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.