[Read: How well-intentioned white families can perpetuate racism]
Intensive parenting was first identified as a middle-class phenomenon, most notably by the sociologists Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. Lareau in particular called the approach “concerted cultivation” and contrasted it with a vision of parenting she labeled “the accomplishment of natural growth,” which entails much less parental involvement and which she found to be more common among working-class and poorer parents. A big lingering question since then has been why these class differences exist: Did poorer families have different notions of what makes for good parenting, or did they simply lack the resources to practice the parenting styles they believed would be better?
What’s useful about Ishizuka’s survey data is they suggest that even if parenting style differs by class, parenting attitudes—what parents think they should do—currently don’t. Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies parenting and has written about it for The Atlantic, explained in an email why she thinks this new study (which she was not involved in) is significant: “If parents from different social class backgrounds are engaging in different parenting practices … it’s not because those parents value different parenting practices,” she wrote. “Instead, there must be some other reason.”
Because intensive parenting requires an abundance of time and money, the reason is likely that some families have more resources than others. “Poverty not only limits parents’ ability to pay for music lessons, for example, but is also a major source of stress that can influence parents’ energy, attention, and patience when interacting with children,” Ishizuka told me.
Academic researchers have traced the origins of intensive parenting to the mid-20th century. But the timing of how it spread is somewhat uncertain: Ishizuka said there unfortunately aren’t historical survey data showing “how pervasive cultural norms of intensive parenting were among parents of different social classes and when they may have diffused.”
A plausible history of the past couple decades of American parenting, though, is that a critical mass of families with sufficient means started engaging in intensive parenting, and then everyone else followed. “That would be consistent with prior research on cultural shifts, which have shown that elite culture gradually becomes mass culture,” Calarco explained.
Intensive parenting is a style of child-rearing fit for an age of inequality, indicative of a stratified past, present, and future. The past: As some social scientists have theorized, the tilt toward intensive parenting originated at least in part from parents’ anxieties about their children competing for education and jobs. (The more extracurriculars, the logic of intensive parenting goes, the better the odds of getting into an excellent college and of securing one of the high-paying jobs that America cordons off for the best-credentialed.) The present: As Ishizuka described, intensive parenting is an ideal that’s currently out of reach for many families. And the future: Practiced as it is by some families but not others, it might replicate—or even widen—inequities in future generations.