David Brooks has discovered Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods. Through the miracles of modern blogging those of you who missed the column can read it in the body of Laura’s post on it. If, like Laura, you’re unnerved in some way by Brooks’s interpretation, don’t let that put you off the book. He is right about several things, the main one being that the book is brilliant, and should be read by just about anyone interested in family life. If you’re a teacher of poor children it will help you understand what’s going on in the children’s lives; if you’re a teacher of wealthy children it’ll probably confirm what you already know. If, like me, you’re a parent, it’ll help you reflect on your own situation. I don’t do anything radically different because of reading the book, but there are several ways in which I treat my children somewhat differently; in particular giving them more unsupervised time, and being (even) less interventionist when they are at odds with each other which, as if by magic, is much less often.
So what does Brooks get right?
The greatest value of the book is in displaying so much of the texture of individual family lives; displaying and making sense of the texture of real human interactions is what the best ethnographies do, and this is one of the best ethnographies. She makes a division of the childrearing strategies she encounters into two ideal types; “concerted cultivation” and “accomplishment of natural growth”. The families she describes in the book each fall very firmly on one or the other of these types, and the division is a clear class division. But your family may not. Reflecting on my childhood (aspirant middle class, UK, born 1963) I find more of accomplishment of natural growth than of concerted cultivation. I definitely wanted to see a methodolgically impossible follow up study comparing families across countries and across different times (was concerted cultivation the norm in middle class families when my dad was growing up? I don’t believe so). Still, the distinction is clear and useful.
Lareau is a sociologist, and is reluctant to make normative comment on the practices she is analyzing. But she makes two really valuable points, one of which I already understood, the second of which I had spent several months grasping for, and only crystallized for me when she made it. Brooks gets the second, but not the first and, therefore, not the importance of the second.
The first point is that the traits that the different parenting strategies foster only have the impact they do on children’s life chances through interaction with a contingent social structure that values some traits and not others. This is the key point that Brooks neglects. Here is Lareau:
This kind of training developed Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously. It is important to recognize that these advantages and entitlements are historically specific…. They are highly effective strategies in the United States today precisely because our society places a premium on assertive, individualised actions executed by persons who command skills in reasoning and negotiation.
The point that Brooks emphasizes is that it does not follow from the fact that one strategy of parenting confers better prospects for worldly advantage than the other that it is a better strategy of parenting. A great deal of value is realized in the relationships in both kinds of family, and, as Brooks say, a great deal of current value is realized in the Accomplishment of Natural Growth homes. Siblings fight less, there is a great deal of unstructured time, there is much less exhaustion and competitiveness. Here, again, is Lareau:
(Accomplishment of Natural Growth) parents… organised their children’s lives so they spent more time in and around the home, in informal play with peers, siblings, and cousins. As a result, the children had more autonomy regarding leisure time and more opportunities for child initiated play. They were also more responsible for their lives outside the home.
The working class children:
played outside, creating their own games… They did not complain of being bored…also appeared to have boundless energy. They did not have the exhaustion that we saw in middle-class children of the same age.
In both kinds of family:
There were episodes of laughter, emotional connection, and happiness as well as quiet comforts in every family. Harold MacAllister and his mother laughed together as he almost dropped his hotdog but then, in an awkward grab, caught it. After a baseball game Mr. Williams rubbed Alexander’s head affectionately and called him “handsome”…. These moments of connection seemed deeply meaningful to both children and parents in all social classes, even as the take different shape by social class, in terms of language, activity, and character.
So, there’s a lot of good and not a little bad in both kinds of familial relationship (and those in between). The poor parents face enormous barriers (about which Lareau is very articulate) in providing well for their children materially and educationally, which results in their children having less access to future advantage. But that doesn’t make them bad parents. (Only one parent in the book struck me as really parenting badly, though I found myself hoping that all the upper-class parents would read it and reflect a bit on what they were doing).
One final word: Brooks’s final sentence is, as one of Laura’s commenters (def, #22) points out, disgusting, and has nothing to do with the book. From the fact that A has out-competed B to reach a certain position, it does not follow that A is not, having achieved that position, exploiting B. It’s the kind of thing that you say when you want to shield people from subjecting their own advantages to moral scrutiny.