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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.
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.
Annette 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. (more…)