Hello world! And thoughts of a non-parent

November 29, 2006 at 2:14 am | Posted in nytimes, social | Leave a comment

Well it seems that my addiction to the NYTimes has outpaced my literary inclinations. To kick off the new habit, I’ll point your way to an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times magazine that contained some analysis on class differences in how parents raise their children. Anthropologist Annette Lareau explains the parenting strategy of “concerted cultivation,” which in her study was observed primarily in middle-class families where parents

engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.

On the other hand, poor and working-class parents tend to a strategy that Lareau calls “natural growth”. Her study concluded that these parents

raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect.

Lareau’s argument then draws a fairly predictable conclusion — that these differences in child-rearing perpetuate existing inequalities of class and wealth, by fostering very specific attitudes in these children as they mature. Middle-class children who are the product of concerted cultivation “become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack.” Consequently, “In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop.”

I’d like to take a look at that research, because as intuitive as Lareau’s theory of parenting seems, her argument strikes me as a little bit culture-centric. In particular, how should we account for the successes that East Asian children have in their economic integration into American society? One of the biggest open secrets of higher education, particularly in the Ivy League schools, is the drastically overrepresented proportion of Asian students. (Overrepresented relative to general population, that is — dissention and controversy abound on this point) These students come from all socio-economic backgrounds and are certainly not raised with the sort of choice that white middle-class parents give to their children. These same students eventually fill the ranks of upper middle-class professionals and partially pass on the same values to their own kids. Not to traffick in unnecessary generalizations, but I’d see the same flaw in applying the analysis to several other immigrant groups.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find Lareau’s research very interesting and potentially useful — her data, at the very least, is plausible. I’d only object that the two categories of parenting she describes are not applicable to groups outside the American cultural mainstream. The “natural growth” strategy is in effect, a watered-down version of asian parenting techniques that have taken the values of delayed gratification and risk aversion to their logical extremes. What the child loses in terms of social conditioning — indeed, the abovementioned sense of “entitlement” and social aggressiveness are largely uncharacteristic of asian children — he/she gains tenfold in terms of sheer perseverance. In short, the resulting success, although it is obtained by playing “by the rules” of American school systems or coporate culture, etc., could be fundamentally different in its psychological roots from children raised under the “concerted cultivation” method.

Of course, Asian families are not just all one homogeneous bunch, and the above generalizations are only useful for a small group, and not in all instances. Furthermore, the two parenting strategies represent distinct points on a very large continuum of different observations. The most striking aspect of socio-economic inequality in America is not that upper- and working-class families differ. What is more interesting are the ways that culturally distinct immigrant groups like the Chinese and Koreans are integrating economically into the upper-middle class. This leaves other minorities and even historically dominant groups in a very sequestered position in the working class. Maybe the two parenting styles that Lareau treats as merely a sociological phenomenon are actually the opposite poles in a deeper cultural divide, one not only characterized by political differences, but by other, irreconcilable differences of wealth, lifestyle, and language as well.


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