“America may be the land of opportunity, but it is also a land of inequality. This book identifies the largely invisible but powerful ways that parents’ social class impacts children’s life experiences” (Lareau 3).

 Book Review by Sarah Jones

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Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press.

Summary

In Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau reports on the in-depth observations and interviews she conducted with middle-class, working-class, and poor families. Her goal in doing this observational research was to understand how social class impacts children’s lives. Through her research, she discovered differences in the parenting styles of the twelve families (all of whom were raising third graders) that she studied, which corresponded to class distinctions. Lareau found that whereas middle-class parents practice “concerted cultivation,” working-class and poor parents practice “accomplishment of natural growth” (Lareau 3). In the latter child rearing style, children experience long stretches of leisure time, child-initiated play, distinct boundaries between adults and children, and daily interactions with relatives (Lareau 3). Working-class and poor children often lead more “childlike” lives than their middle-class counterparts because they have control over their leisure time and autonomy from adults (Lareau 4). Middle-class children don’t experience the same extended leisure time nor relationships with kin (Lareau 4).

However, middle-class children have important institutional advantages because their experiences allow them to acquire skills that will be valuable when they enter the work world (Lareau 4). For example, in middle-class homes, Lareau found that there was more talking than in working-class and poor homes, which leads middle-class children to have larger vocabularies and show more comfort when conversing with authority figures (Lareau 5). Middle-class children learn to shake the hands of adults they meet and look them in the eye, whereas in poor families, family members usually do not look each other in the eye when conversing (Lareau 5).These examples get at what Lareau terms the “transmission of differential advantages to children” (Lareau 5). According to Lareau, there is a “dominant set of cultural repertoires” in America about how children should be raised (Lareau 4). Middle-class parents often comply with these current professional standards, thereby engaging in concerted cultivation (Lareau 5). Among working-class and poor families, providing the necessities of food, shelter, and comfort requires ongoing effort given economic challenges and the demands of child rearing (Lareau 5). For these families, sustaining children’s natural growth is viewed as an accomplishment (Lareau 5). The outcome of these different philosophies and approaches leads to the transmission of differential advantages to children. 

Through her ethnographic study, Lareau found that white and black middle-class children exhibited an emergent “sense of entitlement” (Lareau 6). “They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings” (Lareau 6). For example, Alexander Williams (one of the boys in the study) knew how to get the doctor to listen to his concerns because his mother explicitly coached him to do so, encouraging him to speak up (Lareau 6). According to Lareau, middle-class children learn how to make the rules work in their favor because they have practice doing this at home, where negotiation and reasoning is stressed (Lareau 6). By contrast, working-class and poor children showed an emerging “sense of constraint” in their interactions in institutional settings (Lareau 6). “They were less likely to try to customize interactions to suit their own preferences. Like their parents, the children accepted the actions of persons in authority […]” (Lareau 6). These examples serve to illustrate how influential social class is; although Lareau shares in her book that fewer than one in five Americans think race, gender, religion, or social class are very important for getting ahead in life, her findings demonstrate that inequality permeates the fabric of our culture (Lareau 7). 

Critique

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life was a pleasure to read; not only is it extremely easy to understand and follow, but it’s also fascinating. Lareau begins her book with two overview chapters- one on the different parenting styles she discovered, and another on social structure and daily life. From there, the book is divided into three parts: the organization of daily life, language use, and families and institutions. Within these sections, Lareau focuses each chapter on a specific child, and gives an in-depth look at their life to show how it exemplifies the main idea of the chapter. For example, in the section on the organization of daily life, there is a chapter on Garrett Tallinger, whose life typifies the hectic pace of concerted cultivation experienced by other middle-class children in the study. Lareau closes her book with a thought-provoking chapter on the power and limits of social class.

Although the content of this book is based on extensive research, it wasn’t boring or dry in the slightest, which is what most readers might expect. The amount of detail written about each child studied is incredible; it gives the reader a complete picture of each child’s life, serving to validate Lareau’s arguments with a mountain of convincing evidence. I appreciated the way that Lareau took a neutral stance in terms of not saying that either parenting style- concerted cultivation or accomplishment of natural growth- is better, just that they are different. Throughout the book, Lareau stresses that both styles have advantages and disadvantages within the home, but that out of the home, concerted cultivation leads to greater cultural capital. I found the lack of bias in this book to be extremely refreshing, especially because I expected to read that concerted cultivation is a superior parenting style. 

Connections to Classroom Practice

In Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Lareau explains that although working-class and poor parents are no less eager than middle-class parents to see their children succeed in school, they take a different approach to reaching this goal (Lareau 198). To me, keeping this point in mind as a future educator is crucial. So often, it seems as though school personnel have a tendency to blame the child or the family when issues arise. Instead, educators should take into account their own practices, as well as consider larger societal influences that are at work. If our goal as teachers is to have harmonious partnerships with students’ families, then we have to approach these relationships with patience and understanding.

Lareau reports that many working-class and poor parents feel that educators hold the expertise, and often fear doing the “wrong thing” in school-related matters; therefore, their tendency is to maintain a separation between school and home (Lareau 198). Whereas middle class parents can be demanding toward school personnel, working-class and poor parents tend to be deferential (Lareau 198). Most educators wish that poor and working-class parents would be more assertive (Lareau 198). “Put differently, they wish these parents would engage in forms of concerted cultivation” (Lareau 198). Instead of schools imposing their beliefs on working-class and poor families, it would be far more productive to take a step back, try to understand where these families are coming from, and respect their position. To automatically jump to the conclusion that parents who aren’t constantly advocating for their children don’t care about their education is detrimental, counterproductive, and above all, a far cry from the truth.