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Summary of Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods

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  • 0:05 Unequal Childhoods
  • 1:38 Concerted Cultivation
  • 2:48 The Accomplishment of…
  • 3:58 How the Differences Matter
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson provides a summary of the book, ''Unequal Childhoods,'' by the sociologist Annette Lareau. This title offers a study of the ways in which parenting styles differ by social class position.

Unequal Childhoods

What kinds of opportunities did you have when you were a child? Did you take many lessons after school? Where did you live? Did you have access to a good school?

These are important questions that the sociologist Annette Lareau addresses in her book Unequal Childhoods, a book examining how social class influences parenting styles. Lareau's book is an in-depth study that examines how parenting styles differ among middle class, working class, and poor parents and how this ultimately shapes a child's future.

Lareau studied 12 families for her book and used a research method called participant observation. Participant observation is a technique whereby a researcher spends time observing subjects and participating in their lives. Lareau spent nearly a month studying children, each roughly 10 years old, from each of these 12 families. Along with a team of research assistants, she followed the families to school functions, after-school practices, and doctor's visits and also spent time inside their homes.

Lareau arrived at several conclusions regarding how parenting styles differ by class and how this contributes to social class inequality. But first, let's talk briefly about the concept of social class. While there are different definitions dating back to the earliest sociological theories, Lareau defines class using the following categories: income, parents' occupation and educational attainment, and where a family lives. Let's now examine the two major child rearing styles Lareau came up with.

Concerted Cultivation

When Lareau was visiting the homes of middle class families, she observed a particular kind of parenting style that she termed concerted cultivation. Concerted cultivation means that middle class parents take an active role in fostering activities and opportunities for their children. In general, middle class parents stimulate children's development very deliberately. Lareau found that in both white and black middle class families, parents were very involved in overseeing their children's success, including monitoring their academics and being very active in their lives.

Lareau also found that middle class kids were enrolled in a number of different activities, were required to spend significant time on homework, and often had many extracurricular obligations, like playing sports or practicing an instrument. Therefore, middle-class lives were often extremely busy.

Lareau also noticed more subtle differences. For example, middle class parents were more likely to let children respond to questions and formulate their own insights, as opposed to 'talking down' to children. This may seem trivial, but it actually has major consequences. Middle class children learn to speak in more sophisticated ways that will help them later in life, especially in professional settings.

The Accomplishment of Natural Growth

Let's now examine what Lareau observed in working class and poor families. When Lareau visited the homes of poor and working class families, she observed what she terms the accomplishment of natural growth. Basically, this parenting philosophy is about sustaining a child's natural growth. This is seen as more of an accomplishment than, for example, promoting a child's academic achievement. Similarly, unlike with busy middle class families, Lareau found that a lack of economic resources restricted working-class and poor parents from enrolling their children in extracurricular activities.

Children in both white and black poor and working class families spent more time alone, playing outside by themselves or with neighbors. They were more responsible for themselves than were middle class children. These children also did not receive as much academic intervention at home, sometimes leading to challenges at school.

Working class and poor parents often work long hours or hold multiple jobs simply to support the family. In very poor families, Lareau found that deprivations like food shortages were not uncommon. Economic inequality made it very difficult for parents to give their children the same opportunities as their middle class counterparts.

How the Differences Matter

It is important to note that Lareau observed in all families a desire to care for and love their children. However, these different parenting styles have different consequences. Concerted cultivation gives children an advantage because it aligns with the demands of the professional world. Natural growth, on the other hand, does not always provide for this same opportunity. Lareau found that children from middle class families simply have more opportunities due to their economic resources.

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