The Consequences of Childhood Inequality

Spring/Summer 2015
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“In America, every child is told he or she can grow up to be president," says Annette Lareau. "But success is not a result of confidence and aspirations alone.”

Americans, more than any other population, believe this narrative—but research suggests a disconnect between this perception and reality. Lareau has dedicated her career to understanding the key components that impact children’s outcomes, and in order to achieve success, she says, kids need access to knowledge about how the system works—access they often depend on their guardians to provide. “Different parenting strategies lead to dissimilar rewards. Often, success requires child-rearing practices that are in sync with the attitudes and expectations of dominant institutions.”

Annette Lareau

In her groundbreaking 2003 book Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life, Lareau, the Stanley I. Sheerr Endowed Term Professor in the Social Sciences, describes two distinct parenting styles, and how each affects development. “If you want a quick glimpse at someone’s parenting style just check the household calendar,” Lareau says. “If the days are crammed full of back-to-back soccer games and school plays, chances are you’re looking at the heavily-regimented schedule of a middle-class family.” This parenting style, coined “concerted cultivation,” is a stark contrast to the “natural growth” style found in a typical blue-collar household, where parents tend to expect their children to find ways to fill their own unstructured hours. And while concerted cultivation might have its drawbacks—children developing a sense of entitlement, for instance—lack of parental involvement puts children at a disadvantage. “Not having attended college themselves, many working class parents rely on teachers and other professionals to direct their children’s educational experience,” says Lareau.

Though Unequal Childhoods cements the argument that social class is the prime factor in determining children’s outcomes, Lareau says there needs to be a deeper understanding of the role cultural processes play in the maintenance of inequality, a topic she examines the 2014 book Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools. “You also need to illuminate the role of non-economic forces in key life transitions and the little moments that build up to these,” says Lareau. “This brings into sharper focus the roles that knowledge, expertise, and cultural skills play in navigating institutions and shaping life paths.” 

With co-editor Kimberly Goyette, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, Lareau focuses on a crucial moment in reproducing inequality: how parents of young children select a home and school. “Research suggests children’s life choices are influenced by the schools they attend and the neighborhoods in which they live,” says Lareau. “How parents of different social classes come to live in the same neighborhood is not well understood, but economic factors only partially explain how parents decide where to live.” 

Most of those in Lareau’s study depended on social networks to narrow their focus and recommend a community. People asked family and friends for suggestions about where to live, and these contacts pointed them to neighborhoods with other people like themselves. “Life is so stratified that we are primarily embedded in networks of people like ourselves, in networks that are hard to separate from cultural practices,” says Lareau, who recently completed her term as president of the American Sociological Association. “Finding reliance within these networks is extremely important, but they telescope individual vision.” She adds that most parents making these important decisions seem to be guided by a single tenet: Trust whom you know, which in many cases perpetuates the stratification of social class.

For Unequal Childhoods, Lareau conducted in-depth interviews, carried out classroom observations, and did extensive ethnographic research. She observed both white and African-American families with 10-year-old children in order to study social structural forces and how they shape crucial aspects of daily life. Time and again she found it was the parents’ education that had a transformative effect on the lives of their children. “These are parents that are more apt to read to their children, and therefore their child is more likely to know the alphabet when he or she enters kindergarten,” says Lareau, whose work has been discussed at length in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling analysis of high achievers, and cited by New York Times columnist David Brooks as having helped to change the way people regard child-rearing. 

“Life is so stratified that we are primarily embedded in networks of people like ourselves, in networks that are hard to separate from cultural practices.”

In 2011, Lareau released a second edition of Unequal Childhoods with new research stemming from follow-up interviews with 12 children selected from the 88 participants observed in her study almost a decade earlier. These interviews reveal that cultural origins cast long shadows on life outcomes. Young adults raised in middle-class families know, for example, what grades they will need if they want to go to medical school and when to drop a class to preserve their academic standing. “They feel entitled to ask teachers, coaches, and other authority figures for help,” says Lareau. “When confronted with a problem, they draw on what they know about the inner workings of institutions and often manage to resolve the situation to their satisfaction. Grade protests, for example, are more common at Ivy League universities than they are at state colleges.”

Young people whose working-class parents had less education and less involvement with academic institutions are unfamiliar with what Lareau calls “the rules of the game.” “They tend to be unaware of the options available to them and more likely to be frustrated by bureaucracies,” says Lareau. “They may not realize that grades in high school are important, or that community colleges and technical schools are not as prestigious as four-year colleges, or that they have a right to question decisions that affect them.” However, children of working-class parents also exhibited independence and problem-solving abilities their affluent peers are likely to lack. “Autonomy and the ability to negotiate the world on one’s own are important skills,” says Lareau. “We also need to have a clear-eyed view of the disadvantages of middle-class parenting.”

The second edition’s findings are echoed by public statistics. The Pew Foundation has reported that only 4 percent of low-income youth reach the highest income category. In research conducted with Penn Graduate School of Education alumna Heather Curl and doctoral student in sociology Tina Wu, Lareau found that most upwardly mobile individuals have benefitted from the presence and assistance of cultural guides. “These guides often take the form of teachers or counselors who help show working-class youth how to apply for college, where to apply, and other crucial pieces of information,” says Lareau. “These cultural guides can shine a light on complex situations by making the invisible visible. You cannot assume that working-class parents understand that four years of high school English are required to be admitted to many universities, or that a student who has enrolled in a college may still have to be encouraged to come to office hours. Little pieces of information can matter a great deal in a college career, and cultural guides can help upwardly mobile youth find their way.”  

That’s not to say any one parenting style is problem-free. Concerted cultivation can go too far, resulting in “helicopter parenting,” in which many parents perform tasks that their children could and, some argue, should do. Parents in this category have been known to resort to hiring professional journalists to write their children’s college-admission essays. In one case, when the journalist explained that admissions officers want to see how prospective students express their ideas, the woman offered to pay more than she had first proposed. “This mother’s goal was to ensure that her daughter’s enjoyment of her senior year was not compromised by necessary but time-consuming tasks,” says Lareau. “She seemed perplexed by the journalist’s insistence that such behavior was unethical and inappropriate.”

“Ultimately, it’s about combining community engagement with a commitment to making academic research applicable to problems that people confront in their everyday lives.”

Lareau hopes to continue unraveling the many ways that childhood inequalities manifest at later stages of life. “Ultimately, it’s about combining community engagement with a commitment to making academic research applicable to problems that people confront in their everyday lives. Parenting has come a long way since Colonial America. Many of those individuals would probably be imprisoned today for the way they treated their children,” Lareau says. “But it’s important to remember that there isn’t one right way to raise a child which transcends all. We have to find the sweet spot along the continuum of teaching our children beneficial and useful skills, giving them wings to fly, and stepping back to allow them to fail.”

By Maureen Haggerty with Blake Cole

Illustrations by Jon Krause

Photo by Shira Yudkoff