Recently, I read Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau for class, which she based on information and observations gathered during an ethnographic longitudinal study of several middle class, working class, and poor families. From this study, she came to some interesting conclusions about class-based parenting styles.
Now, the study does have some limitations, and I’m not claiming it’s the be all and end all of studies examining the effects of child development. The constraints of the study limited her somewhat. She didn’t go into depth on the effects of factors such as race, gender, adoption, LGBT parents or children, Army parents, or single parents. This study solely looks at the effect the financial situation of the families and education level of the parents has on the upbringing of the child.
I found it really interesting on a personal level. I was raised white collar middle class and I married a guy raised blue collar working class, but a much larger factor in my growing awareness of the unspoken class divisions in America came with the 2008 financial meltdown.
The median U.S. Household income was $51,371 in 2013, which continues the trend of decreasing U.S. household incomes. In real terms, this effects class mobility. Parental income has been a fairly reliable predictor of the adult income of the child, and that still tends to hold true for extremely affluent or extremely poor families. In terms of class mobility, however, there is now a “downward” trend in terms of real income where kids who were raised middle class are not out-earning (or even earning the equivalent of) their parents.
My husband and I identify as middle class. Since middle class is a very subjective term, that doesn’t really tell you much. What I mean when I say “middle class” is that we enjoy a comfortable standard of living on a single-earner income. We can afford not only the basic necessities and bills of life, but enjoyable extras as well, such as annual family vacations and weekend trips. We are also able to fund and maintain hobbies that require equipment upkeep and maintenance, and we can sign our child up for extracurricular activities.
We do not own a home or new cars (we do own used cars), so if someone else defines middle class as expensive property ownership, then they might disagree with my defining us as middle class.
We live in a suburban neighborhood where we associate with people from both middle class and working class upbringings, and I’ve noticed that their parenting decisions seem to reflect these backgrounds regardless of their individual family income situation.
I. Child Development
Lareau found (and supported with information from government research) that poor and working class families (P&WC) engage in what she calls “natural development,” while middle class and affluent families (MC&A) engage in what she terms “concerted cultivation.”
Features of natural development include:
- An emphasis on respect and deference toward adults.
- Adults view childrens activities and interests as existing in a separate sphere; child’s play.
- Adults tend to engage in directive-based communication with kids (e.g. Did you do your homework? Empty the trash. Clean your room. Where are you going? Clean your plate.)
- Corporal punishment (spanking, hitting with a belt, etc.)
- Extensive kinship relationships relationships (daily or weekly interactions with siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins).
- Lack of trust for what Lareau calls “institutional authorities,” which is basically institutions that are steeped in white-collar values and assumptions (like schools and hospitals).
- Parents make less eye contact when talking to kids.
P&WC kids tend to have high distrust for white collar institutions, because their parents do. The parents don’t advocate as strongly on behalf of their kids as MC&A parents do — not out of a lack of love, but because of different communication styles.
To be blunt, P&WC parents tend to respond to teachers and doctors as though they’re the experts and cannot be questioned — the same way they teach their children to respond to adults. And just like kids talk smack about the authority figures in their lives when no adults are around, P&WC parents tend to disagree with the conclusions of doctors and teachers in their home, rather than to the face of the “expert.” Lareau’s research showed that teachers were often frustrated with P&WC parents because they didn’t seem engaged with their kids’ education, and did not participate in parent volunteer programs or frequently attend conferences and school activities.
Another way P&WC parents undermine the respect for adults that they’re trying to instill in their kids is by explicitly telling them to disobey school rules on the playground. School rules ban fighting on the playground, and kids are advised to report to teachers or staff when they’re being harassed or bullied. P&WC parents will specifically advise their kids to ignore the rules and fight back to defend themselves, and they will even go so far as to praise a child who is expelled for fighting in self-defense.
Since corporal punishment styles don’t fit in with the middle class/ institutional white-collar ethics that permeate schools and medical establishments, P&WC parents are afraid their children will be reported for abuse if they show up with bruises or mention that their parent spanked them with a belt. The combined effect is that P&WC kids are taught by both parental example and explicit lessons to defer to authority figures and not question or negotiate on their own behalf, and they learn not to trust institutions permeated with middle class values.
The directive language and lack of eye contact when communicating means that P&WC kids are at a disadvantage when they go on interviews and whatnot as adults. Also, P&WC parents don’t explicitly teach their kids certain social skills, like the correct handshake pressure or how to balance a full schedule. All these means that P&WC kids lack some important tools for navigating situations and institutions permeated in white collar middle class values.
