David Brooks on Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods
MARCH 12, 2006
David Brooks has discovered Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods. Through the
miracles of modern blogging those of you who missed the column can read it in the body
of Laura’s post on it. If, like Laura, you’re unnerved in some way by Brooks’s
interpretation, don’t let that put you off the book. He is right about several things, the
main one being that the book is brilliant, and should be read by just about anyone
interested in family life. If you’re a teacher of poor children it will help you understand
what’s going on in the children’s lives; if you’re a teacher of wealthy children it’ll probably
confirm what you already know. If, like me, you’re a parent, it’ll help you reflect on your
own situation. I don’t do anything radically different because of reading the book, but
there are several ways in which I treat my children somewhat differently; in particular
giving them more unsupervised time, and being (even) less interventionist when they
are at odds with each other which, as if by magic, is much less often.
So what does Brooks get right?
The greatest value of the book is in displaying so much of the texture of individual family
lives; displaying and making sense of the texture of real human interactions is what the
best ethnographies do, and this is one of the best ethnographies. She makes a division
of the childrearing strategies she encounters into two ideal types; “concerted cultivation”
and “accomplishment of natural growth”. The families she describes in the book each
fall very firmly on one or the other of these types, and the division is a clear class
division. But your family may not. Reflecting on my childhood (aspirant middle class, UK,
born 1963) I find more of accomplishment of natural growth than of concerted
cultivation. I definitely wanted to see a methodolgically impossible follow up study
comparing families across countries and across different times (was concerted
cultivation the norm in middle class families when my dad was growing up? I don’t
believe so). Still, the distinction is clear and useful.
Lareau is a sociologist, and is reluctant to make normative comment on the practices
she is analyzing. But she makes two really valuable points, one of which I already
understood, the second of which I had spent several months grasping for, and only
crystallized for me when she made it. Brooks gets the second, but not the first and,
therefore, not the importance of the second.
The first point is that the traits that the different parenting strategies foster only have the
impact they do on children’s life chances through interaction with a contingent social
structure that values some traits and not others. This is the key point that Brooks
neglects. Here is Lareau:
This kind of training developed Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of
entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special
requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to
receive attention and to be taken very seriously. It is important to recognize that these
advantages and entitlements are historically specific…. They are highly effective
strategies in the United States today precisely because our society places a premium on
assertive, individualised actions executed by persons who command skills in reasoning
The point that Brooks emphasizes is that it does not follow from the fact that one
strategy of parenting confers better prospects for worldly advantage than the other that
it is a better strategy of parenting. A great deal of value is realized in the relationships in
both kinds of family, and, as Brooks say, a great deal of current value is realized in the
Accomplishment of Natural Growth homes. Siblings fight less, there is a great deal of
unstructured time, there is much less exhaustion and competitiveness. Here, again, is
(Accomplishment of Natural Growth) parents… organised their children’s lives so they
spent more time in and around the home, in informal play with peers, siblings, and
cousins. As a result, the children had more autonomy regarding leisure time and more
opportunities for child initiated play. They were also more responsible for their lives
outside the home.
The working class children:
played outside, creating their own games… They did not complain of being bored…also
appeared to have boundless energy. They did not have the exhaustion that we saw in
middle-class children of the same age.
In both kinds of family:
There were episodes of laughter, emotional connection, and happiness as well as quiet
comforts in every family. Harold MacAllister and his mother laughed together as he
almost dropped his hotdog but then, in an awkward grab, caught it. After a baseball
game Mr. Williams rubbed Alexander’s head affectionately and called him “handsome”
…. These moments of connection seemed deeply meaningful to both children and
parents in all social classes, even as the take different shape by social class, in terms of
language, activity, and character.
So, there’s a lot of good and not a little bad in both kinds of familial relationship (and
those in between). The poor parents face enormous barriers (about which Lareau is
very articulate) in providing well for their children materially and educationally, which
results in their children having less access to future advantage. But that doesn’t make
them bad parents. (Only one parent in the book struck me as really parenting badly,
though I found myself hoping that all the upper-class parents would read it and reflect a
bit on what they were doing).
