Unequal Childhoods

by Harry on February 20, 2012

Laura (from 11d) at the Atlantic on Annette Lareau:

Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We’ll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you’ll finish your English homework. Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point. Your dad can check your math when he gets home. Do you want tofu in your green curry or chicken? Ian, do you want noodles?

Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, “Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?” No crab-faced alien can be blamed for transforming me from a slacker in a black dress into what I am today. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, I’m a product of my social class.

The rest here.

This reminds me that I should long ago have alerted you all that the second edition of Unequal Childhoods was published in September. The new edition has a number of additions; including a follow up study of where the children were a decade or so later (none of the outcomes are very surprising, I’m sorry to report, but the details are fantastically interesting), and a riveting and uneasy reflection on some of the methodological and ethical issues with doing a longitudinal ethnographic study, describing the families’ reactions. Lareau gave copies of the first edition to each of the families after it was published, and, predictably, many of them read it and, equally predictably, about half were quite upset about the way they were portrayed. One family refused further contact — I was rather pleased with myself for being able to figure out, when she told me about this, which it was. In fact, the predictability of their reactions is a tribute to the first edition; the adults turn out to be the very people who were displayed to us 10 years earlier; witness Mr. Marshall’s response (cheerful disbelief when told that some of the families were upset: “It complimented everyone!”). This new chapter (14) should be required reading in all graduate level social science methods courses, and I have used it very fruitfully with undergraduates already. Interestingly, some of the families shifted their attitudes to the book over time. One middle class boy gave his father a copy of Outliers as a gift, which made the father better disposed to Lareau. One story is especially poignant, though also hopeful. Like several others, Mrs. Yanelli was annoyed at the way that her family had been portrayed feeling that it “looked down” on and was “highly critical of her family”. But her attitude changed:

Mrs Yanelli cleans the home of a Sociology professor I know slightly. One day he happened to be home when she was cleaning. She saw that he had Unequal Childhoods on his bookshelf. She told him she was in the book, and described how disappointed she and her family were with the book. Later, when I called the Yanelli’s…Mrs Yanelli told me he had “explained” the book to her , saying it was about things that were not right with society, with some people having more than others. She said that he had “made her” understand the book, and now she and her family were “fine with it”.



straightwood 02.20.12 at 2:59 pm

Yes, indeed, parental coaching can make a big difference. Here is what a low achieving student had to say for himself:

I loathed school and up to the very end failed to meet its requirements, owing to an innate and paralyzing resistance to any external demands, which I later learned to correct only with great difficulty. Whatever education I possess I acquired in a free and autodidactic manner. Official instruction failed to instill in me any but the most rudimentary knowledge.

From Thomas Mann’s autobiographical essay, submitted upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.


Walt 02.20.12 at 5:22 pm

Many star athletes never finish college either, thus proving that education doesn’t matter for anyone, ever.


Matt 02.20.12 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for posting this, Harry. It was clear that many of those commenting at 11D (based on McKenna’s summary- they clearly hadn’t read the book) were reading it as if it were some sort of self-help or advice book, a guide to good parenting or “how to get your kids into Harvard” or something. It’s obviously nothing of the kind, though I can see how this sort of confusion is possible.


Witt 02.20.12 at 11:01 pm

I would be curious to know if Lareau’s book explores at all the question of what factors can help children to become more adept at code-switching.

I thought Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo was very good in its (layperson, non-academic) description of how many young people from working-class backgrounds become “straddlers” as they go off to college and working careers that immerse them in middle-class/UMC worlds.

While there can be a personal cost to these journeys (as their adult lives take them far from the lives and practices of their families of origin) they can also elicit tremendous insight (given that people who have lived on more than one point of the social-class continuum can often have a richer and deeper understanding of class than those who have not).


Tedra Osell 02.20.12 at 11:07 pm

My entire life right now is being eaten up by managing my son’s education–which is getting in the way of my posting about how I may have been wrong (!) in the firmness of my opinions about the Importance of Educated Privileged Parents Sending Their Kids to Public Schools (yeah yeah, it’s always true until it happens to *your*, in this case *my* kid…..).

