Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do

This summer I wrote an article called “The Perils of Parenting Style” about a University of Pennsylvania sociologist named Annette Lareau.  Lareau is one of the top qualitative sociologists studying American families.  She made her name with a groundbreaking ethnography conducted over the course of three years in the 1990s that was published in 2003 in a book called Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.

To conduct her ethnography Lareau embedded for a month each with 10 families arrayed across the socioeconomic spectrum.  She spent the night with each family, went to doctor’s appointments, soccer games and parent-teacher conferences, watched parents get their kids off to school and put them to sleep at night, observed siblings at play in the backyard before dinner.  Her study constitutes the most intimate, sustained look any sociologist has ever taken of American family life.

After the observations were over Lareau spent several more years sifting and synthesizing her data.  Finally, she concluded that all American parents fall into two broad categories:  poor and working class parents who raise their kids according to a style she termed “natural growth,” and middle class parents who raise their kids according to a strategy she called “concerted cultivation.”

The two parenting styles are what they sound like.  Lower income parents, Lareau argued, tend to trust that their kids will grow up fine without any overt parental intervention.  A roof over their heads, food on their plates, and a bit of love- that’s all kids need.

Middle class parents, on the other hand, think their kids’ proper development requires a lot of intervention.  They think kids need to be read to as early as the womb, raised in a language-rich environment, given lessons in everything.

Lareau focused her analysis on three areas where she found the poor/middle class divide to be particularly sharp: organized extracurricular activities, the use of language in the home, and the willingness of parents to intervene in school on their kids’ behalf.  As I wrote in the article, ” In all three of these areas the middle class approach can be described as  more: more activities, more frequent and sophisticated chatter around the dinner table, more parents ready to step in to get their kids assigned to specific teachers or enrolled in special programs.”

Before I get into how writing about Lareau made me think about raising Jay and Wally, there are a couple things to say. First, Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods, is a great read.  It’s accessible, clear, and even gripping in places, particularly where Lareau narrates scenes from the families’ lives.  Here’s one interaction she recorded in the home of Alexander Williams, a black middle class boy, that Lareau took as evidence of the dynamic by which middle class parents provide a linguistic advantage to their kids:

Terry (Alexander’s father): Why don’t you go upstairs to the third floor and get one of those books and see if there is a riddle in there?

Alexander: (Smiling) Yeah. That’s a good idea! I’ll go upstairs and copy one from out of the book.

Terry: That was a joke—not a valid suggestion. That is not an option.

Christina (Alexander’s mother): There is a word for that you know, plagiarism.

Terry: Someone can sue you for plagiarizing. Did you know that?

Alexander: That’s only if it’s copyrighted

The second thing is that Lareau doesn’t think there is any sense in which parents choose their parenting styles.  Her work is heavily influenced by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who theorized that socio-structural forces like education and wealth stratification dictate the shape of people’s lives all the way down to the way they think.  So, as I wrote in the article, in Lareau’s view “to be middle class is to practice concerted cultivation almost as surely as to be Christian is to believe in Jesus.”

Which brings me to Jay and Wally.  As a well-educated, middle earning couple, Lareau would argue that Caroline and I can’t escape practicing concerted cultivation.  She would say it’s in our social DNA.  And certainly the way we talk with Jay is consistent with the patterns of middle class language use she details in Unequal Childhoods: We play verbal games with him, we use reason when correcting his behavior (“you’re getting timeout for running into the road because running into the road could hurt you”), we read to him every night.

At the same time, in disposition I don’t feel like a “concerted cultivation” kind of parent.

What would be the point of trying to practice concerted cultivation with a nut like this?

As I said in my post about how Jay wasn’t getting a $200,000 playhouse, we haven’t enrolled him in any of the swim, dance, yoga, or music classes that are popular with our neighborhood peers in Philadelphia and Ann Arbor.  And as Jay gets older I’m sure he’ll participate in extracurricular activities to a much greater degree than poor and working class parents.

