Parenting by Class
Lauara McKenna is probably my favorite blogger. I sort of love her. She blogs at Apt 11D about all sorts of things but mostly about her life as a transplanted New Yorker, former academic, stay-at-home mom. Lately she has found an occasional home at The Atlantic.
Her latest piece discusses a study by sociologist Annette Lareau.
Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.
In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.
I am definitely a product of ‘natural growth parenting’ where I spent a LOT of time in self-directed activity. I ran the streets with my friends. Discipline wasn’t a negotiation between myself and my parents. I simply followed orders. When I hit 18 my parents really treated me like an adult which meant that I shouldn’t expect a lot of support from them short of a roof over my head and some food in the refrigerator.
My kids, on the other hand, are firmly in the ‘concerted cultivation’ group. My wife is a social worker, we live in an affluent area and we have four liberal arts degrees between the two of us…the kids never had a chance. We want to be hard but we default to letting the terrorists win. My inclination is to think they will be fragile adults, unaccustomed to the hard reality of life. Not so fast, says Lareau.
Parenting styles have a huge impact on future outcomes, says Lareau. She speculates that concerted cultivation creates adults who know how to challenge authority, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their time — all the skills needed to remain in the middle class. The working-class kids lack that training.
I can see the logic behind Lareau’s assessment but I don’t think it has really been tested. Generation X’s offspring are the real guinea pigs in this experiment. Our kids are the ones that are going to prove or disprove whether or not we are passing on valuable life skills or setting them up for failure. McKenna speculates that the equation is also not just about being a successful adult.
Yes, the middle-class kids gain advantages later in life, but are they really happier than the working-class and poor kids? Wearing an objective academic hat, Lareau refuses to weigh in on what is the best form of parenting. However, she does point out that the middle-class kids and parents in her study were exhausted from their schedule-driven days. Unlike the middle-class kids, the working-class kids knew how to entertain themselves, had boundless energy, and enjoyed close ties with extended family.
This also seems true. I’ve heard lots of stories about middle class kids being driven to near-nervous breakdowns due to parental pressure. At our house we’re in college prep mode with our high school senior and I have to constantly remind myself to ease off the gas. College is supposed to be fun in addition to educational. Or at least that’s how I view it. Killing your kid with high expectations before they ever set foot on campus is not helpful.
The reason I bring this whole topic up is because it works nicely with the general theme of my posts here and here. The way we parent and the habits we pass on to our kids matter a LOT. Yes, economics are important and so is education and other factors outside the home. Increasingly though I am convinced that parents carry the overwhelming share of the responsibility in producing successful adults. It seems like the best starting point for any discussion of social safety nets is about just how people end up with such varying degrees of wealth. If parenting plays such a major role, then what, if anything, should the government be required to do to mitigate the effects of bad parenting when those children reach adulthood and experience personal failures? My friends on the Right acknowledge the critical role parents play but seem to expect kids to figure it out anyway when we don’t advocate safety nets for when those kids grow up. On the flip side, the Left can be fairly charged with making the safety net so broad that it allows people to fall into a cycle of failure, subsisting on government crumbs instead of moving forward.
To be fair to both sides the correct answer no doubt lays in the gray areas but it is quite nearly impossible to build a social policy around individual assessment. To make the system fair the government would have to employ an army of social workers that reviewed each case to determine either parental malpractice or simply a kid that turned out rotten. In lieu of this it pains me (as a conservative) to say that we should probably err on the side of caution by helping more, not less of our society’s failed adults.