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 Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau is an original and penetrating look at class in this country. We’re pleased to present this review which not only examines this book, but also places it in the context of other works in the field. Our reviewer, Robert Greene, known in the academic world for his studies of French literature, has long been interested in the subject of class in America. Line horizontal halfpoint 460 X 10

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Second Edition, with an Update a Decade Later. By Annette Lareau. 461 pp. Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2011.

Unequal Childhoods book coverAnnette Lareau’s ground-breaking Unequal Childhoods shows us what social stratification consists of in the United States and how it perpetuates itself. In effect, the process of sorting ourselves by social/cultural/economic class begins in childhood and never really ends.  We may be unaware that we are nudging the process along, but in fact we are doing precisely that.

As parents, we practice, basically, one of two types of child rearing, “concerted cultivation” or “the accomplishment of natural growth.” (More about these terms and concepts in a moment.) Lareau draws her thickest line of socio-economic demarcation between the middle class, on the one hand, and the working class and poor, on the other.  For Lareau, only two classes count in American society, shape how most of us actually live our lives. She proposes the two different styles of child rearing she has identified as distinguishing the first mode of living from the second, as dividing us into two distinct socio-cultural groups. She concedes that family income and assets play a large role in directing our lives, but the determining factor for her is how parents view and carry out their responsibilities as parents. This, in turn, reflects the parents’ own education and occupation, as well as their aspirations for their children. Here is where “concerted cultivation” and “the accomplishment of natural growth” enter the picture:

Middle-class parents who comply with current professional standards and engage in a pattern of concerted cultivation deliberately try to stimulate their children’s development and foster their cognitive and social skills. … For working-class and poor families, sustaining children’s natural growth is viewed as an accomplishment. (5)

Lareau maintains that “these different philosophies and approaches to child rearing … appear to lead to the transmission of differential advantages to children (5).” She then spells out these differences:

The white and Black middle-class children in this study … exhibited an emergent version of the sense of entitlement characteristic of the middle class. They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings…. The working class and poor children, by contrast, showed an emerging sense of constraint in their interactions in institutional settings. They were less likely to try to customize interactions to suit their own preferences. (6)

Lareau’s method is ethnographic. She has studied 12 families in depth, focusing each time on the fourth-grader in the family, a child of about 10 years of age (boy or girl, black or white, middle class or working class/poor). She and her team members (graduate students in social sciences under her supervision) spent a month closely following the daily life of their subjects, at home, in school and participating in activities outside home and school. A team member, Lareau or one of her trained assistants, would visit each child’s family for several hours at a time, and once for an overnight, engaging the child and his or her parents in conversation, or silently observing the child interacting with his or her family. (Team members found that, when observing their subjects, their own presence soon went unnoticed.) Team members also talked with the children’s teachers and accompanied the children to their extracurricular activities and medical appointments.  The schools the children attended were located either in a city or a nearby suburb, reflecting the family’s socio-economic circumstances.

The most salient difference that Lareau and her team noted between their middle-class and their working class or poor subjects involved how language was used in the children’s respective worlds.  The team observed, for example, that for middle-class children conversations with parents (and other adults) were usually give-and-take dialogues, often speculative or playful in nature. In contrast, for working-class or poor children, the speech of parents (or other adults) almost invariably took the form of directives that anticipated no response from the child other than compliance. It became clear to Lareau and her team that middle-class children, while still in childhood, acquire linguistic confidence and sophistication via their conversations with adults. The skills thus learned would serve them well in adult life and would give them a distinct advantage over individuals from working-class or poor backgrounds.

One of the most original aspects of Lareau’s study concerns where she draws the line between the middle class, on one side, and the working class and poor, on the other. She divides American families into social classes not by income solely, but by income in combination with the educational level and occupation of the parents, as well as by where and how the families live, hence according to socio-cultural considerations broadly conceived. Middle-class children grow up in comfortable homes in which both parents are college graduates and work at well-paying jobs, frequently in the professions. The children attend excellent schools (public or private), whose teachers expect parents to monitor their children’s progress closely, and even to intervene in the school’s decisions when, for example, parents disagree with a course placement for their child. Through regular conferences and consultations, parents and teachers work in concert to educate the sons and daughters of these families.

The lives of middle-class children, however, are hectic. The obligations of homework and such extracurricular activities as sports, music, theater and church weigh heavily on all the members of these families. The kitchen calendar is consulted many times a day by everyone, to check which child is going where and which parent is in charge of transporting the child. Virtually every moment of every day and evening is planned and accounted for in advance. The members of these families, parents and children alike, are usually tired. Yet the parents are convinced that this is the right way to bring up their children, to give them as much guidance and as many enriching experiences as possible, to prepare them as fully as they can for the challenges that life will present, in college and beyond, and later in their working lives.