IOW, yes. I am totally a walking stereotype.


Helen 02.20.12 at 11:19 pm

My entire life right now is being eaten up by managing my son’s education–which is getting in the way of my posting about how I may have been wrong (!) in the firmness of my opinions about the Importance of Educated Privileged Parents Sending Their Kids to Public Schools (yeah yeah, it’s always true until it happens to *your*, in this case *my* kid…..).

Don’t fear the Public, Tedra. My experience was similar to Sandra Tsing Loh’s – I’m in Australia but the public school experience no way matches the hyperventilating tall tales of terror which the private school marketing machine and tabloid press helps to plant in the local parents’ minds. Daughter is in a “good” university, son is still going. Reading STL suggests to me that the gap between hype and reality in the US is similar.


John Quiggin 02.21.12 at 5:13 am

@Tedra In my experience and observation, most schools and school systems can perform poorly in dealing with kids who don’t fit the mould. When that happens, as the thread topic suggests, we as involved parents are going to try and find the right school for our kid, rather than going for one that fits some general theory about what kinds of schools are good or bad, or just taking the default option. That’s one area where I think the “involved” style of parenting is better for kids, even if it’s hard on parents. Lots of people of my generation have never really recovered from miserable school experiences (in both public and private schools).


Meredith 02.21.12 at 6:08 am

Tedra @5, I noticed that in some earlier post, the walking stereotype bit — you seemed to me like so many younger women I know now raising children. (Me, I’m supposedly not raising my children anymore — let me know, please, god, when the raising stops. I’d really like a break.) I didn’t know what to say when I saw it but thought, well, she’ll learn. A version of what we’re all told when they’re babies, that the baby will teach you to be a parent….
My own mother (and father — he followed my mother’s lead on this, of course) thought us terribly over-involved with our children — which shortcoming in us she made known to us in her own way.
So she wasn’t over-involved?
Can’t win for losing.
Everything will be all right. Really. I think my mother (rest her soul) would agree with me.


js. 02.21.12 at 6:23 am

So I read the McKenna article, and frankly I don’t know much about child-rearing. I do though well remember how I and people around me were raised — not in the US but still in a place where there were (obviously?) class divisions that would be (or should be?) easily recognizable to Americans. And this leads me to my question: what exactly is the level of analysis or the scope of the claims here supposed to be? Is this supposed to be about the American middle class? The (white?) Western middle class? What exactly is “middle class” denoting here? Presumably not mean or median wage earners? E.g.:

middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time.

It just seems like this is importing a whole lot of stuff that need have nothing to do with the middle class per se. And it’s grouping a lot of behaviors that have no intrinsic connections but do as a contingent matter of fact describe a certain parenting style. So again, if we’re talking about a “class” here, I’d like to know which, and how much of the (parenting or otherwise) behaviors of this class are supposed to be generalizable.


Gaspard 02.21.12 at 8:19 am

@Js.: So true. Many (most?) middle class paying jobs are filled by people who experienced standard ‘natural growth’ style parenting, so something else is obviously going on in these discussions.

One clue is the way playing music, “band recitals”, is used as a signifier for the aspired-to-values, despite the fact that it’s probably been about 60 years since taking a turn at the piano was a useful general social skill for adults to possess.

“It’s hard to step back and relax when everyone around you is speeding up.”

Is this because it is mainly a story of parents trying to impress other parents?
I heartily recommend The Last Psychiatrist’s discussion of this stuff:



minnesotaj 02.21.12 at 8:33 am

Hrmph… I look forward to adding the new edition to my reading (it was a wonderful book in the first place), but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of craft needed to the business? When I first read it I contrasted it to my own experience (one grandfather a Harvard PhD, another a graduate of Gary’s steel mills) & thought immediately of Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow,” in which he remarks (IIRC) that the two most likely determinants of adulthood ability to achieve ‘Flow” were parents who were utterly negligent — and another set who were utterly indulgent. As an intermittent child of both, all the lights on the pinball machine lit up and I got a free ball…

What may have changed, in the interim (and I’m inclined to agree with the critique), is that a certain kind of sprezzatura is necessary to to move through certain halls in a way that it wasn’t in the past: but then, how many on this list would let an Eric Hoffer gain tenure in their departments — quite apart from investing in a company at which he or his kind was an executive or director? And so we hover above our children, while hoping they might break free — and be free (crossing fingers, “having learned”).


