Penn sociologist Annette Lareau says that the way middle class parents interact with their children promotes an “emerging sense of entitlement” that better equips them for success in the world.
BY KEVIN HARTNETT
One afternoon in 1993, Annette Lareau—then on the faculty of Philadelphia’s Temple University and now the Stanley I. Sheerr Term Professor of the Social Sciences at Penn—arrived at the home of Katie Brindle, a white nine-year-old girl who lived with her mom in a rundown apartment building in a working class part of town. Lareau had chosen the Brindles to participate in an ambitious ethnographic study focused on how parents of different socioeconomic positions raise their children. She was interested particularly in whether any observable contrasts could shed light on one of the central riddles in sociology: just why it is that kids tend to grow up to occupy a similar social class position as their parents.
Earlier that day Katie had formulated a plan to build a dollhouse. With the help of her grandmother she’d gathered empty cardboard boxes and then set to work on the kitchen counter with scissors and glue. But by the time Lareau arrived at the Brindle’s home the project was in disarray. Lareau watched as Katie carried the ramshackle structure high over her head into the living room where her mother was watching television. Katie placed the boxes on the rug and asked for help. Her mom’s answer was short and to the point. “Nah,” she said. Standing off to the side, Lareau noted that Katie was “silent but disappointed” by the response.
When Lareau reflected on this interaction she realized that something profound had taken place. For nearly a year she’d journeyed to soccer games with middle class families, ridden the city bus with single moms on their way to collect food stamps, and hung out in suburban kitchens and working class living rooms as families went about their days. With each of the families Lareau had paid close attention to the ways that parents approached their children’s development, and after a while she’d noticed a pattern: While middle class parents rarely missed an opportunity to cultivate their children’s interests, poor and working class parents tended to view child’s play the way Katie Brindle’s mom did, as something best left to children.
In 2003 Lareau published her results in a powerful book called Unequal Childhoods that has reshaped the way sociologists think about family dynamics and inequality (the second edition, including a decade-later update, was published September 1). Lareau extrapolated from her ethnographic observations to a far-reaching analysis of the structure of society, arguing that there is a categorical difference between how middle and lower class parents approach childrearing, and that these differences lead to the reproduction of social class position from one generation to the next. Following her analysis she wrote, “It is not impossible for individuals to significantly change their life position but it is not common.”
The scope of Lareau’s ideas, combined with the vivid observations that support them, have garnered her a rare degree of crossover status as a scholar whose work has become influential in both academia and popular discourse. New Yorker contributor and pop-intellectual king Malcolm Gladwell devoted several pages to Lareau’s research in his 2008 chart-topper Outliers; his assessment of Unequal Childhoods— “a fascinating study”—graces the cover of the new edition. Lareau is also a favored scholar of David Brooks, who has featured her research in his New York Times column and in his current bestseller The Social Animal. Both Brooks and Gladwell cited Lareau as having produced some of the most powerful evidence in support of the idea that individual life outcomes owe more to cultural and contextual forces than to personal factors like grit, initiative, or innate skill.
Lareau’s impact in the academy has been more controversial but no less pronounced. Unequal Childhoods has sold more than 60,000 copies—Stephen King numbers by the standards of an academic press—and it has become a requisite text in sociology courses on inequality and the family. More generally it has moved the research agenda in a field that until recently focused more on race and gender. “Annette, I think, is largely responsible with her book for shifting attention back to a concern about social class differences,” says Frank Furstenberg, the Zellerbach Family Professor and Lareau’s colleague in the Sociology Department. “Her analysis really is very penetrating in how patterns of class get laid down in ways that affect children’s behaviors and sense of agency.”
But the more attention Lareau has received, the more some of her peers have questioned whether her conclusions outstrip her data. While Furstenberg agrees with Lareau’s argument in broad outline, he thinks that the strict lines she draws between middle and lower class parents are unlikely to hold at the population level. “I’m not sure that I am utterly convinced about where she’s drawing the [class] boundaries or whether there are strict boundaries in parenting patterns,” Furstenberg says. “There are certainly very sharp differences, and she has described and captured those. Where we would draw the lines to find them I think you cannot tell from her rather modest sample.”
Lareau has heard these criticisms, in forthcoming journal articles that challenge her conclusions, and in audience questions at the venues where she’s presented her work. She has agonized over the practical limitations she faced—that she couldn’t observe more families or observe them for longer—and she knows her arguments have unsettled a lot of people, not least of all the families she observed. But at the same time she maintains a deep commitment to the explanatory power of ethnography. “Longitudinal studies using qualitative methods are rare,” Lareau wrote in a 2010 paper, “but the findings offer much more depth and insight into social processes than nationally representative data sets can provide.”
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FEATURE: The Perils of Parenting Style by Kevin Hartnett
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette