Unequal Childhoods, by Annette Lareau

I had been interested in reading Unequal Childhoods, by Annette Lareau, for some time when it showed up as a donation to the bookstore where I was volunteering. Education per se is not where my sociological interests lie, but Lareau’s study promised to be more than just another study about how the public education system in the U.S. creates bosses from middle-class kids and worker-drones from working class ones. Indeed, Lareau starts with an acceptance of that understanding and moves forward to consider how expectations and norms of interactions within families differ along class lines and support the sorting project of educational institutions.

I have to say that the data itself was not surprising to me. It may be that, in the years since this work was published, the study’s conclusions have already been integrated into a standard way of understanding the role of family habitus in guiding children’s experiences in education. Or, it could simply be that my own family experience bridges the shift from working class norms of child-rearing (in my parents’ generation) to a more mixed approach that incorporates some middle-class norms (in my own generation). I say a mixed approach, because the conflicts that Lareau notes between the ideals of ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ and ‘concerted cultivation’ become much more than theoretical in actual families. I particularly note the tension between an expectation that children will be respectful — as demonstrated by quickly obeying directives and refraining from whining or arguing — and a desire to encourage their reasoning and verbal participation in family interactions.

This is, indeed, the core of Lareau’s analysis: middle-class habits of child-rearing produce young adults who are well-prepared to forge ahead in the race of global capitalism, while working class habits of child-rearing offer children less stressful and more self-directed experiences of childhood. For those families who don’t believe intergenerational mobility will be likely, we would expect to see the provision of a less stressful childhood prioritized above the molding of children into mini-go-getters. To a certain degree, that is what Lareau reports, and we can certainly see the opposite all around us: when the cultural message is that every child can go to college, and college will move you to the middle class and beyond, parents absorb the message that concerted cultivation is the way to go. Of course, as Lareau mentions only as a small aside, there are only so much space for the elite, and as more people gain access to those practices previously deemed ‘elite,’ the markers will change, as they’ve already done around higher education.

I could go on and on about the implications of this work, but an exploration of the fields of sociology of education, inequality, social justice, and culture is not the purpose here. Of the work itself, I can say it’s thorough, creative, engaging and well-supported. The book is quite readable, as ethnographies generally are (although I am perhaps not the best gauge of which examples of sociological research are accessible to the general public).

Unequal Childhoods, by Annette Lareau

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