The Atlantic writer Laura McKenna recently reflected on parenting and came to the conclusion that she is the product of her social 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….
The reader can almost envision McKenna shaking her head at herself as she notes, “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?’”
Instead of running with the alien theory, McKenna turned to Annette Lareau’s 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, in which she studied how 88 families from different backgrounds were raising their kids.
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.
McKenna worries that, while her children may learn how to navigate bureaucracy and manage their time, they may be overscheduled. “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.”
Even more worrisome to her is the idea that different parenting styles may be reinforcing class divisions in the U.S., which is something that a book cover can’t fix.