Teaching Unequal Childhoods

As an adjunct I teach two Working-Class Studies courses – one for adult union leaders and staff pursuing a master’s degree and another for (mostly) traditional-aged undergraduate students.   In both classes I use Annette Lareau’s wonderful study of how child-rearing practices vary by class, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  It’s a great text for parents, but also for anybody who’s ever had child-rearing done to them!

It’s one of those sociological studies where the researcher hangs around a family at home and on the road, taking careful notes about what everybody says and does.  Most of the book consists of case studies of the various middle-class, working-class, and poor families Lareau (and her research assistants) hung out with in an unnamed northeastern city, probably Philadelphia.

It’s not a book students necessarily love and, in fact, some really hate it, but everybody reads it, gets engaged, and comes to class ready to talk about it – including often intimate details about how they were reared and, for those who are parents, how they are rearing or did rear their children.  It’s a high-stakes topic, as everybody realizes that who they are and how they are is strongly influenced by how they were raised – and, of course, even the most exemplary parents easily slip into guilt-trips or defensive bragging about their kids, often in the same sentence.

I’m not going to summarize Lareau’s various findings, except to say that she finds a categorical difference between middle-class and working class child-rearing approaches, and relatively small (though not unimportant) differences between blacks and whites of the same class or between working-class and poor families.  Her first two case studies, of 4th-graders Garrett Tallinger and Tyrec Taylor, present strongly positive examples of each of the categories.

Garrett has two very dedicated parents with professional jobs who are highly engaged with their children, with lots of challenging dialogue and with a demanding schedule of activities their three children enjoy but which are also educational in one way or another.  This concerted cultivation, Lareau says, is characteristic of a middle-class child-centered approach.  Tyrec has loving, though separated, working-class parents who see their parental duties as providing food, shelter, and moral guidance but otherwise leaving their children free to find their own way in life through natural growth.   Whereas Garrett spends little time outside of adult-structured activities with children exactly his own age, Tyrec is much more free “to make his own fun” with children of different ages, both within a large extended family and in his neighborhood, and mostly outside direct supervision by adults.

After students read the first 103 pages, including these two case studies, the very first questions I ask are:

  • Which child-rearing approach makes for a happier childhood?
  • And which child-rearing approach better prepares children to succeed as adults?

I’ve done this with four classes now (two each with adults and late adolescents), and with very few exceptions, students answer as if it were obvious: The working-class way makes for a happier childhood, but the middle-class way better prepares children to be successful adults.

Eventually, the personally high-stakes part of our conversations turns everybody toward Aristotle’s golden mean, resolving to mix a little bit of happiness with a little more adult-prep.  But there is also a recognition of what a tragic situation this is: What kind of society requires us to sacrifice the creative spontaneous joys of childhood so that we can “succeed” as adults?

From there everybody has a different take on nearly everything – including whether it’s such a good idea to “succeed” as adults.  Many do not fit neatly into Lareau’s categories, but an amazing number do.  Adult students who are parents and even some of the traditional-aged students engage in richly dialectical reflections on their parents’ approach and their own.  Many more students in both teaching venues come from working-class backgrounds than middle-class ones, but precisely because the topic is so high stakes, students (who can often be quite harsh in disagreeing with each other) are especially tactful, polite, even delicate with one another.  In general, though Lareau is rigorously and refreshingly neutral on which class culture is better, both kinds of students tend to favor the working-class way.

Lareau’s broader thesis is that schools are excessively and unconsciously middle-class institutions that assume that working-class kids (and parents) arrive not with a different culture, which has its strengths as well as weaknesses, but with cultural deficits that must be filled in and bad habits that must be broken.  This not only puts working-class kids at a disadvantage, but often leads to a conflicted and adversarial relation of both parents and kids toward teachers and, even more so, toward the institution of “the school.”  Among other things, she counsels greater class-cultural awareness by teachers, including learning and teaching how to “code-switch.”

The basically opposite child-rearing approaches are readily recognizable in people’s real-life experience. More contestable is whether they neatly coincide with class positions and whether race and poverty play as small a role as Lareau claims.  These, of course, are issues that make Unequal Childhoods a great text for teaching Working-Class Studies.  More important, however, is how her richly reported case studies personalize class issues and dynamics, allowing both adult and traditional-aged students to see how class plays a role not just in society at large, but also in our own immediate experience, including our hearts and minds.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

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6 Responses to Teaching Unequal Childhoods

  1. Todd says:

    I’m teaching this book for the first time this semester (but I’m using it in a methods class for qualitative methods). I was amazed at how quickly my students went to condemning the working-class parents’ style. I worked really hard for two weeks to get my students to be critical of the larger social structures that reward a certain kind of parenting, and to see the working class style as being one of many valid styles of parenting. It didn’t work.

