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Are Class Differences in Parenting Style Disappearing?

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KIDS ON PLAYGROUND
Wealan Pollard via Getty Images

An interest in ensuring communities have access to safe areas for children to play has produced a wild array of solutions. One of the solutions in our community is the development of what urban planners call "pocket parks." These are small, repurposed lots in communities -- torn down and built back up again as playgrounds, picnic areas and small patches of grass on which children might play and families might congregate. Pocket parks increase property values surrounding them and provide more access to public space to spend leisure time. They have the added bonus of offering some infrastructure that might promote community.

When we first moved to Brockport, New York, some of the first friends we met were other parents we navigated on pocket park playgrounds near our home. Our children were around the same age as theirs, we were similarly neurotic about what they were up to on the playground, we seemed to have similar feelings about what other parents ought to be doing with their kids. We didn't discuss this openly. We didn't have to. All this is to say that when we met other parents at the park and decided to try to befriend some of those we met, we shouldn't have been surprised to learn that we shared more in common with them than parenting philosophies. We shared similar upbringings, class backgrounds, levels of education. We even had similar kinds of jobs, politics, aspirations and hobbies.

Annette Lareau's ethnography of class reproduction -- Unequal Childhoods -- tells the story of how U.S. parents from different class backgrounds "parent" in different ways. And it's not the "better" or "worse" story that gets played out in popular culture. All of the parents Lareau studied want to help their kids find happiness and thrive. They just don't go about fulfilling these goals in exactly the same ways. Middle-class family life had a qualitatively different flavor for working-class and poor family life. Lareau refers to the parenting that middle-class parents in her study practiced as "concerted cultivation." As the name suggests, Lareau found that middle-class parents were primarily concerned with cultivating their children's various talents, helping them find and voice their own opinions, reasoning with them and were consistently preoccupied with their children's development. These families were constantly on the go; the children were enrolled in a fantastic array of activities and the families were extremely busy.

By contrast, working-class and poor families had incredibly different daily rhythms associated with their families. Lareau refers to the parenting practiced by working-class and poor families as "the accomplishment of natural growth." It wasn't that these families did not set boundaries for their children; they cared deeply about their children, set limits on their activities and more. But, within these limits, Lareau found that working-class and poor parents provided a lot of room for their children to spontaneously grow. They didn't have the same schedule of organized activities; their kids played outside a lot with other children (often, though not always, outside the watchful gaze of their parents); and the parents were much more likely to use clear directives when communicating with their children than to reason with their kids in the ways Lareau observed middle-class parents doing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles. Concerted cultivation promotes a sense of entitlement that allows middle-class children to learn to navigate institutions seamlessly (as they simply interact with so many from a young age). But they also learn that they can bend the rules in most institutions, make special requests and more. The accomplishment of natural growth, by contrast, might afford children greater independence and may be more likely to produce authentic friendship and community. In network terms, you might imagine the accomplishment of natural growth as producing small, but incredibly dense networks -- the kinds of networks that might help you get a babysitter last minute, let you borrow a car or watch your children while you shop for groceries. Concerted cultivation, on the other hand, seems more likely to foster more extensive networks, stretching far beyond your neighborhood and the community physically surrounding your home -- but, we'd also imagine, given the hectic schedules, these networks are likely to be less dense and ties between friends and families more weak. This might make it harder to find a sitter, but these networks might be ideally situated to help get your child into the college they want and, later on, these networks have been shown to help people find jobs. So, Lareau's study illustrates one small, but incredibly important way that class reproduction takes place.

But, here's the rub: we don't think middle-class families are satisfied yet. The Atlantic recently published a new article on parenting by Hanna Rosin, "Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone!" Rosin joins a chorus of popular critics, psychologists and more about the dangers of "over-parenting." Apparently, parents today are overly-worried about their children's safety, attempting to anticipate and protect children from risks around every imaginable corner. These worries have shifted the landscape of contemporary childhood in a diversity of ways. With Lareau's study in mind, it's probably important to say that when Rosin is talking about "parents," she's not talking about all parents -- just those who practice concerted cultivation.

Rosin writes about a playground-ish area in North Wales that is just shy of an acre of land. Referred to as "The Land," it's a bit different from what you might be thinking when you hear "playground." It's filled with... well, it's full of junk as far as we can tell. Children are running around, jumping on, throwing, breaking and playing with all manner of dangerous items. The older children at The Yard light fires in tin drums, listen to music with explicit lyrics and more. The younger children jump on dirty old mattresses, off of piles of wooden pallets and dirty old car tires and play in the mud. Rosin refers to the area as an "adventure playground." There's an elaborate system of supervision such that very few adults are there. In fact, supervisors are trained to attend to children in the area with a sort of "don't interact unless you absolutely must" rule guiding most of their interactions with children. The adult "playworkers" in The Yard watch the children, but almost never intervene.

The whole idea behind The Yard and adventure playgrounds is that reasonable risks are an important part of childhood development. And, as you might suspect, parents practicing concerted cultivation might have a different assessment of "reasonable" than the creators of The Yard. There's a litany of pop psychology written to middle class parents, not-so-subtly asking them to "back off" a bit and highlighting the benefits for children's development. Dan Kindlon's Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children in an Indulgent Age is among the most popular. While he's not using Lareau's language, Kindlon and others are basically calling middle class parents to check the "concerted-ness" of their cultivation a bit. But, based on the story, we gathered that this was an area in which middle-class children were playing. It's not the U.S., but these are kids who are supposed to be over-scheduled, extremely busy, and "over-parented." And adventure playgrounds exist in the U.S. as well. Here's one in Berkeley -- if you look them up online, you'll find most are in affluent cities with liberal and educated reputations and populations. But, are these playgrounds part of some larger cultural trend wherein middle- and upper middle-class parents are turning to accomplishment of natural growth-model parenting?

We don't think so. We suspect that what might be going on is better termed "the concerted cultivation of natural growth." A close inspection of the pictures accompanying Rosin's article show that the boundaries of The Yard are fences. It's not just unstructured play in which these children engage. That's the sort of activity that Lareau found among working-class and poor children. Rather, we suspect that what's going on here is something more aptly called "structured unstructured play." Children are participating in daring activities -- the kinds that might foster independence and a sense of self-sufficiency -- but this isn't exactly the same thing. There are adult workers around who are there to make sure that children's unstructured play follows an elaborate set of rules for unstructured play designed by a team of experts on the topic.

While Lareau discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the two parenting styles, what we're calling "the concerted cultivation of natural growth" appears to be a style attempting to mitigate the negative side effects of middle-class parenting. For instance, Lareau found that middle-class kids' schedules are so packed that spontaneity is less possible for them, the fights Lareau witnessed among middle-class siblings were more severe, and many of the children were more disconnected from the communities in which they lived (unless some of their various activities happened very close to home). But, this transformation (if such a transformation is actually underway) produces an interesting question -- one that's unanswered in the research as far as we know. Are the benefits of the accomplishment of natural growth possible if you attempt to achieve such a parenting style in a concerted way? Our suspicion is that the concerted cultivation of natural growth won't work in precisely the same way as the accomplishment of natural growth. We're also not certain just how different these practices are from concerted cultivation more generally.

This post originally appeared at Inequality by (Interior) Design