calming to remember that all parenting styles, and certainly the two you outline in this review, are works-in-progress. It’s fair to say that I grew up along the working-class model, and now stick much closer to the upper middle class model (with, I hope, a healthy dose of sanity thrown in). But NEITHER of those models existed before the 1950s, which was itself a decade of radical re-imagining childhood, adolesence, etc. I wish I would remember when we reached the point where 50% of children went to school past eighth grade: I want to say that it was at or after World War II. I think that statistic is emblamatic of how much improvisation and invention parents have been doing for EASILY 150 years (it’s possible to argue that it’s always been improvisation, but for the sake of the class issues implicit in this book and others….) and how much that can free us up to do what feels right, without worrying too much about whether we have predecessors in our practices or not.
    I have to stop the benign neglect and get back to my kids.

  7. Karen Says:

    Thanks for the great review.
    As the child of working class parents (Mom and Dad never made it past 7th grade; were children of the Depression, etc.) I find my parenting style is the absolute opposite of my stay-at-home but very much hands off mother and much more like that of my father, a working class but very much hands on dad. I wonder what my parenting style might mean for my two children (now currently in daycare)? Will they turn into bored and whiny children as described by Landreau?

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks for the great comments.
    Lareau does point out that concerted cultivation is a relatively recent phenomenon:
    “Today’s parents are not transmitting practices they learned in their families of origin. Parents of the eighty-eight children in our study were born in the 1950s and 1960s. None reported having had a very active schedule of organized activities as a child. Rather, the middle-class parents in this study and, possibly, throughout the country, appear to have been raised according to the logic of the accomplishment of natural growth.”
    Lareau suggests that it’s the increasing competition for good jobs that is driving the trend — middle-class parents can’t count on their kids having as good a life as themselves if they aren’t successful in school, get into the best colleges, etc. I’m not convinced, because I think that’s much more true for working-class children than for middle-class children. If you believe Dubner and Leavitt, middle-class kids will succeed even if their parents don’t go out of their way to help them:

  9. carolyn Says:

    Though I am not a parent, I am a professional nanny ( soon to be graduate student) and hopefully a parent, someday. I currently work for well to do families in NYC. I observe a lot of concerted cultivation parenting and it does have many advantages. However, there are some disadvantages. I think the most common problem this parenting technique causes is developing a child that has the verbal and mental capability to question and negotiate, but not the emotional capability to handle the responsibility. Parents who read this site I am sure have had moments where they absolutely must say no to a request because they know it would be inappropriate and your child cannot handle it. Think back to when there were other requests, initially denied and then the child negotiated and you gave in. Unfortuneately, the average 3-5 year old cannot distinguish the different reasons between these scenarios and cannot handle being told no. This leads to so many *meltdowns.* And can cause, sometimes daily, conflict in a home.
    Also, the tendancy to over schedule a child or to make the focus of the family the *entertainment* of the child can lead to so many problems. I think it does develop an unhealthy sense of entitlement in children. But also, I have seen the parents I work for not make any time for their relationship with each other because they are too focused on the child. This is not good for the child!
    Perhaps the author’s attempt to not judge either approach suggests that both need to be integrating. I am for classes ( within reason) for children, encouraging interests, and making time for parent/child play. But as a person who takes care of children for a living, I must stress the need for the parents to remain the parents. Set healthy boundaries, have clear expectations for behavior, encourage independent play and creativity. And even though I work as a nanny ( certain a sign of privilege) I encourage my charges to be independent and I set very careful and thoughtful boundaries and I consistently enforce those boundaries. It does make a difference.

  10. Sara Says:

    Another thought in reading the comments….
    My father, when I had my first child, gave me his one piece of parenting advice: “A little benign neglect never hurt anyone.”
    reading this, and thinking about that, makes me realize I was raised with an odd combination of the two techniques. My parents were both college-educated, my dad was an English teacher who also taught at the local college. But while they did all the talking, reasoning, explaining, discussing with me – they left me to my own devices as far as scheduling my time.
    I think its a nice compromise myself.

