|Lareau was born in the early 1950s amid the surge of post-war upward mobility. “My mother was a school teacher and my dad was a school teacher,” she says. “They both went to college on the GI bill. That was a very important aspect of their lives. My father was extremely proud of his college degree.”
When Lareau graduated from UC-Santa Cruz in 1974 she planned to follow her parents into education and become a kindergarten teacher; with her height and commanding bearing it’s not hard to imagine her controlling a room full of six-year-olds. But circumstances conspired against that career choice. “There weren’t jobs, because the Baby Boom had moved through and there was a glut of school teachers,” Lareau says. She went to graduate school at Berkeley instead, where she found a different outlet for her interest in education. “At that point there was a black box, where there was a correlation between parents’ social class position and school outcomes, but people didn’t really understand why it was the case. And that really captured my interest and imagination.”
Lareau may have missed her chance to become a kindergarten teacher, but her familiarity with elementary school classrooms proved essential for gaining access to the families she ultimately studied in Unequal Childhoods. In 1993 she began visiting third grade classrooms in a poor urban neighborhood in a “large northeastern city” and in a nearby middle class suburb, with the goal of introducing herself to the children she hoped to study before she introduced herself to their parents. (In order to protect the identities of her subjects Lareau changed their names and referred to where they lived in general terms only.) Lareau chose third-graders because, as she wrote later, “I wanted children who were young enough for their parents to still be heavily involved in managing their lives (and thus transmitting social influences to them) and yet old enough to have some autonomy regarding their free time.” Lareau helped with arts and crafts projects and brought in cookies for Valentine’s Day. Before long the students were running to greet her when she arrived in the morning.
A typical ethnography might have involved observations of a single family for a year or longer. Lareau was after something different. She says, “I don’t think ethnography can ever be scientific,” but she did want to include enough families to make it reasonable to generalize from observations. She proposed visiting each family 20 times in a month, at different times in the day, and with at least one overnight stay. Based on the classroom observations and interviews with the students’ parents, Lareau identified 19 families who fit her research criteria. Of those she hoped a dozen would agree to her request. “Before making the telephone calls [asking if they’d participate] I would pace the floor anxiously and my heart would pound,” Lareau wrote in Unequal Childhoods.
Lareau wanted to study four families each from the poor, working, and middle classes, and in order to achieve that distribution she had to be somewhat flexible about how she defined her categories. “You agonize a lot about it, it’s hard and there’s no perfect answer,” she says about the process of figuring out how to slot each family. “I had a small sample, and when you have a small sample you don’t have a lot of options.” She settled on an admixture of income, education, and occupation combined with her own feel for each family’s class position. Her first round of recruiting calls yielded nine families, and to fill in the final three spots she had to relax her criteria slightly. She had particular trouble finding a black middle class family (most of her top choices declined based on privacy concerns) which led her ultimately to settle on the Williams family even though their son Alexander would be the only child in the study not in public school (he attended a nearby private school) and their household income exceeded $300,000.
The inclusion of families like the Williamses is one of Paul Kingston’s main critiques of Lareau’s study. Kingston is a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and the leading academic voice arguing that social classes don’t pertain in America. In 2000 he published a book called The Classless Society, which contends that the correlation between key characteristics like income, education, and occupational status is insufficient to support the existence of cohesive social classes in America. He argues that Lareau’s inclusion of the high-earning Williams family (as well as another family with a real income above $270,000 a year) skewed her sample in a way that accentuated class distinctions. “If you look at her analysis … she’s contrasting two extremes, and you don’t really get an impression of what’s going on in between,” Kingston says.
The material circumstances of the 12 families did vary widely, from single-parent welfare homes to Ivy League educated households. Most families fell somewhere in between, but Lareau observed that, without exception, parenting styles fell into one of two categories. Middle class parents practiced what she calls “concerted cultivation,” actively inculcating in their children the skills and habits viewed as constitutive of success in America, while lower class parents took a less hands-on approach. She called their parenting style “the accomplishment of natural growth,” a view of childrearing in which parents provide the conditions for development (love, food, safety) and otherwise let kids develop on their own.
In Unequal Childhoods Lareau focused on three areas where the differential effects of concerted cultivation and natural growth parenting were particularly acute: organized extracurricular activities, the use of language in the home, and the readiness of parents to intervene in school on behalf of their kids. In all three of these areas the middle class approach can be described as more: more activities, more frequent and sophisticated chatter around the dinner table, more parents ready to step in to get their kids assigned to specific teachers or enrolled in special programs.
