Worlds of Difference

 

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In our cover story, “Horror and Hope,” frequent contributor Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes about the journey of 14 Penn undergraduates to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. For two weeks, the students helped build a garden and fire pit for the student canteen, participated in readings and discussions, and interacted with the village’s residents—close to 400 now high-school-aged children who lost one or both parents in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath.

The village was established by philanthropists Anne Heyman C’82 and her husband Seth Merrin, and modeled on similar efforts in Israel to care for children orphaned in the Holocaust. The name Agahozo-Shalom combines a local term meaning “dry one’s tears” and the Hebrew word for “peace.”

Heyman had some advice for the visiting college students: “You’re not going to save Africa in two weeks.” Still, despite its brevity, the experience—which ranged from a harrowing trip to a nearby church and mass grave that hold the remains of thousands of genocide victims to a mini-basketball tourney between teams coached by Penn men’s basketball stalwarts Dau Jok and Zack Rosen—was a profound one for many of the participants.

For some, like Jok, it also resonated powerfully with their own history. Before emigrating to the US in 2003, he grew up in South Sudan in similarly impoverished circumstances. His father, Dut Jok, a leader in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, was killed by government forces when he was six years old.

Jok’s story could serve as a symbol of hope for the Rwandan young people, but he also spoke admiringly of their enormous resilience. “The whole village is all about hope, all about the future. It was all about love and togetherness,” he told Dave. “They’re so inspired for the future. They have so many aspirations.”

While the challenges for poor and working-class kids in the United States are far less stark than their Rwandan counterparts, they face real obstacles in fulfilling their aspirations and too often end up in the same circumstances as their parents. One major reason may be how they were raised, according to Annette Lareau, the Stanley I. Sheerr Term Professor of the Social Sciences at Penn, who is profiled in “The Perils of Parenting Style,” by freelancer Kevin Hartnett.

In Unequal Childhoods, based on her observations of a dozen families of varying incomes, education levels, and occupations, Lareau contends that there is a basic, near-universal difference in the way individuals of different social classes approach their role as parents—and that it tends to trap poorer children in the same social class from generation to generation.

The middle-class parenting style may sound familiar (it did to me). Children are treated more like peers, their opinions solicited, rules negotiated, interests cultivated. Poor and working-class parenting is a more traditional affair—“Eat your spinach,” as opposed to a discussion of the importance of good nutrition—with a clear demarcation between the worlds of children and grownups.

While on some level the latter version is appealing, it turns out that middle-class parenting gives children a better vocabulary, more ease in social settings, and what Lareau calls an “emerging sense of entitlement,” all of which confer significant advantages when it comes to advancing in the worlds of school and work.

Lareau’s work has been cited approvingly by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, but other sociologists—including Penn colleague Frank Furstenberg, who is nevertheless an admirer—question whether her findings can be generalized to the overall population. I’m not sure, either. Still, as Hartnett writes, “it’s impossible not to see every conversation on the playground between a parent and a child differently after you’ve read Unequal Childhoods.”

—John Prendergast C’80
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