Harry 02.21.12 at 12:35 pm

However much I find the “Annette Lareau life” that my children lead creepy (my dad’s designation, but my 15 year old who live it to the max, just without any parental help, calls it that too, having read the book), it is the “parents trying to impress other parents” stuff (Gaspard’s phrase) that really depresses me. I once wrote to AL that I sometimes wish I had never read her book, because I think I would enjoy my life more if I understood my environment less well.


Dan Hardie 02.21.12 at 12:52 pm

Slightly tangentially, but I really didn’t like this in Laura’s post: ‘Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point.’

If it’s true that putting a plastic cover on an essay betters your grade, then a) the teachers have no damn business grading essays that way and b) parents, especially liberal intellectual parents, have no damn business playing along with their game.

Having a stock of plastic book covers ready to put on kids’ essays is quite obviously not an option open to a household where the main breadwinner is, say, a security guard or an office cleaner or a waitress. This is quite apart from the fact that a plastic book cover on an essay tells the teacher precisely nothing about the quality of the child’s work. If this kind of practice is widespread, it’s just handing out better grades to those kids whose parents have both higher disposable income and an understanding of (and willingness to indulge in) some pretty shallow signalling.


Harry 02.21.12 at 1:27 pm

The plastic cover: I think Laura’s point is not that anyone consciously gives it a better grade, but that better presentation creates an impression that pushes the grade up through subconscious processes. Certainly doesn’t do that with me (I am irritated, but try to discount that), but I am sure it does among lots of high schools teachers. On the teacher’s side it is is just one of many irrelevant factors that probably influence grades at the margin (my daughter says: ‘Well, if they like you they give you good grade’ but adds “if they like you it gets you to try harder, unless they are idiots” This is her explanation why girls do so much better than boys.


Chris Bertram 02.21.12 at 1:30 pm

I’ll chip in with what I regularly say when this book comes up. My view is that the association of something like parenting styles with systematic advantage and disadvantage and the way in which these styles affect the way in which individuals raised according to them encounter the formal structural features of society, raises problems for the Rawlsian focus on “the basic structure of society”. This is for the simple reason that this is a non-structural element that is profound in its effects. (I’m aware that Mr Lareau would not accept this point.)


NomadUK 02.21.12 at 1:45 pm

The clear plastic binder gambit has been around for quite some time.


ajay 02.21.12 at 1:50 pm

Having a stock of plastic book covers ready to put on kids’ essays is quite obviously not an option open to a household where the main breadwinner is, say, a security guard or an office cleaner or a waitress.

Anecdotally, having access a decent supply of free high-quality stationery for your and your kids’ use is about the only real perk of being an office cleaner…


ajay 02.21.12 at 1:51 pm

And, yes, agree with 14.


Steve LaBonne 02.21.12 at 1:57 pm

The binder thing reminds me of a Harvard joke from way back when. There was a renowned gut course (i.e. little or no effort required for a good grade) in the history department on the early European explorers of America, which was universally referred to by the nickname “Boats”- I can’t remember who taught it. The story goes that a student drew an elaborate portrait of a whale on the cover of his final paper, and was rewarded with, “A+- nice whale!” He passed it onto a roommate who was planning to take the course the following year; when the time came he was too lazy to even retype it and submitted the paper as is, complete with whale. Result: “A+- nice whale!” The paper was then handed down to a third student who, being a prudent sort, figured he’d better at least retype it but was too lazy to bother with any re-wording. He handed the retyped paper in, with a plain front page. It came back with “C- where’s the whale?”


sc 02.21.12 at 2:09 pm


what i gather from most of my “educated privileged parents (or future parents) who intend to send their kids to Public School” friends is that they are all fairly sure that their kids will be able to pass the entrance exam and get into the “good” public high schools; Whitney Young, Payton, or Jones Prep.

