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."