One final word: Brooks’s final sentence is, as one of Laura’s commenters (def, #22)
points out, disgusting, and has nothing to do with the book. From the fact that A has out-
competed B to reach a certain position, it does not follow that A is not, having achieved
that position, exploiting B. It’s the kind of thing that you say when you want to shield
people from subjecting their own advantages to moral scrutiny.
Education Reform Report
How do upper-class parents prepare their kids for
success in the world?
They talk to them--a lot.
Sociologist Annette Lareau has studied how parents talk to kids. Here's a description
of her book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life:
Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on
in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families,
Unequal Childhoods explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are
the frenetic families managing their children's hectic schedules of "leisure" activities;
and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security.
Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process
of "concerted cultivation" designed to draw out children's talents and skills, while
working-class and poor families rely on "the accomplishment of natural growth," in
which a child's development unfolds spontaneously--as long as basic comfort, food, and
shelter are provided. Each of these approaches to childrearing brings its own benefits
and its own drawbacks. In identifying and analyzing differences between the two,
Lareau demonstrates the power, and limits, of social class in shaping the lives of
The first edition of Unequal Childhoods was an instant classic, portraying in riveting
detail the unexpected ways in which social class influences parenting in white and
African-American families. A decade later, Annette Lareau has revisited the same
families and interviewed the original subjects to examine the impact of social class in the
transition to adulthood.
"It's wrong to say good
parents raise successful
kids and bad parents raise
unsuccessful ones. The
story is more complicated
like their parents,were
easily intimidated by
and pushed around by
teachers and doctors...
working-class kids felt
--David Brooks article in
the New York Times
March 9, 2006
Working class kids
tend to be more
vibrant," and they
One of the big
middle- class and
styles of rearing
children is how
much parents talk
Academic Success for the Poor
March 7, 2013
The Depressing Data on Early Childhood Investment
By: Paul Solman
Jerome Kagan is one of the pioneers of developmental child psychology. But I
interviewed him a few weeks ago with an economic motivation. PBS NewsHour has
begun to explore a virtual reality project designed to help close America's deeply
troubling and widening economic gap -- between those in the bottom rungs of the
income and wealth ladder and those at the top. I explored this in 2011 when I visited
Sesame Street, reporting on the effectiveness of the "marshmallow test." The idea: to
help kids learn to delay gratification and learn how to save, for example. The general
aim: to do better in school, do better in life.
Jerome Kagan was skeptical, however of any short-term technology or test that claims
it can close the achievement and economic gap. He thinks it will take a much more
Jerome Kagan: The income inequality gap keeps on increasing. Joseph Stiglitz, [a
Nobel laureate economist], said in an editorial in The New York Times that for a child
born into the lower fifth of the income distribution of his family, the odds are only 50
percent that he or she will ever rise out of that [lower] fifth. That's all. Just to rise up to
the next fifth. That's terrible and the achievement gap in school is getting worse.
Paul Solman: The achievement gap between richer and poorer?
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Jerome Kagan: Yes, between the affluent and the bottom third of the population. Many
people acknowledge that it has to do with the fact that poor, uneducated parents don't
realize the importance of reading to your child, talking to your child, taking your child to
the zoo. It's not that they dislike it; they don't realize it's important.
The message of Sesame Street is clear. Sesame Street was funded by public funds
with the hope that it would help poor kids. But it helped middle class kids because the
parents sat with them and explained it, and the gap in knowing your letters between
the poor and affluent was bigger after Sesame Street than before.
So it has to do with the failures of parents. Rarely is that in the press because there's
a deep reluctance to blame the victim.
Paul Solman: What is the fundamental problem?
Jerome Kagan: The fundamental problem is that the gap in educational achievement,
which is a key in our technological economy, is due in my opinion -- and the opinion of
many, including Arne Duncan, our secretary of education -- to the fact that the families
of the poor who are not very educated are not talking to their children, interacting with
their children, insisting they do their homework and so on. Should we say it's a failure?
Let's say it's an error of omission.
Paul Solman: You mean that it's poor parenting?
Jerome Kagan: Right, but people don't want to say that. We don't want to blame the
victim. The civil rights movement had a profound effect on the United States and on
the American mind, maybe unique in the world. Once we realized how victimized people
of color had been, an honest empathy went out and that's how we got civil rights
But then it began to spill over into all victims, victims of anything. Don't blame them.
