As a final note, the class differences explored in this series are not based solely on 1:1 comparisons of low income friends/ family and my family — early on, my husband and I had some disagreements that he (more sensitive to class differences) attributed to my middle class privilege. This sparked in me an ongoing academic interest in class and how it is perceived/ enacted in modern American culture, so the general differences I note throughout the series are based on a range of studies and research, as well as personal observation.
There’s a strong tendency for anyone to try and relate information to themselves and their own lives, which is reflected in my choice to include personal anecdotes and observations in a lot of the entries. When we discussed Lareau’s book in my Law and Outlaw class, my classmates related their reactions based on their personal experiences, and tended to discount the larger statistical data on that basis.
This is a natural and obvious reaction, but it’s important to remember that these studies examine social trends, not individual facts. There can be a larger trend of poverty repeating and amplifying from one generation to the next with occasional success stories.
Lareau is also careful not to make value judgements on which style of parenting is preferable. I’ve also tried to maintain a neutral tone, although I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.
The middle class values so common in social institutions like schools, medical offices, and government have definitely primed me to see certain poor and working class behaviors (such as corporal punishment and lack of parental interest/ involvement) as physically and emotionally abusive. While I do see the drawbacks in concerted cultivation (*cough* helicopter parenting, *cough*), I honestly feel the best approach is to balance the two parenting styles.
Admittedly, this conclusion is based on my own parenting standards, which are based largely on the assumptions and resources I was raised with, in addition to the conclusions from my research. That said, all the research indicates that most parenting styles rely less on the examples of our parents and more on the availability of resources.
In laymans terms, this means that if the children of a working class couple exceed their parent’s income earnings as adults, they’re more likely to practice concerted cultivation than natural development. It really is a question of resources — if all the parents are working full time (or at two or more jobs) just to pay the bills, then it makes it more difficult to engage in concerted cultivation on every level.
Lower-wage jobs often don’t allow the freedom of movement that salaried and white collar positions do. Consider when I worked as an errand girl/ receptionist in a law office — the paralegal was allowed to bring her children (same age as my child) to the office on half days, while I was told that my son would be a distraction to me if I took him on my shopping errands on half days.
I know many parents who’ve missed their kids’ parent-teacher conferences due to work conflicts. When it’s a decision between intervening on behalf of your child or getting fired, the ability to pay the bills wins out. That’s a resource difference in terms of time.
Lower-wage positions also make it more difficult to support a stay-at-home parent, or hire a nanny, which is why kinship relations are often so strong in poor and working class families — consider my husband, who was raised by his nana while his parents both worked full time, or the previously mentioned neighborhood mom, whose boyfriend’s cousin moved in with them so he could watch her sons when she travels or works extensive hours.
Ironically, the stronger kinship relationship don’t actually translate to healthy long-term relationships — family can often only rely on family for assistance. When someone in the family has an addiction or mental illness or PTSD or debilitating medical issues, it falls on the low-income family to shoulder the entire burden, instead of offsetting some of the stress to experts such as rehab, counseling, or medical care.
A jobless family member will live with them rent free, financial loans will go unpaid, unpaid childcare is expected. All these things, when stretched out over months and years, contribute to family stress and discord, and are far more common in low-income families.
In contrast, consider the response of some local small business owners to the demands of childcare and medical stress: they hired a childcare provider to take care of their preteen children when they were both at work, but since the wife was not only an employee of the business, but the owner, she could work reduced hours and did so, choosing to come into the office for half a day two days a week. They also outsourced many of the scheduling and errand demands of middle-class parenthood to paid employees (such as having office employees pick up their groceries and deliver them to the house, schedule her kids’ activites on their calendars, and remind them when to leave the office for parenting duties).
That is what affluent middle class looks like — the ability to not only engage in concerted cultivation, but to set their own schedules, outsource the tedious parenting tasks, and provide around-the-clock supervision for the children.
To compare, John and I are lower middle class: we can afford to have a stay at home parent who can negotiate on behalf of our child with institutional authorities. We take family vacations and arrange scheduled enrichment activities for our child. Our communication and disciplinary choices reflect middle-class values. But we cannot outsource the tedious daily chores or set our own work schedules. John is lucky enough to have lots of paid personal leave with his employer, so he can usually take time off in order to attend parent-teacher conferences or other child-focused activities without a cut in pay, but he doesn’t have the freedom to simply leave the office whenever he feels like it.
A low income family is in a situation where both hiring childcare and maintaining a long-term stay at home parent is untenable. Instead, friends and family are relied on to provide childcare or help out financially by providing room and board to a homeless friend, sibling or parent– although the relationship is often expected to go both ways, and the boarder is expected to help out financially by contributing what they can to the household income. When one (or both) parties are unable or unwilling to live up to the expectations, that just increases family stress.
If you’re interested in learning more on the role economic stability or instability plays in family dynamics, I suggest the following resources:
- Hoop Dreams, 1994 documentary
- American Families: A Multicultural Reader / Edition 2, edited by Stephanie Coontz
- Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas
- There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America, by Alex Kotlowitz
- Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by Annette Lareau