On the plus side, P&WC kids navigate peer interactions and free time really well. They having stronger sibling and kinship relationships, and often consider siblings to be not only family, but friends. P&WC kids are also better at mediating peer disagreements.
Features of the concerted cultivation style typical to MC&A families include:
- Scheduling extracurricular activities with the express intention of enriching your child (sometimes so many activities that the schedules conflict, and the child must choose which activity to prioritize).
- Encouraging kids to question adults, negotiate on their own behalf, and to project an air of confidence.
- Kinship relationships that tend to be more distant and focused mainly around special occasions like birthdays or holidays.
- Punishment tends to be verbal punishment or time outs/ loss of privileges.
- Parents make eye contact when talking to their kids.
MC&A parents went through the gamut of middle class institutions. They usually have at least a Bachelor of Arts degree, and they view teachers and doctors as peers rather than experts to be deferred to. They will question conclusions, look for second opinions, and argue or apply pressure to get the best results for their kids. Lareau’s research showed that while teacher’s appreciated that the parents were involved and engaged, they were also irritated at the lack of value the parents seem to assign to their education and skills.
MC&A kids are taught that they are entitled to adult attention. Their parents specifically teach them to question their teachers and medical professionals. They are encouraged to debate, defend their views, negotiate on their behalf, and question the “why” of adult directives. Curiosity is encouraged.
The net effect is that kids are better prepared for navigating white collar institutions. The familiarity with institutional processes helps them when it comes to college preparation and application. The confidence and eye contact help them in interviews and job searches, and the negotiation skills help in both academic and employment settings.
The downside is that depending on the personality of the child and how far the parents take it, the kids might not be prepared for the realities of adult life. Their parents have cushioned them from financial concerns and made them think that everyone is interested or invested in their perspective — also known as “helicopter parenting.” Another problem with concerted cultivation is when there’s a financial downtown — middle class kids are raised with a specific set of skills and values intended to help them succeed in a white-collar workforce, and when they are handed a socio-economic situation where they need to succeed in and value blue-collar labor and service work, they have difficulty adjusting.
The trend of concerted cultivation is fairly recent, actually — according to Lareau, it came to prominence through the 1980s and 1990s. Middle class kids of the post war generation were still taught to stay out of sight, out of mind. This is interesting, because it means the rise of concerted cultivation parallels the transition to a white-collar workforce.
In personal practice/ experience
These class-based styles of relating to institutional authorities can definitely create parenting conflicts. The clearest example I can think of actually comes from my own childhood. I was about 17, and my curfew was 10:30. One night, I was out with my friends and I wanted to stay out later, so I called my dad and negotiated my curfew. I argued that because I’d done my homework and completed all my chores, I should get to stay out until 11:30. After some debating back and forth, my dad agreed. When I hung up, triumphant in my success, I turned to see my friends staring at me open-mouthed with shock. In response to my confusion, I was told, “That was so disrespectful. If I tried to talk to my dad like that, he’d whup my ass. I would never argue with my dad.”
Now, these boys were the children of a single parent who had a criminal record and a patchy employment history. The three of them lived in an RV on the back lot of the workshop their dad was currently helping out at — but at 17, it didn’t occur to me that our financial differences mattered, or affected how we interacted with our parents. I thought I was showing respect by talking to my dad honestly and forthrightly. They thought I was being disrespectful by expecting to be treated as an equal.
As an adult, I’ve noticed this trend repeating in my son’s friends. Some of the kids are extremely deferential and so completely respectful around adults — “Yes, ma’am, no ma’am,” type behavior, that it comes across as fear-induced bowing and scraping (to me).
On the flip side, some of the kids have a sort of … expectation, I guess, that all adults will be fascinated by and interested in every aspect of their lives. Sometimes this expectation is so pronounced that these kids will frequently interrupt adult conversations without any negative feedback, or they will expect everyone in the room to drop everything and pay attention when they are showing off an interest.
Because of the cross-class difference in my own marriage, my husband and I have really tried to reach a middle ground with Kidling. I don’t know if we have, but that’s what we’re trying to cultivate. I encourage him to always ask why, to share his interests with us, and to go to authority figures when he’s dealing with a peer situation he can’t resolve on his own — but we also teach him not to interrupt adult conversations, not to dominate the conversation, and to try every possible peaceful solution to peer conflicts before approaching adults for help.