You see it in films such as "The Station Agent," where a dwarf was perfectly
self-sufficient; everybody loves him just because he's a dwarf. Or the movie, "The
Sessions," where a polio victim and all the woman who are around him, including his
sex therapist, fall in love with him.
What I'm suggesting is victims have a badge of virtue about them in modern America.
This was not true in the 19th century. I'm suggesting, speculatively, that there's a
reluctance in the unconscious of the American mind to blame them for anything.
Well, if you can't then write in the press or put on television the importance of parents
changing what they're doing, then the safe way out is to say, "Look, learning
disabilities is probably genes. ADHD, probably genes." And that is the political
alternative to not blaming the victim.
Paul Solman: But we also do not -- in the press for example -- talk about something
that's widely acknowledged in the psychological literature: the importance of heritability
-- of genes -- with respect to intelligence as measured by IQ tests.
Jerome Kagan: Well, no one has found a gene for IQ. "Heritability" means that
identicial twins are more similar than fraternal twins, right? Fraternal twins more similar
than non-siblings. The heritability is 50 percent if your parents went
to college. But if your parents never graduated high school
the heritability is zero. Zero. Eric Turkheimer has proved that [in his 2003
study on how socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children.]
Genes do make a contribution to the IQ score -- but a flower needs soil. The
environment for poor people is so overwhelmingly powerful, it washes out the genetic
effect. There is a genetic contribution to IQ, but you can't detect
it when you're living in a deprived environment.
Paul Solman: In 1969, Arthur Jensen wrote a very controversial piece in the Harvard
Education Review about the heritability of IQ and got all kinds of negative reaction to it.
But he did say clearly that the color of grass -- green -- is 100 percent heritable. If you
put a peach basket over the grass for a few days, it turns brown.
That's what you're emphasizing here?
Jerome Kagan: Yeah, precisely. But all the work on heritability that you're referring to
was never based on looking at genes; it was based on the similarity between identical
twins or between parents and children. Now that geneticists can look at genes, they
can't find genes that account for more than 10 percent of the variation in any human
We know that poor people are not genetically defective. Years ago, three French
psychologists did a very important study. They found poor families in France where the
families were so poor they had to give up the child for adoption in the first year. Ninety
percent of those kids were adopted by middle class professionals: doctors, lawyers,
journalists. The difference in school achievement was enormous. They came from the
same genes. And yet the kids adopted as infants were getting A's and had IQs of 120.
The kids back home were unchanged. So you can change children.
Paul Solman: So what do you do?
Jerome Kagan: This is not meant to be facetious. You change the Congress. You need
a Congress that's willing to invest in changing neighborhoods and improving schools in
the poor neighborhoods. I know it sounds corny, but in this case Obama is right. This
doesn't happen in Finland or Sweden because they make sure that the poorest
schools are good.
Paul Solman: Well, they don't have as many poor people as we do.
Jerome Kagan: That's right. We have a serious problem. I'm not saying you can
remediate it all but we're not doing anything. We're not improving the schools
of poor people.
Paul Solman: When I listen to you talk about how hard it is to do anything, I think,
"Well, it may be a quixotic mission. Why even try?"
Jerome Kagan: I'm arguing in the countries that have tried, it works. Singapore had a
lot of poor people. They've done a good job and their schools for disadvantaged
children are excellent. There is no other explanation for their success because we
know that the poor are not genetically defective.
Paul Solman: But you've got to radically transform the environment?
Jerome Kagan: You can't do it cheap.
Paul Solman: And you can't pussyfoot around with regard to the importance of tough
Jerome Kagan: Right.
Paul Solman: And at the moment we say, "Oh no, we can't go there."
Jerome Kagan: That's right. The family is private.
Paul Solman: But [there] was major interest in Amy Chua's recent book,
"The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom," about the tough Asian
upbringing style. So isn't parenting being focused on as an
important element in ways it wasn't before?
Jerome Kagan: But who was that for? The book said, "You
want to be successful the way Asian students are, then be a
tiger mom." The audience for that was not mothers and
fathers that never graduated high school. I don't think they
know what a tiger mom is.