    I ended up trying to work through the dominance of what I call “middleclassness”, the habits, perspectives, practices, and beliefs that make up the “habitus” of being middle class, and how they are imperceptibly imbricated into the structures of education (including university) and the job market. With the loss of middle-class incomes for unionized production jobs since the late 1970s, there are few economic counter-valing experiences for my students to look to, to see that workingclassness can be equally valuable. With everything in American culture reduced to the economic calculus, all the students can see is that workingclassness leads to lower economic security down the line.

    In other words, my students’ difficulty in seeing working class parenting styles with openness and compassion may be, at least partially, a reflection of the ways that neo-liberal global policies (e.g., off-shoring of production jobs) have changed the perspectives.

    It is important to note that my student body has a heavy presence of children of immigrants who are the first in their families to graduate high school, let along attend college. Even my working class, poor students had a difficult time not condemning their own parents. It was a difficult two weeks.

    Sidenote: Stumbled on the blog this morning while planning an upper division course on class inequality for next semester. Thanks for the blog.


  2. Roy Wilson says:


    Thanks for responding to the bait, sts. 🙂

    I agree with you about all three, though I would count Number 2 as the weakest factor in explaining how it is that the desserts of the PWC are not always commensurate with their strengths.

    Numbers 1 and 3 seem to dovetail wonderfully. 🙂

    Number 3 is my favorite explanatory factor because it is relatively easy to see (at least from the bottom up). As Bourdieu (and Lareau, more clearly but less bittingly) observes, the cultural and social capital accumulated by LWC teachers serves to disadvantage PWC students.

    Even before this, I had seen your website and was amazed at what I saw: kind of like viewing the Egyptian pyramids for the first time. You may find my earlier contribution “Anger Management, Anyone” on this site of interest in relation to the topic of classism.


  3. Hi Roy, I have 3 quick answers to your provocative question about why working-class cultural strengths aren’t rewarded later in life:
    1) this economy doesn’t create enough good-paying, decent-conditions jobs for all the competent people who could do them; so in these labor-surplus conditions, hiring managers choose cultural capital that matches their own, which rewards professional middle-class (PMC) people;
    2) while PMC people do indeed reap more rewards from schools and workplaces, many PMC dysfunctions happen under the radar screen, eg, family dysfunction/estrangement; distinct personality problems (repressed, social phobias, greater odds of Asperger’s); and equal odds of some troubles despite their class privilege, eg equal rates of drug addiction; though chronically poor people have greater rates of depression than PMC, settled living working-class don’t; both kinds of childrearing produce adults with tendencies towards distinct human limitations;
    3) classism: many of the lower-middle-class teachers you mention hear the accents and see the clothes of the poor and working-class students and wrongly think “dumb” – and ditto college admissions officers and employers later in life.
    Spotlighting the social, cultural and psychological (as well as the more commonly discussed economic) dimensions of class stratification is one of the goals of Class Action’s blog Classism Exposed (www.classism.org/blog), which I edit. I hope you’ll check it out.


  4. Roy Wilson says:


    If WC and poor kids have “skills, abilities and resiliance” that their MC counterparts lack (a supportable generalization?), why is it that – in the main – WC kids do less well (educationally and occupationallly) later on in life? I also wonder why the largely lower middle-class teaching corps fails to recognize (or ignores) such strengths. Thoughts?


  5. Lareau’s findings seem paradigm-shifting not just because the working-class and poor kids have “happier childhoods” as Jack’s students agree, but because she documents that they actually have skills, abilities and resiliance that the middle-class kids lack. For example, they have less sibling rivalry, better ability to connect with older and younger kids, and better ability to fill unstructured time in a satisfying way — all of which are important for adult success. The cultivated, structures middle-class kids, despite all the important skills they gain, are losing out on more than just childhood fun. That comparative cultural assets approach is what I think makes Lareau so powerful.


  6. Roy Wilson says:


    I agree that Lareau’s book is a good one for illustrating the thesis that childhood experience is the site where “habits” are acquired that often shape the trajectory of life. One problem, however, is accounting for those who are expected to succeed (fail) at school but instead fail (suceed). Margaret Archer places much weight (some say too much) on “reflexivity”, arguing that it is not as deterimined by birth class position as Bourdieu (and perhaps Lareau) suggest. Andrew Sayer has written about how to reconcile this difference in a principled way. Any thoughts?


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