Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog
mmo Books
Class matters

Unequal Childhoods:
Class, Race, and Family Life

Annette Lareau
University of California Press, 2003

Not-So-Nuclear Families:
Class, Gender, and Networks of Care

Karen V. Hansen
Rutgers University Press, 2005

Review by Margaret Foley

print |

In the United States, class is a taboo subject, rarely mentioned in public discourse in any meaningful fashion. What is often discussed in much more detail in the media is the effect of race. Yet, research shows that class -- and how an individual's location in a particular class affects the choices he or she is able to make -- is much more significant than an individual's ethnic background. In a country that holds fast to a mythology that it is a land of opportunity and equality, the idea of class as a determining factor undercuts the belief that, on some level, all Americans are equal. This, of course, is untrue. Statistics on poverty, healthcare, employment, and education point to the fact that class matters, despite attempts to render it irrelevant and invisible. When it comes to raising children, two recent books by sociologists illustrate how class often dictates the choices families make.

In Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life, Annette Lareau argues that class is much more relevant than race in parenting children. While race is not to be discounted, where one falls on the economic continuum is much more indicative of how a child will be raised, what the parents will value, and what skills a child will take into adulthood. To conduct her study, Lareau observed classroom behavior, interviewed over eighty white and African-American families, and conducted in-depth studies with the families of twelve third-graders.

The details of daily life provide many clues to the way in which class affects children and how they spend their time. Regardless of class, all families are engaged in the time-consuming work of feeding, clothing, and taking care of children. But, how those tasks are undertaken varies according to class. For example, in many working-class families, there are added constraints. Food must be stretched for as many meals as possible. Laundry often needs to be taken to public laundromats. Time is spent waiting for transportation and at social and public service agencies. Although the middle-class families were largely free from financial pressures, they also experienced a time crunch as leisure time was often taken up by filling out enrollment forms, signing children up for lessons and teams, arranging for placements in special programs, and intervening on their children's behalf with teachers, coaches, doctors, and other institutional actors.

No family operates in a social vacuum. Each functions in what Lareau terms a particular social structure. Where they live, what the local parks, roads, and schools look like, what the ethnic and economic composition of their neighborhood is, what jobs are available, and what their own educational and professional skills are affect a family's lifestyle. This, in turn influences the type of childhood those children will have.

The families in Lareau's study are clustered around two schools. Lower Richmond is an urban elementary school, surrounded by a wire fence, where most of the children are from poor and working-class families. Swan is a suburban elementary school with sprawling buildings, an active PTA, and lots of green lawn. Its children largely come from professional, middle-class families. A comparison of the schools' approaches to craft projects highlights the differences in resources and expectations:

Although both Lower Richmond and Swan offer computer training, art, music, choir, and gym, the character of the coursework, supplies, and instruction at Swan is more elaborate. For example, at Lower Richmond, the students enjoyed making art projects out of Popsicle sticks. At Swan, the children used square pieces of white cloth and dark black ink to make banners with Japanese characters on them.

On the basis of her research, Lareau argues that there are two basic parenting strategies, each rooted in class and each having its own cultural logic. Middle-class families practice what she refers to as concerted cultivation, and poor and working-class families utilize a strategy she terms the accomplishment of natural growth.

In concerted cultivation, parents look for opportunities, largely through organized activities, lessons, and programs, to help their children develop their talents and inclinations. For these parents, the hope is that this panoply of activities will not only make their children well-rounded individuals, but will also give them the skills -- conversational, leadership, and intellectual -- to function in the "real world." This overemphasis on children's perceived needs, according to Lareau, has transformed contemporary middle-class life:

In the nineteenth century, families gathered around the hearth. Today, the center of the middle-class home is the calendar...Month after month, children are busy participating in sports, music, scouts, and playgroups. And, before and after going to work, their parents are busy getting them to and from these activities. At times, middle-class houses seem to be little more than holding places for the occupants during the brief periods when they are between activities.

In contrast to this structured middle-class lifestyle, poor and working-class families adopt a natural growth strategy. For these families, the responsibilities of parenthood do not include this intense involvement in the lives of their children, and these parents and caregivers often maintain strict boundaries between the world of adults and the world of children. An enormous amount of time is consumed with performing daily tasks, and there is rarely time, inclination, or resources to enroll and prepare children to take part in a wide range of extracurricular activities. In this environment,

children experience long stretches of leisure time, child-initiated play, clear boundaries between adults and children, and daily interactions with kin. Working-class and poor children, despite tremendous economic strain, often have more "childlike" lives, with autonomy from adults and control over their extended leisure time.

For middle class children, the constant interaction with adults, the encouragement to ask questions and negotiate, and the interventions by parents with institutions to have children's needs accommodated gives children a sense of entitlement that serves them well in interactions outside the family. They are equipped to negotiate for what they want and need, have conversational skills, and are able to function in a variety of settings. But, this intense focus on children comes with a price. According to Lareau, middle-class children are more likely to be argumentative, complain of boredom, demand attention, and have weak ties with siblings and other relatives. As a result,

[f]amily life, despite quiet interludes, is frequently frenetic. Parents, especially mothers, must reconcile conflicting priorities, juggling events whose deadlines are much tighter than the deadlines connected to serving meals or getting children ready for bed…At times, everyone in the middle-class families seemed exhausted.

The child-rearing logic of poor and working-class families produces a different result. Because of the lack of financial resources for outside activities, these children learn to entertain themselves, create their own games, and are rarely bored or exhausted. The economic constraints that result in fewer outside activities, smaller living spaces, and a general lack of privacy means that adults and children are less isolated from each other:

As a result, family members spent more time together in shared space than occurred in middle-class homes. Indeed, family ties were very strong, particularly among siblings. Working-class and poor children also developed very close ties with their cousins and other extended family members.

While each approach to childrearing makes sense in its particular context, our society values the skills taught through concerted cultivation more highly than it does the skills learned through the accomplishment of natural growth. When poor and working-class children move from childhood to adulthood, they find that the ability to be organized and articulate is valued more than the ability to operate outside formal structures, placing them at a competitive disadvantage.

Concerted cultivation is a relatively new childrearing phenomenon. Of the middle-class parents in Lareau's study, "[n]one reported having had a very active schedule of activities as a child." If these adults grew up with a natural growth philosophy, why has concerted cultivation taken hold? She argues that as concepts of rationalization have filtered into daily life, the desire to measure children's development in quantifiable ways is becoming the norm. In fact, many of these parents engage in concerted cultivation out of a deep concern for their children's economic future. As the United States shifts from an economy that produces to one that consumes, relative wages are decreasing. This means that parents may be looking for any way possible to give their children the skills necessary to succeed:

This [economic] restructuring makes it very likely that when today's children are adults, their standard of living will be lower than that of their parents. It means there will be fewer "good jobs" and more "bad jobs," and that competition for them will be intense. Moreover, since children must be successful in school to gain access to desirable positions, many middle-class parents are anxious to make sure their children perform well academically…Thus, many parents see children's activities as more than interesting and enjoyable pastimes.

social class and networks of care

page | 1 | 2 | print |

Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online