Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What’s the name of your class?

So my 9 year old daughter was getting ready for her first day of art camp when I realized I had one more form to fill out. I asked her “what’s the name of your class?” She thought for a moment, then answered “I think I’m middle class, mom, but you should know what class we are in. Besides, I don’t think it should matter what class I’m in for art camp!”

At first, I began to chuckle when I heard her answer and I thought, we’ll how clever that she knows her class system. Then I thought… how sad that she knows her own class system. The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how middle class this whole situation was.

Annette Lareau talks about children and class and the difference in parenting styles and class in her new book, Unequal Childhoods. In that book, Laureau explains that in middle class, parents cultivate their children whereas in working class and poor families, parents allow for natural growth.

In middle class families, children have a voice and parents encourage discussion and input in the decision making process. It is common for these parents to engage in regular discussions and decision-making patters with their kids. Moreover, middle class families believe that in order for children to be successful in their careers, they need to train their children in how to be successful in industry. So they sign their kids up for camps, sports, arts, and a variety of other educational activities and all the while talking with their children, inquiring “what did you learn at camp today” and “what activities were most enjoyable to you?” Children from middle class families have the advantage of exposure to child-friendly (ie camp & school) systems that mirror the work systems in which they will engage as adults.

Lareau points out that parents from working classes and poverty love their children the same, care for them physically is much the same way, but these families tend to see development as a natural process and do not see it as a parent’s job to intervene in that natural process. Children from these families are commonly sent outside to play with their kin and neighbors, and have much less adult intervention in their activities. Parents also tend to ask fewer questions and they expect their children to be responsible for their own sense of adventure and happiness. This is in part due to a lack of resources, but for the most part, it is the parenting philosophy that children do better when they are free to grow naturally. These children have the advantage of knowing their neighbors and having the ability to be creative and self-reliant.

In Lareau’s view, this creates a disadvantage for children of lower economic status as these children do not have the exposure and practice in formalized, institutional settings that are full of practice interactions for the working world. The school system is set up for the children of middle class to succeed—teachers engage with the students much like middle class parents interact with their kids. There are questions about activities, opinions and events that children from the lower economic levels are just not used to.

This isn’t to say that one parenting style is better than the other. Lareau is clear to point out the flip side is that children from lower classes are typically happier, less tired and have fewer conflict with their siblings. However, in terms of preparation for a successful career in the current US work force, cultivating parenting has the advantage.

As a parent, this makes me torn. I want my kids to have the experience I did—I want them to be outside with the neighborhood kids creating something out of nothing and truly enjoying life. But I also want them to be prepared for success in adulthood. Moreover, I don’t think it healthy for me to spend all of my mental and physical free time scheduling, transporting and making my universe revolve around their activities. As with most things in life, I think there is room for balance. Art camp was good—I needed to be at work and my daughter needed that cultivation. However, when camp was over, I told her to go outside, find a neighbor and to be home by dinner.

By Kim Allen, PhD
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist
North Carolina State University

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race and family life. Los Angeles: University of California Press.