i don’t know what any of them are planning on doing if they have an average kid. nobody i know lives in any of the seriously terrible neighborhoods – but i’m not sure how enthusiastic they’d be about public school if they found out their kid was going to go to Clemente or Hyde Park.


an adult 02.21.12 at 2:41 pm

Troll comment deleted – post left empty to retain numbering


Harry 02.21.12 at 2:45 pm

This thread does that? Really? Can you give evidence (like, based on something someone on this thread has said, or something in my post)? My comment in 12 perhaps? If you want to insult people, at least give some evidence.


ajay 02.21.12 at 3:06 pm

This thread represents the worst of slacker yuppiedom; utter blindness to what you are as people in the world.

Comment 19, in particular, plumbs the abyssal depths of absolute human evil.


bjk 02.21.12 at 3:15 pm

The “explained it to her” passage is offensive, but is there any evidence this parenting style succeeds?

“My kids can’t go out for a spontaneous game of tag when every other kid on the block is at a band concert or at soccer practice.”

Ok, but how come none of the kids are any good at soccer?

“Parenting styles have a huge impact on future outcomes, says Lareau. She speculates that concerted cultivation creates adults who know how to challenge authority, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their time — all the skills needed to remain in the middle class. ”

That’s very flattering to certain kinds of parents, I suppose.

There’s a tennis prodigy in my neighborhood who’s clearly never had a tennis lesson. He’s locked out of his apartment until dinner and spends hours every day playing tennis. That requires a dense neighborhood (lots of apt towers) and enough kids in the neighborhood, plus a local playground. That beats detached houses, large lawns and minivans every time.


Chris Bertram 02.21.12 at 3:15 pm

#21 is Seth Edenbaum. Don’t we have a delete-on-sight policy?


shah8 02.21.12 at 5:08 pm

I’m with comment 4 and comment 15. Moreover, I’ve never gotten over her -terrible in my perception- handling of the intersection between class and race. Peeps need to be reading Ballad of the Tiger Mom as a corrective, or some other book about upwardly mobile minority parenting…


straightwood 02.21.12 at 5:28 pm

Evidently, we are destined to be governed by men and women who were well-supplied with clear plastic report covers in their youth. Perhaps only petroleum depletion can restore equality to educational outcomes. The trait of reflexive competitiveness is no guarantee of excellence, but that does not seem to dissuade super-parents from pursuing their obsessive super-parenting.

Our system of evaluating excellence by means of academic achievement is clearly inadequate, because it produces Bill Clintons and Barak Obamas (at best). These A students sail through elite institutions with high marks without ever being evaluated for the most important leadership traits: sound character and good judgement.

The academic system rewards clever, focused people who know how to work a narrowly structured rewards system. It does not identify and advance people who are suitable for high office and leadership authority. That is why we are saddled with sociopathic gamesters running Wall Street and Washington.

Coaching your children to be proficient gamesters is exactly the wrong thing to do. It will accelerate the decline of America’s social capital and undermine our society.


bianca steele 02.21.12 at 5:31 pm

@Steve LaBonne
The same joke went around Columbia, with slightly different details (e.g., successive users of a common fraternity archive become increasingly nervous and conscientious about copying too much, and it was Moby Dick). It’s kind of sad when you realize you can’t tell old college stories without somebody piping up and telling you it’s not real.


bianca steele 02.21.12 at 5:35 pm

I TA’ed right after people started getting Macs, and there was nothing more annoying than getting a problem set back in a couple dozen different fonts (except getting a problem set back on half a page of crumpled up spiral notebook paper). I think I did still misguidedly use a plastic report cover for my first couple papers, though.


Steve LaBonne 02.21.12 at 5:37 pm

It would certainly seem to fit Moby Dick better, so maybe somebody in Cambridge stole the joke from Columbia. ;)


bianca steele 02.21.12 at 5:56 pm

Anyway, my observation at the preschool level is that people have been cutting back on these extra-cost extracurriculars. But I live in an area that is mixed middle-class and fairly well-off, mixed liberal and conservative, and mixed in terms of interests (e.g. books, music, sports), and at least at the preschool level, from the little bit excerpted here about Lareau, I’m not sure I could correlate the two styles to (what I am able perceive as) “success.” (Though the same is true of some other markers, like apparent expense of kids’ clothes.)


bianca steele 02.21.12 at 6:09 pm

That is to say, there are plenty of working-class people and in my particular town a good number who are quite poor, but those who are “quite poor” aren’t signing up for Gymboree in large numbers. I’m sure that fact affects signalling somewhat too.