But, in our conversations Lareau explained that it’s not just the fact of the activities that matters—it’s the intent behind them.  She argues middle class parents emphasize extracurricular activities because they see them as a unique and powerful developmental tool.  In my view, though, I want Jay to play sports because they’re fun.  And that is one reason why I’m not quite willing to accept the “concerted cultivation” label that my social class position would ascribe to me.

The other reason I don’t think of myself as a “concerted cultivation” parent is that fundamentally I don’t think concerted cultivation is possible.  My one, big, final hope for Jay and Wally is that they grow up to be happy adults.  But what combination of parenting strategies and tactics produces a happy adult?  Who the heck knows.

And because the blend of experiences that turn a babbling toddler into a contented middle-aged man are beyond my comprehension, I think tinkering too much with Jay and Wally’s development is likely to do them more harm than good.

Either that, or I’m trying to justify not wanting to jump with Jay into the frigid pool at the YMCA so he can learn to swim.

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Is this a ridiculous way to talk to a child?

Yesterday afternoon in Fitler Square Jay played in the orbit of an 18-month-old boy named Seamus, who’d come to the park with his mom and dad.  Seamus had a tangle of red curls atop his head, a sheen of drool below his mouth, and a tendency to eat his sidewalk chalk: Every few minutes his mom would call to his dad, “Is he eating that? Oh, he’s eating it again, get it out of his mouth.”

Jay and Seamus had two cars between them—a plastic yellow dump truck and a scale model of a Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible that sped forward after you pulled it back—and every few minutes Jay would decide he wanted the car he didn’t have and would snatch it from Seamus’ soft hand.  Seamus would cry until his dad diverted his attention elsewhere.  “There are so many toys to play with,” he’d say. “Do you want some chalk?”

This is what Jay's Eclipse convertible looks like. Only his is smaller, with a broken windshield.

The line that caught my attention, though, came when Seamus decided for reasons all his own to run away from our cluster of benches. His mom, sitting on a bench beside me, Caroline and Wally, said, “Seamus, come back here please.”  Seamus paused (most likely because the sound of his mother’s voice suddenly reminded him of how much he loved trains; or maybe because he was seriously considering her request).  His mom said, “Thank you for listening Seamus,” but before the words were out of her mouth he’d taken off again.

Countless times during the day I say things to Jay that would make me cringe if later I was confronted with a transcript of them—gooey expressions of love, feeble attempts to control his behavior, piques of frustration that surely seem absurd when directed at a 28 lb. boy who only last week learned that he has a last name.  So it’s not that I think this mom sounded more ridiculous than all parents do from time to time.  Still, the line “Thank you for listening Seamus,” caught my attention given how clear it was that Seamus either didn’t know how to listen to commands like that, or if he did, had no intention of following them.

That night I mulled it over: Was that a ridiculous thing to say to an 18-month-old?

On the non-ridiculous side, parents talk and act towards their kids in aspirational ways all the time.  We read books to newborns who can’t even hold their heads up because maybe early exposure to books will instill a love of reading and a familiarity with stories.  I say to Jay, “That’s a beautiful drawing” when the marks he’s made on the page are clearly not beautiful at all because I want him to have confidence in himself as an artist.  Or I tell a gassy Wally, “That’s a great burp” because, well, he’s got to be good at something.

So there’s definitely a place in the parent-child conversation for language and actions that express a vision of who we want our children to become.

At the same time, it seems important that language not run too far ahead of the reality of a child’s actual behavior.  I find myself praising Jay all the time for things he’s not actually done.  I tell him “Good job eating your vegetables” when he merely glances in the direction of a pea, because I hope the glow of the praise will make him forget how much he hates those shriveled green balls on his tray.  Or in the evening I tell him “You’re being a really good boy” when for the last half-an-hour he’s been anything but a really good boy.  The praise is often something of a last ditch effort:  Maybe if I say it, it will make it so.

All of this is probably less detrimental to Jay’s long-run development than any number of other things I could be saying to him.  At the same time, listening to Seamus’ mom praise her chalk-mouthed son for an action he hadn’t performed and probably doesn’t understand, it struck me that there is a tendency often on display in the park and in my living room, to confuse praise with education, and to rush to use positive reinforcement before there’s anything there to reinforce.

