Term Paper: Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau

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Unequal Childhoods

Annette Lareau's book Unequal Childhoods (2003) is a lengthy report of her research on child raising practices in America. In the book she argues that there are two "logics" of childrearing evident in American society, each one shaped by social class distinctions.

Middle-class parents practice what she calls "concerted cultivation" in which they deliberately expose their children to various experiences and structured activities that lead to a sense of entitlement and an ability to work the system to their advantage. Working class and poor parents, on the other hand, tend "to undertake the accomplishment of natural growth" (p. 3) in which their children have leisure time, initiate their own play, interact daily with extended family, and recognize clear boundaries between adults and children.

The parents' social class, which dictates childrearing practices, makes a strong impact on the children's life experiences and shapes them. Lareau's thesis is that because of these social class differences, "inequality permeates the fabric of the culture" (2003, p. 3). The book compares and contrasts childhood in middle class homes with childhood in Working class and poor homes. The author states, "It is these class differences and how they are enacted in family life and child rearing that shape the ways children view themselves in relation to the rest of the world" (p. 4). Thus, the childrearing practices that reflect class lead to two different ways children learn to think of themselves and what they can do, and impact how they relate to the community and institutions.

In a qualitative study, Lareau (2003) follows in-depth the lives of twelve families with nine and ten-year-old children. The twelve families were chosen from a larger research project that involved 88 children. She and her ethnically diverse research assistants made "intensive naturalistic observations" of these families who were middle class, working class, and poor.

She met the children first when she went to their schools and visited their third and fourth grade classrooms.

One school was an urban school, the other suburban. She and her assistants interviewed the children's mothers and many of their fathers, as well as classroom teachers and other school personnel. Once the twelve families were chosen, the researchers visited each family about twenty times in and around the home. She states, "We followed children and parents as they went through their daily routines, as they took part in school activities, church services and events, organized play, kin visits, and medical appointments" (p. 9). Most visits lasted about three hours, although some were longer if something special was happening. The researchers also stayed overnight once with each family. After the families became accustomed to their presence, the researchers carried tape recorders with them.

The researchers were participant observers. They told each family to treat the researchers like a family dog -- step over them and ignore them, but allow them to be there. However, Lareau concedes the researchers were more active in their participation than that. Although they let the children and their parents set the pace, they were free to interact, ask questions, talk and play with the children sometimes. Families tended to relax after they got used to the researcher being there and forgot about treating the researcher as a guest. In other words, they let down their guard somewhat. The researcher's rule was not to criticize and not to intervene except if a child was in imminent danger. Although Lareau (2003) admits that a researcher's presence probably changed the dynamics of family interactions, at least to some extent, over time families adjusted to the researchers being there, and parents reported afterwards feeling that they behaved naturally.

An important underlying theory of the research is that of social structure. Individuals learn to live within a structure of roles they play, as they relate to other people in ways that are accepted and expected (norms). Eventually, they come into contact with institutions such as marriage, military service, the health care system, and school. Relationships with others and with these institutions and the roles they are expected to play form the context of their lives. For this reason, the author thought it appropriate to explore the institutions with which the twelve families came in contact.

The two schools, for example, were compared. It was found that in the urban school (where all the children qualified for free lunch), teacher's salaries were lower than in suburban schools. The urban school often lacked equipment and supplies. Most of the children were reading one year lower than their grade level. Parental involvement in the school was virtually non-existent. Only officers attended PTA, so there were rarely more than four people present at meetings. In general, poor parents were afraid of the school because the school could report them for this or that to the Department of Social Services and their kids could be taken away from them. In contrast, the suburban schoolteachers were paid more. The school was well equipped and had plenty of supplies. Many suburban school children were reading two years above their grade level. Parents were active in the school, demanding, and unhesitant to complain if they thought their children were being short-changed. No middle class parents ever expressed a fear of losing their children. PTA meetings were well attended, and the members raised thousands of dollars for extra enrichment.

How middle class parents used language was also different from the way parents who were working class or poor used it. For middle class parents, language was an interesting dimension of life. They tended to explain things to their children and reason with them. They encouraged the children to articulate their feelings and attitudes and to be assertive. For working class and poor families, language was used as a practical tool. They told their children what to do, and the children obeyed, often without comment. Language and communication are so basic to human existence that they permeate all aspects of life and fundamentally shape experience.

These are just two examples of evidence that supports the thesis that inequality permeates the fabric of our society. In the United States, however, most people believe in the American dream -- the idea that anyone can be successful and "have it all" if they are willing to work hard and play by the rules. Most Americans see society as a collection of individuals who are free to achieve upward mobility by their own efforts. They do not see society as structuring the lives of individuals who are part of it. They think children have equal life chances, and that if their chances vary, it is because they possess different levels of talent, energy, and aspiration. This perspective does not see that the parents' social position "systematically shapes children's life experiences and outcomes" (p. 235).

Concerted cultivation seems to give many material advantages to middle-class children, but so many structured activities take a real toll on family life. In working class and poor homes, where natural growth is practiced, the children learn to entertain themselves and have more energy. They are not exhausted by organized activities.

Family members spend more time together, and often family ties seem stronger.

It is not until they begin to interact with institutions, that unequal benefits show up. Middle class children are comfortable and entitled, unafraid of institutions. Working class and poor are uncomfortable and constrained in their interactions with institutions.

The author argues that even social scientists often fail to see that there are identifiable, categorical differences in groups, differences that fall into patterns of social class. Lareau does not view society as a collection of individuals. Instead she stresses the importance of social structure and where the individual is located in that structure, believing that structure shapes a person's daily life. She views social categories of middle class, working class and poor as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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