Lareau is quick to say that “all childrearing methods have advantages, and I think they all have drawbacks,” and she’s emphatic that the distinctions she draws imply nothing about the degree to which parents love and are devoted to their children. At the same time, she argues that given the standards by which institutions like schools and workplaces evaluate talent, concerted cultivation confers substantial benefits on middle class children. These range from concrete, quantifiable advantages like larger vocabularies and broader skill sets to more subtle ones, like the experience of performing in public and being part of a team that kids gain through organized sports.
Lareau observed that the biggest difference between middle class parents was not what they did, but why they did it. In middle class homes Lareau found that parents used language as a developmental tool. Typical were the parents of Alexander Williams, the black middle class boy, who thought of conversations and debates with their son as an opportunity to “promote his reasoning and negotiation skills.” In one anecdote recorded in Unequal Childhoods from around the Williams family dinner table, Alexander engages in spirited verbal play with his parents:
Terry (Alexander’s father): Why don’t you go upstairs to the third floor and get one of those books and see if there is a riddle in there?
Alexander: (Smiling) Yeah. That’s a good idea! I’ll go upstairs and copy one from out of the book.
Terry: That was a joke—not a valid suggestion. That is not an option.
Christina (Alexander’s mother): There is a word for that you know, plagiarism.
Terry: Someone can sue you for plagiarizing. Did you know that?
Alexander: That’s only if it’s copyrighted.
Lareau found exchanges like this one to be the dominant style of communication in middle class households and she argues that they convey substantial class-based advantages to children like Alexander. “In the book I talk about how Alexander Williams was having dinner and his father introduces the word plagiarism as a teachable moment,” Lareau says. “Plagiarism is a word that could be on the SAT. He’s 10-years-old and hearing it at home. That’s a big advantage.”
In lower class homes Lareau observed that language use was sparer, and more instrumental. In the home of Harold McCallister, a poor black boy living in public housing, Lareau found that language served “as a practical conduit for daily life not as a tool for cultivating reasoning skills.” A representative interaction was one in which Harold’s mom directed him to “Eat! Finish the spinach!” rather than persuade him about the nutritional content of vegetables.
Lareau sees these types of interactions as evidence of a mismatch between the culture in lower class homes and the standards of schools, which she considers a “sorting mechanism” for opportunity in America. “I remember I interviewed this mom, and she couldn’t figure out why her kid was held back in first grade,” Lareau says. “She said everything was fine except for the one little thing about her daughter’s reading. Well, if you can’t read you can’t do school. The mom was a lovely lady, she loved her kid very much, but the fact that reading was really, really, really important … She said, ‘It’s just this one little thing about her reading.’”
The difference between Harold’s and Alexander’s experiences with language was about more than the educational attainment of their parents, Lareau argues. Or at least if the explanation stopped there you would miss the crux of the matter. The real reason, she says, is cultural and class-based: lower class families don’t think of children as peers, so they don’t talk to their children as peers. She argues that it’s a justifiable position to take, just as it’s justifiable for middle class parents to regard their children as conversation partners. But, she writes, “One unintended consequence of this approach is that poor and working-class children typically do not develop the same range of verbal skills their middle-class counterparts acquire.”
As a result of all the attention to their development, Lareau argues that middle class children come to display “an emerging sense of entitlement”—a bedrock belief that their individual preferences are valuable and that it’s not unreasonable to adjust the world to suit them. By contrast, she says, lower class children manifest an “emerging sense of constraint”—a view that the best they can do is adapt themselves to their limited life circumstances.
To highlight this point Lareau cites recent classroom observations made by Jessica McCrory Calarco, one of her graduate students. “There are these working class kids and middle class kids who have the same teachers,” Lareau says. “The working class kids have a question and they’ll raise their hands, and then they’ll sit there for four minutes while the middle class kids will pick up their things and go trotting across the room and say, ‘Mr. Feldman, Mr. Feldman,’ interrupting him.”
Lareau theorizes that the distinct parenting styles she describes in Unequal Childhoods hold categorically: to be middle class is to practice concerted cultivation almost as surely as to be a Christian is to believe in Jesus. These class-based dispositions explain how social class reproduces itself from one generation to the next, and she argues that they arbitrate opportunity in America more powerfully than any other demographic characteristic, including race. In the early 2000s Lareau conducted a series of follow-up interviews with the children from from Unequal Childhoods that emphasized for her just how hidden class-based inequality is in America. “When I interviewed the [middle class] young adults when they were 19 and 20, it was invisible to them all the help that they’d been given in life—they really thought they’d earned it,” she says. “And God knows they worked hard with homework and studying, going to practices; they did a lot, but they had also been given many gifts in life, gifts that other children were not given.”
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