Does having kids mean giving up your dreams? (One dad thinks it does)

Earlier this month The New York Times parenting blog ran a letter from a “Father in Florida” who has two young children but wishes he’d never had any.

This is his gripe: “My life’s focus is now providing for my kids…and I have slowly accepted the fact that all those personal dreams are pushed to the side because of that.”  The specific aspirations he’s given up include “working on my master’s degree with evening classes,” “Playing golf on Saturdays and lazy Sunday mornings,” and “personal projects, like the book I wanted to write, or starting a consulting business on the side, or training to run a marathon.”  To top it all off, he’s had to move to the suburbs, which has installed a soul-destroying 45 minute driving commute into his morning routine.

I admit, this letter got my blood up.  Intellectually, of course, I understand that being a parenting is not for everyone and to each his own, etc. In my heart, though, I was less ambivalent.  I find we react that way whenever anyone tells us they can’t stand something that’s important to us.  If a friend were to tell me that he finds blogging as a genre to be tedious and self-involved, I’d understand his right to have an opinion, but of course I’d be a little defensive, too.

Anyway, after I’d calmed down I had a few thoughts relating to this regretful dad and the impact becoming a parent has had on my own extra-family aspirations.

The first, of course, is that the regretful dad clearly made a major miscalculation when he decided to have children, one that I think most people are able to avoid.  He writes, “No matter how well prepared I thought I was, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of changes to my life.”  It makes me wonder, though, how well had he really thought about the implications of fatherhood if he hadn’t realized that having two young kids was going to make it hard to play golf on the weekends?

The fact that his cause-and-effect reasoning is weak also makes me question whether his two kids really are to blame for his unfulfilled ambitions to write a book, start a company, and run a marathon.  If he didn’t realize that having kids means the end of “lazy Sundays,” I wonder if he understands that training for a marathon isn’t particularly compatible with lazy weekends, either.  Life is full of frustrations and unrealized ambitions and it’s unfairly reductive to blame all of his “what ifs” on his kids.  Plus, he’s only in his early-40s! There’s time to write that book just yet!

My last point about the Florida Father is probably the least generous one of all.  In general I try to be conservative about judging other people’s priorities.  Who am I to have an opinion about what stirs your drink?  Still, it’s hard not to conclude that his scale is off if it’s really super-duper important to him to be the “go-to guy at work, who can jump on a plane at a moment’s notice to go meet a client.”  Isn’t it fair to roll an eye whenever anyone talks about being the “go-to-guy” for anything?

The biggest reason that I took issue with the Floridian’s letter, though, is that it didn’t ring true in my own life.  Having kids has actually made me significantly more productive.  To continue on the marathon tip, every spring throughout my twenties I’d start to fantasize about running  26.2 miles in the fall.  And every year the dream would die of laziness and self-doubt by Memorial Day.

That is, until the spring of 2009 when Jay was born.  When I became a father I thought to myself, “I need to become tougher and have endurance.”  This thought sounds trite when it’s spelled out like that, but for the first year of Jay’s life it had a strong hold on the way I approached my days.  I logged my training miles in the mornings, usually before Jay and Caroline were awake, and that November I ran the Philadelphia Marathon.  I think it’s highly likely—maybe even certain—that had we forestalled childbearing a few more years I’d still be aspiring and failing to run that race.

When I was in high school I remember a teacher telling me that he noticed his students tended to do better in class during the months of the school year when they were on a sports team.  His theory was that the time demands of playing on a team meant that kids had to be organized about when they were going to get their homework done.  He thought students actually did better under these conditions than when they were awash in free time.

I find in most areas the same is true about having kids. When I do get a free hour I realize it might be the only free hour I get all day which makes me a lot less likely to fritter it away on some activity I don’t really care about.

