Rosen: How do parents’ experiences of this dilemma vary by class?
Pugh: I found that each set of parents—parents who were quite affluent and those who were quite low-income—was responding to the "other" that they were trying not to be. For affluent parents, they're trying their best not to be the materialist people they know, whether that's their neighbor, or their whatever: “We are not like them.”
And so what do they do? They practice what I came to consider “symbolic deprivation.” The parents would say, "Oh, we don't buy X … We don't buy this toy or piece of equipment that everyone else has because we're not like that." And the item in question was always a very potent symbolic thing—an electronic game that everyone has. And yet, then you would go into the kid's bedroom, like I did, and the child would have the full complement of toys and equipment that is basic to a middle-class childhood. It would just be this powerful symbolic thing that the parents were withholding, in part to try to tell that story to themselves and to me that they weren't like “them.”
For the low-income families, the "other" that they were trying not to be were parents that could not adequately provide for their children. So they practiced what I considered “symbolic indulgence.” They would pick very powerful items symbolically for the child and for themselves that would be like, "See, we're doing all right. That child has an X." And that X might be a particular electronic item or an Easy-Bake Oven or whatever—something that the child or the parent is holding out to say "We're good parents because of this." But when you go in the child's bedroom they might be missing many of the items that middle-class parents consider basic—blocks, or a bicycle, or things that parents in a different economic strata would consider it a problem not to have.
Both parents are holding out these buying practices as testaments to their good parenting and in response to the criticisms they feel they are vulnerable to.
Rosen: I feel like the bigger thing you're talking about is every family’s effort to forge its own mini-culture in the context of the broader culture.
Pugh: That's exactly right. In fact, that really captures everything about how to do parenting well. You're describing Halloween, you're describing school choice, you're describing when they go to bed, when you have dinner, who does homework, what you let her wear, how far you let them walk.
Every decision that parents make, they're straddling these messages coming from outside and their own style that they're trying to achieve. That can be very difficult. That's why in my book I ask, what are the potential solutions here? One is to make difference safe. One is to get rid of difference to the extent possible, so that means getting together with your friends and saying “Let’s put a moratorium on really out-of-hand gift bags.” Let's together say, “No more than $5 per gift bag,” and establishing a kind of culture of similarity. Some schools are trying to do that—that's what they're doing with uniforms. In Waldorf schools they say no outside brands. They're really trying to make a culture of sameness.