The Mothers Movement Online


Class matters

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
Annette Lareau
University of California Press, 2003

Not-So-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender, and Networks of Care
Karen V. Hansen
Rutgers University Press, 2005

Review by Margaret Foley

October 2005

In the United States, class is a taboo subject, rarely mentioned in public discourse in any meaningful fashion. What is often discussed in much more detail in the media is the effect of race. Yet, research shows that class -- and how an individual's location in a particular class affects the choices he or she is able to make -- is much more significant than an individual's ethnic background. In a country that holds fast to a mythology that it is a land of opportunity and equality, the idea of class as a determining factor undercuts the belief that, on some level, all Americans are equal. This, of course, is untrue. Statistics on poverty, healthcare, employment, and education point to the fact that class matters, despite attempts to render it irrelevant and invisible. When it comes to raising children, two recent books by sociologists illustrate how class often dictates the choices families make.

In Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life, Annette Lareau argues that class is much more relevant than race in parenting children. While race is not to be discounted, where one falls on the economic continuum is much more indicative of how a child will be raised, what the parents will value, and what skills a child will take into adulthood. To conduct her study, Lareau observed classroom behavior, interviewed over eighty white and African-American families, and conducted in-depth studies with the families of twelve third-graders.

The details of daily life provide many clues to the way in which class affects children and how they spend their time. Regardless of class, all families are engaged in the time-consuming work of feeding, clothing, and taking care of children. But, how those tasks are undertaken varies according to class. For example, in many working-class families, there are added constraints. Food must be stretched for as many meals as possible. Laundry often needs to be taken to public laundromats. Time is spent waiting for transportation and at social and public service agencies. Although the middle-class families were largely free from financial pressures, they also experienced a time crunch as leisure time was often taken up by filling out enrollment forms, signing children up for lessons and teams, arranging for placements in special programs, and intervening on their children's behalf with teachers, coaches, doctors, and other institutional actors.

No family operates in a social vacuum. Each functions in what Lareau terms a particular social structure. Where they live, what the local parks, roads, and schools look like, what the ethnic and economic composition of their neighborhood is, what jobs are available, and what their own educational and professional skills are affect a family's lifestyle. This, in turn influences the type of childhood those children will have.

The families in Lareau's study are clustered around two schools. Lower Richmond is an urban elementary school, surrounded by a wire fence, where most of the children are from poor and working-class families. Swan is a suburban elementary school with sprawling buildings, an active PTA, and lots of green lawn. Its children largely come from professional, middle-class families. A comparison of the schools' approaches to craft projects highlights the differences in resources and expectations:

Although both Lower Richmond and Swan offer computer training, art, music, choir, and gym, the character of the coursework, supplies, and instruction at Swan is more elaborate. For example, at Lower Richmond, the students enjoyed making art projects out of Popsicle sticks. At Swan, the children used square pieces of white cloth and dark black ink to make banners with Japanese characters on them.

On the basis of her research, Lareau argues that there are two basic parenting strategies, each rooted in class and each having its own cultural logic. Middle-class families practice what she refers to as concerted cultivation, and poor and working-class families utilize a strategy she terms the accomplishment of natural growth.

In concerted cultivation, parents look for opportunities, largely through organized activities, lessons, and programs, to help their children develop their talents and inclinations. For these parents, the hope is that this panoply of activities will not only make their children well-rounded individuals, but will also give them the skills -- conversational, leadership, and intellectual -- to function in the "real world." This overemphasis on children's perceived needs, according to Lareau, has transformed contemporary middle-class life:

In the nineteenth century, families gathered around the hearth. Today, the center of the middle-class home is the calendar...Month after month, children are busy participating in sports, music, scouts, and playgroups. And, before and after going to work, their parents are busy getting them to and from these activities. At times, middle-class houses seem to be little more than holding places for the occupants during the brief periods when they are between activities.

In contrast to this structured middle-class lifestyle, poor and working-class families adopt a natural growth strategy. For these families, the responsibilities of parenthood do not include this intense involvement in the lives of their children, and these parents and caregivers often maintain strict boundaries between the world of adults and the world of children. An enormous amount of time is consumed with performing daily tasks, and there is rarely time, inclination, or resources to enroll and prepare children to take part in a wide range of extracurricular activities. In this environment,

children experience long stretches of leisure time, child-initiated play, clear boundaries between adults and children, and daily interactions with kin. Working-class and poor children, despite tremendous economic strain, often have more "childlike" lives, with autonomy from adults and control over their extended leisure time.