This is not to say, of course, that I don’t have some sympathy for the Florida Dad.  The last two years are littered with things I wanted to do but couldn’t because we have kids.  The day Wally was born I was scheduled to go with a friend to see “Tree of Life” and now I’ll have to wait for Netflix, if I ever see it at all.  I’m not going to a good friend’s bachelor party this summer because it would take years off Caroline’s life to have to take care of Jay and Wally by herself all weekend.  And we have friends who just came back from what sounded like a wonderful trip to Beijing. I listened to them tell about it and felt a pang when it occurred to me that it might be a decade before I travel any farther east than home to Maine.

While it’s easy to make a list of the things I’ve missed out on because of Jay and Wally, it’s harder to quantify the ways in which they’ve made my life better.  As a list of bullet points, going out to drinks with friends is obviously a lot more fun than pacing around our apartment trying to get Wally to fall asleep (as was the trade-off last night).  But the main reason Caroline and I decided to have kids in the first place is that we wanted something more in our lives than a day-in-day-out perspective and in that view the calculation isn’t even close.

When it comes to parenting advice, the more humility the better

Early this morning as Jay began to stir in his crib and Caroline and Wally lay asleep in bed, I read the provocative cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic.  It’s called “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids” by the psychologist-author Lori Gottlieb, who made her first big splash a year ago with the similarly provocative best-selling book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Now she’s back, arguing that an epidemic of overindulgent, ego-stroking parenting is ruining a generation of American children.  “By trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood,” she writes, “we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up.”

My first reaction: This is hardly a new story.  Gottlieb says that today’s parents are so obsessed with protecting their children’s self-esteem that they’ll do anything to prevent their egos from ever getting hurt.  She cites a Washington, DC youth soccer league where even the clumsiest kids get trophies at the end of the season.  I’m pretty sure my parents were making this exact same complaint twenty five years ago when I first started kicking a ball around.

But beyond that, this should have been a story I liked.  Caroline and I are not particularly coddling as parents.  Jay doesn’t have a lot of toys. He’s never taken music or swim or yoga classes. When he bites his tongue and tears well in his eyes I sometimes remark, “Bummer. You should probably be more careful next time.”  And in general I like rules and standards and I enjoy making Jay do things just because I say he has to.

So, I should have been applauding as I read the article.  But I wasn’t.  For one, the anecdotes Gottlieb cites as evidence of this plague of “wussy” parenting don’t ring true—or at least they don’t seem representative of most parents I know.  She tells one story, for example, about a mom who had a fit when her toddler son had a prized truck stolen away by another kid.  She also calls out parents who, when their kids fall in the park, “swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying” rather than letting their kids learn about pain and failure on their own.

Over the last two years I’ve spend hundreds of hours (maybe even over a thousand) with Jay in parks and playgrounds around Center City Philadelphia.  We live in just the kind of well-to-do urban neighborhood where the indulgent parenting Gottlieb talks of is supposed to be rampant but I haven’t seen it (at least not in epidemic proportions).  Sure, there was one mom who told me as her daughter ripped a bubble wand away from Jay that “my daughter doesn’t share.”  But far more typical is the dad who bends over backwards to make his toddler share.  When two kids go after the same toy in the park it’s almost a contest between the parents to see whose child is capable of greater self-abnegation.

As for the skinned knees, I guess some parents sometimes treat a trip-and-fall like their kid just stepped on an IED.  But on a weekday afternoon in the park most parents I see are too exhausted to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to a bruise.  And most toddlers I see are back up and running before their parents could even get close enough to “swoop in.”

My larger problem with Gottlieb’s article, however, is that it replaces one kind of parenting dogma with another. I agree with her that kids who aren’t given the room to experience disappointment and unhappiness as children will have a harder time dealing with those emotions when they confront them in adulthood.  But in her mind the problem with that parenting approach is its content.  In my mind it’s the attitude underlying it—that there is a certain, knowable, specific way to raise a child—and on that score Gottlieb is just as guilty as the parents she takes aim at.

Throughout the article she approvingly quotes experts who say things like “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient” and she writes herself, “Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle” (emphasis mine).  Alarms go off whenever I see a parenting expert saying that kids need any one particular thing.  Sure, kids need vegetables and they need a bedtime and they need to learn right from wrong.  But what they need most of all are parents who recognize that there is no one surefire way to approach raising a child.

