(From San Francisco) This is the first of several consecutive posts about Annette Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. It’s the most stimulating work of social science I have read for a long time, and I hope to explore its implications for political philosophy, education policy, and civic engagement in subsequent posts. But first, a brief summary of Lareau’s method and argument.
She and her students chose children from the same metropolitan area who were middle class, working class, and poor. From each of these groups (defined by the parents’ profession, not their income), they selected both African American and white children. They obtained permission to observe the kids’ lives–in school, in the neighborhood, at home, and on visits to church and medical appointments. They interviewed the parents and teachers, but mostly they just hung around, lying on the floor with the kids, riding in the back seat on the way to appointments, playing cards or ball, sleeping overnight in their homes.
Lareau finds that the middle-class parents in the study, without regard to race, use a strategy of “concerted cultivation” to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids’ cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children’s behavior–a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians.
Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt “the accomplishment of natural growth.” They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids’ health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.
Lareau has some of the ethnographer’s reluctance to judge, to apply normative opinions. Besides, she evidently likes all the kids in her study; she depicts them all sensitively and sympathetically. Nevertheless, her findings support strong and perhaps unexpected comparative value-judgments. The poor and working-class kids are in many ways more attractive than the middle-class ones. They obey their parents’ (relatively infrequent) instructions without whining–which is the bad side of negotiation. They are creative and skillful in organizing their own activities, including complex games. They are almost never bored. They fight with their siblings much less than middle-class children do–in fact, they rely on their relatives for support and entertainment, and enjoy one another’s company. They play happily in groups of mixed ages. Their parents like them to have free time because they don’t want them exposed (yet) to the daily grind of adult life.
In contrast, the middle-class kids are immediately bored when not provided with organized activities. They compete for attention with their siblings. (After all, when Mom is at brother’s soccer practice, she’s not doing anything for sister.) They constantly bargain with adults, including authority figures. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement to expensive goods and individualized services. They lack experience working with others of different ages or solving problems without adult intervention. Again, each subject is a likable human being, but many aspects of middle-class family childhood are unappealing.
Although the middle-class kids are less attractive than the poor and working-class children, their parents’ investment will probably pay off for them. These children have precocious skills of verbal expression and negotiation, time-management, and public performance that will serve them well in the white-collar world. They consider themselves entitled to excellent services and demand it from adults and institutions. Their expectations and behavior are perfectly in synch with those of middle-class professionals (teachers, coaches, and physicians), who respond to their needs. As kids, they are tired and quarrelsome. As grownups, they will prosper.
This is Lareau’s main argument. It fits with my own unsystematic observations in three schools where I have worked or my kids have attended. I found only one aspect of the main argument unpersuasive. Lareau sees classes as distinct, each with its own “logic,” or “culture.” She criticizes the more common theory that people are smoothly distributed along gradients of income and education, so that any change in wealth or years of schooling will influence outcomes. Lareau may be correct, but her data can’t prove her point, because her sample was deliberately constructed by drawing from two distinct groups: upper-middle class suburbanites and poor to moderate-income urban residents. It didn’t contain gradations of socio-economic status that might produce gradations in parenting styles. In one family (Chapter 9), the mother has a community-college degree instead of the advanced degrees possessed by the other suburban parents. She attempts a partial strategy of concerted cultivation with mixed results. I suspect that a larger sample would find many other intermediate cases like this one.