Do Americans Overparent?

Kevin Carey ably summarizes the policy upshot of this etremely long article from Paul Tough (awesome name) on the "achievement gap" in public education, sparing you the need to read the whole thing. If you do read it all, however, you'll find some material on pages three and four that I'd be interested in seeing taken in a different direction:

The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.

In her book “Unequal Childhoods,” published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. ... Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.” But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth” disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.

Taken together, the conclusions of these researchers can be a little unsettling. Their work seems to reduce a child’s upbringing, which to a parent can feel something like magic, to a simple algorithm: give a child X, and you get Y. Their work also suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods. True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

The most interesting thing about this, I think, isn't the class difference but the chronological one. Working class parents raise their kids the way middle class parents used to raise their kids. Then things changed. Was this a change for the better?

On the one hand, sure. The research shows that New School parenting produces "better" kids -- kids more likely to do well in school and get good jobs. It seems to me, however, that the costs of this have been enormous. The basic truth of New School parenting is that it's extremely demanding on parents' time and emotional resources. It's probably also implicitly demanding on parents' money since it's so demanding that nobody could stand to actually do it all the time were they not able to enroll their kids in lots of organized activities to take some of the pressure off.

The upshot of this for middle class families is that family size has dropped considerably, at least in part because if you're going to raise kids in this way you need to keep the numbers manageable. It also seems to be a child-rearing method that makes kids and parents alike less happy.

Meanwhile, closer to the spirit of the article, it's generated very hard-to-overcome class-bound cognitive differentials. Poor parents typically lack the time, money, emotional resources, and cultural capital to raise their kids in this manner, and that gives poor kids a giant handicap in school and elsewhere .

You're looking, I think, at a kind of status competition trap. No middle class parents compete against each other to be the "best" parents, which requires adopting a style that makes children and parents alike miserable, requires parents to keep family sizes low, and essentially puts the bar for "adequate" child-rearing techniques beyond the reach of most poor parents. If we could just mandate that all parents adopt the "accomplishment of natural growth" strategy, middle class parents would either have more kids or more time for themselves, and we'd have a more egalitarian society. Sadly, I'm not enough of a totalitarian to actually think we should mandate "hands-off" parenting techniques, but maybe there's something that can be done.