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