To put this in concrete terms, when Jay skins his knee in the park what he needs from me in response varies from day to day.  Some days he gets back up without a second thought.  Some days he’s tired and fragile and needs a hug and a pat on the back.  And other days he’s whiny or clingy and I decide to give him some space to figure out that dad can’t solve all his problems.  The point is that apart from love, food, and sleep, kids don’t need any one thing all the time.

I call this attitude “pragmatic parenting.”  It recognizes that kids, parenting, and life in general are all extremely complicated and that in the face of such complexity a good dose of humility is in order.  Who knows what alchemy of experiences produces a happy adult?  The biggest problem with Gottlieb’s article is that she thinks she does.

Disciplining a toddler with timeout: smart or soft?

Almost nothing stays with a kid longer than the feeling of being punished by his parents.  What I remember most is not the particulars of the punishment—a spanking, a bar of soap, not being able to drive for a month—but the feeling of having done wrong in my parents’ eyes.  Even at 30 it would still hit me hard if my dad were to let me know that he thought I’d acted badly.

I had this thought in mind yesterday at lunchtime when James launched his sippy cup into the tray of the open dishwasher.  It clattered among the dirty plates and startled me enough that I dropped/slammed the wooden cutting board I was washing down in the sink.  “That was not funny,” I shouted as I spun his high-chair around to face away from the kitchen. “You’ve got timeout!”

Now, I didn’t receive timeout as a kid but Caroline and I have taken to using it as parents.  I think of it as one of the stereotypical practices of middle class American childrearing.  I’ve read several academic studies about parenting recently and in the compare and contrast between American-style parenting and parenting styles in other parts of the world, “time out” is always listed as a key distinction between the way we raise our children and the way the Kalahari bushmen raise theirs.  If it’s not on Stuff White People Like it should be.

I asked Caroline why she thinks “timeout” is ridiculed.  “Because it’s wussy,” she said.  That sounds right to me.  The most obvious point of comparison is the belt, as in “Dad’s going to get the belt if you don’t shape up,” and in that sense timeout is just another way that late-stage American culture has grown soft.  During the ’08 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama a Pollyanna after he said he’d be willing to hold diplomatic talks with the world’s worst dictators.  In her view dictators, like toddlers, only respond to force.  (Caroline adds that it’s misguided to think that either dictators or toddlers respond to force or to diplomacy: “They’re both just crazy,” she says.)

So I felt like a bit of a caricature yesterday as I gave James timeout for throwing his cup in the dishwasher.  When his minute was up I turned his seat back around and asked him if he knew why he’d been given timeout.  “No throw cup a dishwasher,” he said.

“That’s right,” I replied, pleased to hear that the time he’d had to contemplate his misdeed had clarified things for him.  “We don’t throw the cup in the dishwasher.”  The grin on his face told me that he was already plotting his next projectile.

One of the central things timeout accomplishes is that it depersonalizes punishment. If James throws his cup into the dishwasher and is given timeout, the implication is that he did wrong by the dishwasher.  If, instead, James throws his cup into the dishwasher and dad flies into apoplexy, the implication is that he did wrong by dad.  The difference between timeout and spanking is like the difference between a police officer giving out a parking ticket—”Nothing personal, I’m just doing my job”—and God raining fire and brimstone on Gomorrah—”You better believe it’s personal.”

So which approach is better?  I’m not a timeout kind of parent by disposition but I’ve warmed to its merits.  I like that with minor events like the dishwasher incident timeout keeps the interaction between me and James simple and more predictable.  As he gets older and the lessons he learns grow more complex I hope I’ll keep in mind how powerful my parents’ judgments were to me as a kid (both when they’d praise me and when they were angry at me), and be conservative in how and when I express my own judgments to James.

At the same time, I know that I’m going to be an integral part of James’ moral world as he grows up, and that my responsibility to him is as more than an umpire who dispassionately calls strikes and balls in his behavior.