This is where the lives of working class and poor children diverge the most from the lives of their middle-class counterparts. The living quarters of children below Lareau’s heavy dividing line are small and cramped. In this world, funds for running a car and paying for sports equipment or music lessons are scarce to non-existent. It is assumed that schools and teachers are there to educate children, with minimal input from parents. Further, children are expected to manage their after-school and weekend activities on their own, again with little participation of parents. In a word, the children in such homes, housed, fed and clothed adequately, are expected to grow up naturally, without the constant monitoring and periodic intervention of parents. In most cases, such children are sent out into the world essentially unmentored.

Lareau credits the French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu with the notion of social or cultural capital that is central to her study, the set of attitudes, values and expectations that children absorb in childhood and carry with them into adulthood. (Lareau synopsizes Bourdieu’s main ideas in an appendix to her book.)   Moreover, for Lareau and Bourdieu, the ideas and ideals that individuals internalize in childhood not only predetermine the life paths they will follow, but also largely reproduce those of their parents. Thus are class boundaries preserved down through time.

For human and scholarly reasons, Lareau stayed in touch with her subjects during the decade following her initial contacts with them. In the second edition of her book (2011), she updates her findings with follow-up reports. Without exception, she found that every child became the adult one might have foreseen from knowing the person in childhood. Also, each individual had followed a life path not unlike that of his or her parents. Can one draw general conclusions from Lareau’s study?  For example, do most children replicate the lives of their parents, as far as class location is concerned?  According to Lareau, that would seem to be the case. For all practical purposes, lives that were unequal in childhood will remain so in adulthood.

The foregoing summary of Lareau’s inquiry into the class structure of our society might suggest that talking about class in America is easy, unproblematic, when nothing could be further from the truth. The first chapter of Paul Fussell’s 1983 Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, entitled “A Touchy Subject,” indicates just how awkward it is to talk about class in America. Two decades later, Bill Keller makes the same point in his Introduction to the New York Times anthology of essays, Class Matters (2005), where he refers to it as “a complicated subject … one that most Americans prefer not to talk about” (xii). As a society, we seem reluctant to broach the subject of class in polite company, possibly out of fear of being perceived as promoting “class warfare.”  If someone insists on breaking the taboo, he or she must immediately stress that here, on these shores, moving up in class is available to all who are willing to work hard enough. Perhaps what we fear most  in such conversations is learning that upward mobility for the strivers in our midst may be only a myth.

Accordingly, one can imagine the dismay of readers of Gregory Acs’s recent report for the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream” (September 2011). One of Acs’s conclusions stuns: “about one quarter of children raised in middle class families are downwardly mobile as adults,” (21). His assertion is all the more chilling when one realizes that the author’s “definition of middle class roughly translates to income of about $32,000 to $64,000 in 2010 dollars for a family with two adults and two children” (4). In formulating his notion of middle class, Acs, unlike Larreau, does not consider the educational level of the parents, their occupation, their assets, or any factor not readily quantifiable. We are dealing here, clearly, with a bare-bones conception of middle class, one that hardly corresponds to our everyday perception of social reality.

Lareau’s sense of the basic division of the classes in America, into middle and working or poor, recalls Alfred Lubrano’s separation of our classes into two comparable groups in Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams  (Wiley, 2004). Like Lareau, Lubrano stresses parental education and occupation as much as income in identifying a family’s class. Also like Lareau, Lubrano credits Pierre Bourdieu with first noting how “cultural capital” is accumulated and passed on within families: “The bourgeois, Bourdieu says, pass on self-certainty like a treasured heirloom, from generation to generation” (9). Where Lareau and Lubrano part ways lies in the quiet rigor of the former as compared to the polemical thrust of the latter. Lubrano gives voice to the anger of those who, like himself, have climbed out of a blue-collar world only to find themselves caught in a social limbo, forever straddling their class of origin and their new, white-collar world of uneasy privilege. Lubrano’s take on America’s class system is fresh. Ultimately, however, Lareau has written the more penetrating analysis of the injustices inherent in our existing socio-economic arrangements.

To date, the most eloquent tribute to Lareau’s argument may be Malcolm Gladwell’s in Outliers: The Story of Success (Little Brown, 2008). Gladwell devotes a half-dozen pages of his stimulating book to singing the praises of Unequal Childhoods (2003 edition). He particularly admires the distinction Lareau draws between the two parenting styles, concerted cultivation and the accomplishment of natural growth. He sees the former as nothing less than a key to success in life:

In practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to. In Lareau’s words, the middle-class children learn a sense of  “entitlement.”  (104-105)

Will Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods enliven social policy discussion in the United States today as much as Michael Harrington’s The Other America did a half-century ago?  Possibly. At the very least, Lareau will convince her readers that the inequality constricting the future of so many Americans so early in life must be faced and combated. Let her closing remarks stand as the last words here:

In America’s meritocratic culture, the idea of competition implies both fair play and deserved outcomes…. But … the system is not fair. It is not neutral. It does not give all children equal opportunities…. Our culture’s nearly exclusive focus on individual choices renders invisible the key role of institutions. In America, social class backgrounds frame and transform individual actions. The life paths we pursue, thus, are neither equal nor freely chosen. (343)

                                                               —Robert Greene is a professor emeritus of French at the State University of New York, Albany.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.