  11. Ab_Normal Says:

    I’ve always thought of my family as lower-middle class; this confirms it, because our parenting technique is somewhere between “concerted cultivation” and “benign neglect”. ;)

  12. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    Elizabeth, the single best Mother’s Day present anyone could have given me was the Dubner and Leavitt link you provided above, noting that the amount of TV kids watch doesn’t matter. Whoo-hoo! Here’s another video, kids!
    Benign neglect: the blogging mama’s best friend.

  13. yankee transplant Says:

    Great post! I always did the cookout in the back yard kind of birthday party with a home-made cake. The kids loved it! They didn’t play sports until second grade and took music lessons in school. I didn’t have time for all the organizing and schlepping. Now they’re 13 and almost 17, and they’re well-rounded, happy kids, one of whom is applying to some excellent colleges. Whatever works for you will work for them, IMHO.

  14. Navin Says:

    Mumbo-Jumbo. You all are such suckers. Please don’t make guinea pigs out of your kids based on this research.
    Surely, these types of books are writen to cater to desperate sub-cultures and to mitigate their inadquacies. Most dangerously, this research, if you buy into it, will relegate your kid some non-creative middle class manager’s job or a dentist. Honestly, Is that all you expect out of your kid?
    The author fails to incorporate the immigrant experince, which in my view is the biggest drawback of this book/research.
    How does she explain, two chinese parents running a hole in the wall takeout and yet are able send their kids to Ivy League without reading to them day in and day out or taking them to soccer practice?
    It is because they make Education as the only choice, sure that will make them socially less prepared but corporate America is not run by social butteflies, on the contrary, it is run by nerds. A large chunk of them are from immigrant families. Asians make education as a value system the way it used to be in the 50s, studying tough subjects like math, physics, chemistry, biology.
    Todate, most Asian cultures view lawyers, english professors and sociologists are bunch of losers. Show me an Indian or Chinese sociologist, I will show you a WASP mathmatican or a physicist.
    In California, middle class, whites are pulling their kids from schools with too many Asians – how do you juxtapose this with the so called “concerted cultivation.”
    This book at best is an advice to the poor to indulge their kids in more activities and a call for parental involvement. Poor whites, blacks, asians and hispanics are better off emulating the poor Asians than the cultivated middle class.
    I am not sure there is a clear message to folks making AGI of $50,000 or more despite David Brook’s splash in the New York Times today.
    If you think you are middle class or working class, I recommend reading “Top of the Class” by the two Korean American sisters.
    I will buy into this reseach when upper middle class Americans stop teaching their kids Singapore Math.

  15. Raising WEG Says:

    For Fun

    I read research articles about multiple-birth children. It distracts me from the dissertation, and it gives me something to aim for. I figure, why not study for the test, even if I’m never going to be examined? If there are five criteria by which …

  16. Foster Says:

    Well, the last time I got a toothache, I did not go to see my local engineer, so, uh, yeah.
    Personally, I think that my kids will be worth more than the size of their paychecks, and I dont really care if theyre poor, as long as they are happy. So, good for you, more chances for your kids to become physicists b/c I dont give a flip if mine are. Dang, you are uptight.
    Doctors and physicists work and work and work all day with little to no time for their familes. NO THANKS.

  17. dave s Says:

    “fed, housed, appropriately clothed, clean and attending school..”
    I’ve just finished the Michael Lewis book Blind Side, about a kid whose mother bothered with none of those things, and who, in high school, was taken under the wing of a far more organized family who set out to remake him into a middle-to-upper-class kid. The book is actually about football, and the Pygmalion effort was to enable the kid to graduate high school and make it academically at Ole Miss while playing, but the successes and limits to success of several adults working more or less full time to repair this kid’s childhood are fascinating.

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