Almost 15 years after Lareau met the 12 children in Unequal Childhoods, she tracked them down for one last round of interviews. By then they were in their early twenties and there was no longer much suspense about where they’d end up in life. The middle class kids were situated, with one exception, in fields like medicine, business, and academia. All of the poor and working class children were either unemployed or working in low-skill jobs. One was a waiter in a chain restaurant. Another was a union painter. Katie Brindle, the girl who’d struggled to build a dollhouse on her own as a fourth grader, had moved to Florida and was working in a nightclub.
The fact that there were so few surprises is strong evidence, says Lareau, that individual initiative isn’t the sole or even primary ingredient of success in America. In the second edition of Unequal Childhoods, which contains a chapter on these follow-up interviews, Lareau writes:
“Does social class matter in American society? Let us assume, for the sake of argument that it does not. If that is so, then young people’s educational and work outcomes should be the result of their own aspirations, abilities, efforts, perseverance, and imagination … Because social class is a significant force, existing social inequality gets reproduced over time, regardless of each new generation’s aspirations, talent, effort, and imagination.”
The second edition also contains a frank discussion of how the publication of her research complicated Lareau’s relationships with the families she’d studied. Lareau gave each family a copy of the book soon after it appeared in 2003 and several parents reacted angrily. One of the poor mothers told Lareau that she felt “invaded” by the unsparing lens through which Lareau had viewed her family. A working class mother told Lareau that she’d expected the final product would be a glossy coffee table-style book, with flattering pictures and vignettes. When she read Lareau’s stark prose she lashed out, saying, “You slurred us, Annette, you made us look like poor white trash.”
Lareau has managed in recent years to mend her relationships with all but the Williams family, who’ve cut off contact completely, and each year she sends the children she studied a Christmas card with a $20 bill tucked inside. Lareau is currently at work on what she calls a “practical guide to ethnography,” which will contain advice on how to manage the delicate relationships that develop during participant observation research. But at the same time she acknowledges it’s never easy to be the subject of ethnographic research. Speaking about Unequal Childhoods, she says, “People’s imagined sense of self was different than the sense of self they read about, and that was a painful gap.”
National data show that there’s more mobility in American society than Lareau observed. A 2006 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that 58 percent of children who are born into the poorest families end up doing better than their parents, while the same percentage of the richest children end up descending the economic ladder. The same CAP study showed that America has lower social mobility than almost every developed country besides England. Even so, class position in the US is less deterministic than a strict reading of Lareau’s argument might suggest.
Paul Kingston, the University of Virginia sociology professor who argues that America doesn’t have social classes, questions how accurate it is to generalize from Lareau’s work to the US population as a whole. “I don’t find it terribly convincing to base a big statement about the existence of classes on analyzing a few families,” he says.
But even scholars who believe Lareau’s ideas are not supported by large-scale data acknowledge that Unequal Childhoods has changed the debate. Kingston reviewed the pre-publication manuscript of Unequal Childhoods at Lareau’s request and was one of the first to predict the book would make a splash. Today he assigns it to his students and says, “If you engage in the whole issue of why richer kids do better in school than poorer kids, it’s routine to reference her. She’s definitely a star.” Or as Lareau’s colleague Furstenberg—who also disagrees with the idea of fixed social classes—puts it, “I’ve seen too much when I look around of what she sees not to notice more after I’ve read her book.”
Not all ethnographers would care about having their findings confirmed quantitatively, but it’s important to Lareau. The second edition of Unequal Childhoods contains analysis of survey data about participation in organized activities. The results generally support Lareau’s observations, with one caveat—it turns out that children of mothers with high-powered careers actually spend less time in extracurricular activities than children of moms who spend more time at home. The quantitative support is particularly significant to Lareau given that several forthcoming studies challenge her conclusion. One study, to be published in the Sociology of Education, cites interviews with working class parents who say they support extracurricular activities but simply lack the resources to act on this preference. This challenges Lareau’s contention that the basic difference between middle and lower class parents is fundamentally dispositional. In response Lareau says that many of these forthcoming interview studies don’t probe deeply enough to see where dispositions diverge: Maybe working class parents would love to have their kids play basketball, but she says the really relevant question is why they think organized sports are important.
Lareau has recently begun to focus her research interests elsewhere, towards studying how public school quality affects where young people of different socioeconomic classes decide to buy a home. “We live in a stratified world and one of the most consequential decisions is where people decide to live,” Lareau says, “and I’m interested in that moment in the reproduction of the system.” The study is being conducted through interviews rather than participant observation research because, Lareau says, “It turns out to be pretty hard to observe people when they’re deciding where to live.” Her preliminary analysis reveals that while race was not a determinant of parenting style, it is a significant driver of where people choose to live.
Meanwhile, other sociologists will be busy continuing to look for evidence that confirms or dispels Lareau’s conclusions on the impacts of parenting style. The conversation will take place through formal channels—conferences, journal articles, peer review, colloquia—but it will also be animated by the intuitive curiosity Lareau’s work prompts, and by the way it’s impossible not to see every conversation on the playground between a parent and a child differently after you’ve read Unequal Childhoods.
Kevin Hartnett, a freelance writer, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two young children.
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FEATURE: The Perils of Parenting Style by Kevin Hartnett
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