For middle class children, the constant interaction with adults, the encouragement to ask questions and negotiate, and the interventions by parents with institutions to have children's needs accommodated gives children a sense of entitlement that serves them well in interactions outside the family. They are equipped to negotiate for what they want and need, have conversational skills, and are able to function in a variety of settings. But, this intense focus on children comes with a price. According to Lareau, middle-class children are more likely to be argumentative, complain of boredom, demand attention, and have weak ties with siblings and other relatives. As a result,

[f]amily life, despite quiet interludes, is frequently frenetic. Parents, especially mothers, must reconcile conflicting priorities, juggling events whose deadlines are much tighter than the deadlines connected to serving meals or getting children ready for bed…At times, everyone in the middle-class families seemed exhausted.

The child-rearing logic of poor and working-class families produces a different result. Because of the lack of financial resources for outside activities, these children learn to entertain themselves, create their own games, and are rarely bored or exhausted. The economic constraints that result in fewer outside activities, smaller living spaces, and a general lack of privacy means that adults and children are less isolated from each other:

As a result, family members spent more time together in shared space than occurred in middle-class homes. Indeed, family ties were very strong, particularly among siblings. Working-class and poor children also developed very close ties with their cousins and other extended family members.

While each approach to childrearing makes sense in its particular context, our society values the skills taught through concerted cultivation more highly than it does the skills learned through the accomplishment of natural growth. When poor and working-class children move from childhood to adulthood, they find that the ability to be organized and articulate is valued more than the ability to operate outside formal structures, placing them at a competitive disadvantage.

Concerted cultivation is a relatively new childrearing phenomenon. Of the middle-class parents in Lareau's study, "[n]one reported having had a very active schedule of activities as a child." If these adults grew up with a natural growth philosophy, why has concerted cultivation taken hold? She argues that as concepts of rationalization have filtered into daily life, the desire to measure children's development in quantifiable ways is becoming the norm. In fact, many of these parents engage in concerted cultivation out of a deep concern for their children's economic future. As the United States shifts from an economy that produces to one that consumes, relative wages are decreasing. This means that parents may be looking for any way possible to give their children the skills necessary to succeed:

This [economic] restructuring makes it very likely that when today's children are adults, their standard of living will be lower than that of their parents. It means there will be fewer "good jobs" and more "bad jobs," and that competition for them will be intense. Moreover, since children must be successful in school to gain access to desirable positions, many middle-class parents are anxious to make sure their children perform well academically…Thus, many parents see children's activities as more than interesting and enjoyable pastimes.

Social class and networks of care

Of course, raising children does not merely involve organizing their extracurricular activities. American mythology portrays the typical family as nuclear and self-sufficient, but this is far from reality. Not all families are nuclear, and no family raises children alone. Studies estimate that even with programs such as before and after school care, families still face a weekly childcare gap of up to 25 hours a week.

How families of varying economic, social, and familial resources cover this gap is the subject of Karen Hansen's Not-So-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender, and Networks of Care. She studies four families (working class, middle-class, professional middle-class, and upper class) living in Northern California to determine how the tangibles of income and employment mix with intangibles such as the proximity of friends and family to solve childcare conundrums. In order to survive, each family must establish a network of care, a web of people who can help close the childcare gap. "Raising children, an enterprise largely cast as an individual or nuclear family endeavor in postindustrial, postmodern U.S. culture, retains important collaborative dimensions."

Despite the differences in the studied families, Hansen notes that, structurally, each family creates its network in a similar way. There is one person, usually the mother, who takes on the role of anchor. The anchor is the person at the "center of each child-rearing project," who mobilizes his or her network of family, acquaintances, and friends, to help care for children. Being the anchor of a care network involves a great deal of work. The anchor must know what skills people have, when they are available, and what their resources are. Without this type of arrangement, it would be impossible for parents to work and raise their children:

The labor force of nuclear families, which consists of one or two working parents is insufficient to cover the care needs of the family as a whole. Parents need help and they wisely turn to others for it. Because they largely manage to care for their children, despite many mishaps and occasional tragedies the current situation is seen by the general public as working.

Hansen begins her book with the Cranes, a working-class family. Patricia Crane is the single mother of a six-year-old boy, Robbie. The boy's father, acknowledged by all family members to be very involved in his son's upbringing, lives two hours away. So, the daily arrangements for Robbie's care fall to Patricia.

The network she has developed consists largely of friends and relatives. Because of their economic status, the Crane family has developed a web that is wealthy in people, not money. Patricia Crane, her brother, and her mother all live within minutes of each other, and at one time, all lived in the same apartment building. This arrangement makes it easier to respond to each other's needs. In addition, Patricia's best friend, as well as the manager of her apartment complex, are also available to help out. These relationships are often reciprocal. The members of the network may provide assistance in taking care of Robbie, but Patricia helps them in other ways, by cooking meals, lending money, and doing errands.

