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November 28, 2005

Sociologist says class-based childrearing patterns perpetuate social inequality

By Jennifer McNulty

As a sociologist, Annette Lareau wanted to know more about how social inequality gets perpetuated from generation to generation.

Photo: Annette Lareau, Wally Goldfrank

Sociologist Annette Lareau with one of her former professors, Walter Goldfrank of sociology.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

She wanted to identify the "mechanisms in daily life that sustain the patterns of inequality" in U.S. society.

Curious about the role of class, Lareau undertook an ambitious study that focused on childrearing practices among racially diverse middle-class, working-class, and poor families.

Two books and countless hours of fieldwork later, Lareau says that although race is important in many aspects of daily life, parenting methods varied by class more than by race in her study. She sums up the differences she saw by saying middle-class parents "see their child as a project, while working-class and poor families put a lot of energy into getting through the day and keeping their children safe."

Lareau uses a gardening analogy to describe her findings, referring to the middle-class style as one of "concerted cultivation," and calling the working-class and poor style "natural growth." While each approach has benefits and drawbacks, middle-class parenting habits foster a sense of entitlement that helps children navigate the educational system from elementary school to college, she said.

Lareau, a UCSC alumna (Merrill '74, sociology) and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, discussed her work during a sociology colloquium earlier this month. She is the author of two books, Home Advantage and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. She discussed her 1993-95 fieldwork, and a follow-up study 10 years later, with about 30 people who attended the colloquium, "Unequal Childhoods Grown Up: Class, Race, and Family Life," cosponsored by the UCSC Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community. She is spending a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto.

Middle-class parents actively foster and assess the talents, opinions, and skills of their children, and the organization of daily life reflects that engagement, said Lareau. Parents schedule multiple leisure activities that require a high level of adult interaction, including sports, lessons, and other pursuits. Conversational style involves extended negotiations between parents and children, challenges by children of adult statements, and a back-and-forth dialogue that relies on reasoning and problem solving. Regarding schooling, parents are critical consumers and intervene on behalf of their children, and they train their children to take on that role during their school years. These factors combine to create an emerging sense of entitlement among middle-class children, said Lareau.

Working-class and poor parents care for their children and allow them to grow, but children are expected to find their own recreation in daily life and rarely participate in formal leisure activities. In conversation, parents issue directives and children rarely question or challenge adults. Parents are dependent on institutions, such as schools, to assess the performance of their children, and they rarely develop an independent view of their child's achievement or abilities. Their interactions with institutions, including schools, are marked by a sense of powerlessness and frustration, and they are more distrustful of schools, which Lareau pointed out are "arms of the state." Parents feel especially vulnerable when their childrearing practices conflict with school policies, particularly regarding corporal punishment, she said.

By the age of 10, children are emulating these "informal, taken-for-granted skills of daily life" that Lareau believes contribute to the stratification of society. In the classroom, middle-class children seek individualized tasks and opportunities to "customize" their education, while working-class and poor children tend to work within the framework of activities presented by teachers, said Lareau.

Although middle-class children are more likely to be stressed, childrearing practices that foster the talents and skills of children and encourage them to advocate for themselves "can be extremely powerful at key life moments, like getting into college," said Lareau.

"It's more important than taking your kid to the art museum or exposing children to Beethoven," said Lareau, referring to other behaviors that may reproduce inequality.

Lareau's findings are based on classroom observation in three public schools and in-depth interviews with parents of 88 children aged 9 and 10 and their teachers. She and her research team also did extensive family observations of 12 families that included 20 daily visits within one month and an overnight visit. During the follow-up study, she interviewed the children of the 12 families, as well as parents and others.

The follow-up study with 12 young people was "somewhat depressing. There were no surprises," said Lareau.

More middle-class children graduated from high school than working-class and poor children, they were more likely to have a driver's license, and more went to college. Middle-class parents were more involved with the college-application process and tended to make the final decision regarding where their children would enroll.

Lareau and her fellow researchers found it taxing to traverse the "different class worlds" they encountered during the project. One indication of the contrast was Lareau's failure to find even one middle-class child who was uninvolved in a single organized activity.

Similarly, she said working-class and poor families have much more contact with kin than middle-class families, who are "too busy" to see family. Closer kin relations appears to be a key benefit to children of working-class and poor parents.

Lareau was struck by the emergence of this new middle-class childrearing strategy, with its "frantic pace" that causes children to become bored "in a heartbeat."

"The middle-class parents were not raised this way," she said. "It has emerged in the last 30 to 40 years." Lareau sees the high level of parental intervention as an expression of anxiety as the middle-class scrambles to preserve their position in society.

"Schools are the 800-pound gorilla," said Lareau. "It's hard to find well-paying jobs that don't take you through the college pathway."

Middle-class parents are more attuned to that fact and become very involved in the college-selection process by arranging campus visits, navigating the application process, hiring coaches to help with essays, and more.

To help level the playing field, Lareau endorsed parenting classes that encourage parents to be more involved in the lives of their children, and she underscored the importance of family literacy, saying middle-class children benefit from the sense of entitlement they develop because it prepares them to "gain access to scarce rewards," but that literacy skills and school skills are a "critical, independent force" in student success.

Profiles of other UCSC alumni are available online.


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