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.
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
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
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:
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
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,
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,
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.
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
[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.
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:
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:
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
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
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.
books : october 2005
Foley is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.