Explaining Annette Lareau, or, Why Parenting Style Ensures Inequality

The sociologist argued that middle-class kids are raised in a way that provides them with the skills necessary to remain in the middle class.


Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We'll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you'll finish your English homework. Don't forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point. Your dad can check your math when he gets home. Do you want tofu in your green curry or chicken? Ian, do you want noodles?

Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, "Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?"

No crab-faced alien can be blamed for transforming me from a slacker in a black dress into what I am today. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, I'm a product of my social class.

During the 1990s, Lareau and a team of grad students studied 88 families from various backgrounds -- black, white, middle class, working class, poor -- and then conducted in-depth observations of 12 families. In her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods, she explains that middle-class families raised their children in a different way than working-class and poor families, and that these differences cut across racial lines. Lareau's research is finding a new audience thanks to the resurgence of interest in social class and economic outcomes.

Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

Parenting styles have a huge impact on future outcomes, says Lareau. She speculates that concerted cultivation creates adults who know how to challenge authority, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their time -- all the skills needed to remain in the middle class. The working-class kids lack that training.

Yes, the middle-class kids gain advantages later in life, but are they really happier than the working-class and poor kids? Wearing an objective academic hat, Lareau refuses to weigh in on what is the best form of parenting. However, she does point out that the middle-class kids and parents in her study were exhausted from their schedule-driven days. Unlike the middle-class kids, the working-class kids knew how to entertain themselves, had boundless energy, and enjoyed close ties with extended family.

Perhaps it is not surprising that there is a spike in anxiety-related disorders in children.

A fellow blogger alerted me to Lareau's research several years ago. So, I know about the traps of concerted cultivation, but still find myself giving lectures about the benefits of plastic covers on English papers and arranging our after-school activities on color-coded calendars. It's hard to step back and relax when everyone around you is speeding up. My kids can't go out for a spontaneous game of tag when every other kid on the block is at a band concert or at soccer practice.

I suppose, though, that our over-scheduled lives are far less important than the fact that different parenting styles may be reinforcing class divisions in our country. The remedies for this problem are far more difficult and expensive than providing plastic report covers to all children.

Image: hartphotography/Shutterstock.