However, because her network is so tightly based on a small number of people, her network is especially vulnerable when it comes to the health of its members. Most of them work in jobs that provide no benefits. In fact, Patricia and her family members will not take jobs that interfere with their commitments to each other. Patricia, over the course of her working life, has left several jobs because their demands were incompatible with her family commitments. If someone were to fall ill, it would be difficult not only to take care of that person, but also to replace him or her in the care network:

Consequently, the Crane network is especially vulnerable to attacks on the health of its members. All lack access to adequate health care and no one is financially secure enough to meet the expense of a problem that cannot be alleviated by over-the-counter medicine. Each member seems profoundly aware that her or his relative good fortune could disappear without warning.

The Aldrich family occupies the opposite economic spectrum. As a wealthy family, the Aldriches mobilize a different set of resources to care for their two children. Susan Aldrich and her husband Alex Brolin are recently separated and share joint custody of their two children.

Susan is the anchor for the family's childcare strategy, and the linchpin of the system is a full-time nanny, who has been employed by the family for several years. Not only does the nanny chauffeur the children between school, home, and extracurricular activities, she also manages the children's transitions between their mother's home and their father's home. The rest of the network consists of family members, friends, and a part-time babysitter. Because both Susan and Alex work full-time, it is important to know exactly who needs to be where at what time. "In the Aldrich household, 'the book' sits in a sacred space on the kitchen counter. "'The book' details the master schedule for the household…While some leeway exists, between two different school schedules, lessons, games, evening meetings, and shifting back and forth between two households, a slipup in the schedule can spell disaster for someone."

However, despite their wealth, the family's system operates with some disadvantages. Many of the members of their network also lead busy lives, making it necessary to strictly delineate who is available to do what and when. Their class status also creates isolation that can be difficult to overcome. In the wealthy community in which they live, they do not interact with their neighbors and their children do not attend the same schools, meaning that the ability to call upon neighbors for emergencies is limited.

The Duvall-Brennans and the extensive Becker network represent two different forms of middle-class coping.

Maggie Duvall and Jack Brennan belong to the professional middle class. They are lawyers with demanding schedules, have two small children, and jointly anchor their childcare network. Their main strategy for childcare is institutional care, and their children routinely spend ten to eleven hours a day in school and day-care centers. Their network, which consists of eight people is "well situated to care about the children, but ill prepared to care for them." Many of its members do not live nearby, and as a result, it is difficult to call on them if childcare is unexpectedly needed.

When the Duvall-Brennans moved from an urban to a suburban setting, it decreased the number of people who were available to physically care for their children. In the city, they had neighbors they could ask for assistance. In their suburban neighborhood, they have not yet made strong enough connections with neighbors that would allow them to feel comfortable asking for childcare. Because of their career and neighborhood choices, the Duvall-Brennans have a network that "is well off financially, but stretched extremely thin in terms of time and people."

As a result, the Duvall-Brennans have a network that provides emotional support, but may not always be able to provide material support. A crisis, such as being stuck in traffic or a sick child is threatens the structure they have created. Daycare centers have strict pickup times and cannot accommodate late meetings or traffic jams. In fact, when their daughter is too ill for day care, their only recourse is to hire an emergency caretaker who will come to their house.

The Beckers illustrate a different approach to solving the competing needs of family and work. Their strategy is anchored by Dina Becker, a freelance photographer. Her husband Mark Walde is a middle school teacher, and they have two children. In contrast to the Duvall-Brennans, their struggle is not with childcare, but with the desire to "maintain their place on the economic ladder; rather than experiencing middle-class comfort, they experience middle-class insecurity."

To manage their combined work and family responsibilities, Mark and Dina work split shifts. In theory, this would seem to solve the problem of gaps in the care of school-age children, but school holidays, a sick parent or child, a sudden change in work schedule can throw off this system. Their solution is to turn to Dina's large family, who lives in the same town and within a few minutes of each other. Their network is a extensive kin group in which it is rare that someone is not available to help.

However, this system also has its drawbacks. Although the split-shift strategy combined with the family network mostly eliminates the need for paid childcare, it has other costs. Dina and Mark have "traded time with each other for time with the children and time to work. The multiple demands of employment and parenting mean that they see little of each other as a couple, and they have no time to devote to nurturing their relationship and their marriage."

By focusing on class divisions, Lareau and Hansen highlight the inequalities of a society that pays lip service to the needs of families and children, but provides many of the resources necessary to raise children not as a matter of social policy, but as a product that must be purchased. There is a huge difference in the life prospects of someone who was born on third base and someone who needs to learn the skills necessary to hit the triple. Until providing for children's futures is seen as necessary social goal that is supported by a wide range of policies such as universal healthcare, affordable housing, and living wages -- something that is not likely to happen in today's political climate -- the class inequities inherent in the United States will only become more pronounced.

mmo books : october 2005

Margaret Foley is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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