And I was never cool, actually.


Harry 02.21.12 at 7:03 pm

I just finally figured out what CB’s 15 means. Yes, that’s right.
I don’t understand why the passage I quoted is offensive. Its poignant. Lareau understands what is going on. I think perhaps you have missed the point of the book (as many of the parents did).
CB — I don’t have access at work to the dashboard, could you do it.


John Quiggin 02.21.12 at 7:45 pm

@Harry, done. Trolls are such a pain.

BTW, the “clear plastic binder” was a running joke in the “Bats aren’t bugs” series of Calvin and Hobbes


bianca steele 02.22.12 at 12:05 am

I was actually mandated clear plastic binders by my high school teachers, presumably in an attempt to ensure we would be prepared for what would be expected of us in college.


SB 02.22.12 at 4:18 am

I wonder if some of this trend is a recent development since my parents were very aspirational but left us to our devices (in a way that would shock the hell out of parents now) when they weren’t ordering us around. I always think my own parenting style is a response to the experience of being left alone or ordered around all the time. That’s probably self deception and according to absolutely everything I read lately I’m doing it all wrong (and self-indulgently to boot). This book is a nice addition since I don’t have to berate myself quite as much for all my many failings leading to my child’s inevitable mediocrity.

But maybe this Mom Machine parenting is not a recent development. I do remember a few girls at my public school having families with lots of educational toys and darkrooms and piano lessons even back in the dark ages of the late 1970s. My parents militantly demanded good grades and those parents lovingly nurtured their kids’ good grades and I’m pretty sure those girls grew up to make much more money than I do but I have fancier degrees. Maybe it’s a wash?

To me, it seems like the key moment in the mobility/economic stability of my friends–who were almost all working class–was not in childhood but in adolescence. The attentive parents of whatever stripe (working class or middle class) avoided the teen pregnancies and drug addictions and early marriages, prison time, whatever. The demographics of those sharing my own upbringing all depend on those years. The working class kids who didn’t crash and burn in the teen years and got on some reasonable economic track by early adulthood all ended up middle class whatever their educational attainment or parenting styles. So I’m inclined to think that if I can just keep my kid on the straight and narrow her future mostly depends on whatever the global economy is doing and what jobs there will be. If there’s still a Middle Class she’ll be in it, if we’re lucky and we make it through the Devil’s Triangle of 15-20.


Meredith 02.22.12 at 5:56 am

Re plastic binders vs. pretty covers.
I nurture the hope that there’s room in all of this for another academic trope/hope, this one from the faculty rather than student perspective.
Grade at bottom of paper: C+. Comment: “Grade would have been an A if your paper had been shorter.” (I read this not as “I’m sick of reading endless pages of student papers” but as “Hey, take the trouble to edit, revise, write well.”)
Student stories don’t all match up with faculty’s, nor should they. Parents have to hang in there as parents, faculty as faculty. The less-blind leading the blind.


engels 02.23.12 at 12:10 am

I haven’t read Unequal Childhoods but I did take a look at it once, probably after reading a previous rave review here, and the main thing that impressed me was how similar it looked (typesetting, layout, tables etc) to Distinction. So with regard to the academic uses of presentation Lareau may know whereof she speaks…


engels 02.23.12 at 12:11 am

Separated at birth?

Annette Lareau

Pierre Bourdieu


engels 02.23.12 at 11:19 pm

I’ll get my coat.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 02.24.12 at 12:05 am

The most recent research in Ireland suggests that a middle way is probably best for children’s learning outcomes, not to mind their social development.
(I will leave it to someone else to try and explain Gaelscoileanna but probably the most relevant feature is that usually every other child’s parents have actively chosen to send their child to this school.)

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