Class In America: The Unspoken Divide
Class & Children’s Activities


   CLASS MEANING              

   CLA$$ ECONOMICS           


   CLASS POLITICS               

   CLASS & CHILDREN          


   CLASS & MED CARE          

   CLASS & GENETICS           

   CLASS & THE ARTS            

   CLASS MOVEMENT             

   CLASS & NUTRITION        

   WELFARE TO WORK         

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Interview with Sociologist Annette Lareau
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The social stratification that exists in the United States affects children as well as adults. In this segment, WKSU’s Vincent Duffy looks at the way class differences affect how we raise our children...

Duffy: Take your average kid in the suburbs, he or she might take piano lessons...Irish step dancing has become popular there’s usually a sport, maybe high school football...add some private French lessons to give them an advantage in school and educational trips to places like the air and space museum...sound frenetic? This is normal. The average middle class kid today participates in four or five activities in addition to school, and if there’s more than one child in the family, things can get very busy, very fast...

Lareau: If the hearth was the center of the home in the 19th century, the calendar is really the center of many middle class homes...

Annette Lareau is a sociologist at Temple University, and the author of “Unequal Childhoods,” which examines how child raising in the middle class is different from lower and working class homes...

Lareau: In middle class families, parents seem to have the notion that their duty is to, in a concerted way, cultivate them. And by that I mean that they foster their children’s talents and skills, enroll them in organized activities and monitor their experiences. The working class and poor families, by contrast, want their children to be safe and happy and they put boundaries around them. In that, they feel that their children spontaneously grow and thrive. So, rather than being involved in organized activities, the children play outside, watch TV, and play with their cousins...and once the kids are in the institutions, it’s really the children’s world. It isn’t the same as in middle class families, where middle class moms, especially, are hovering over, calling the teacher and closely supervising the school experience.

Duffy: But this cultivation of children is creating a situation some mental health professionals are calling “a rat race of hyper scheduling.” Middle class parents, worried about how their children will get ahead, are making sure their kids don’t miss any opportunity that might eventually contribute to their advancement. Sherrie is a mother in Hudson, and says she knows many over-scheduled kids, but tries to limit her own children...

Sherrie: I do see that as an issue in the community, everyone seems to be involved in a lot of things. You know, we’ve picked a sport. I think it is really important that the children have activities after school...that it is not just school. And we’ve chosen athletics. I think it’s healthy for the kids to get physical activity. So, I’m a big proponent on them to be involved with something, but I don’t want them involved in so many things that it is a constant rush and hustle. There seems to be a lot of competition about, “Oh, I’m in this, are you in that?”

Duffy: Matt is the father of a middle class family in Barberton. He also limits his own children’s activities, but knows other families who over do it...

Matt: We are pushing our children harder and harder, and I think children need time to be children. So, what we’ve done in our family is we’ve limited it to one activity. One sports activity and one extracurricular activity. So, my son’s in Boy Scouts and he gets to choose a sport. He can choose track, wrestling, baseball... His friends are in baseball, soccer, basketball—and they’re gone every night of the week, and I don’t think that’s healthy for the family or the child.

Duffy: All the families I spoke with say they limit their children’s activities, but know other families who have too many. Lareau says that’s usually the case...

Lareau: Many parents see themselves as limiting it. For example, one of the families in the book...their son had two soccer teams, a traveling soccer team and an all-star soccer team, and he had piano. But they said, “Oh, we don’t do what our friends do. They drive several hours to a competition for hockey. They’re crazy. We wouldn’t do that.” So, people often compare themselves to others who they see as doing more.

Duffy: Many poor and working class families also see value in extra curricular activities, especially sports. But for Alice, a low-income mother in Akron, the usefulness of the activities is to keep kids out of trouble...

Alice: It is best to keep your child occupied in some kind of sports because kids these days are robbing, into drugs, doing bad stuff. If you keep a child participating in activities, you’ll [help] keep that child off the street. They’ll make an environment [school administration] for a child not to be out in the street, doing wrong, skipping class...

Duffy: But while Alice sees the value in participating in sports, her young children aren’t on any organized’s too expensive. Celina Flunoy runs the Love Inc. Ministry in Akron, and says for lower and working class families, the cost of sports or any other extra curriculars are just too high...

Flunoy: Those types of activities, more and more, they’re paid programs, where you have to pay to be participating. And so the lower class parent obviously isn’t going to have that type of money to pay for his/her child to be in those sports, or to pay for the uniforms or the special shoes they’re going to need.

Lareau: In addition, the working class and poor families [as profiled in “Unequal Childhoods,”] were often skeptical of the kinds of child-rearing that they saw the middle class parents doing. And they felt sorry for kids. They said, “He doesn’t really have a chance to be a kid. He doesn’t get to watch TV. He doesn’t seem to have fun.” So they seem to be judgmental of the frenetic, structured childhoods that many middle class children experience.

Duffy: Children in middle class households also learn to use language differently than in lower and working class homes. Middle class parents are likely to use discussion for discipline rather than physical punishment, and children in middle class homes witness their parents negotiating with authority figures in their daily lives. They learn that “no” means the conversation just isn’t over short, middle class kids whine; something Lareau says is rarely heard in lower class homes...

Lareau: There was almost no whining in working class and poor homes. And children were very polite to their elders, and that was partly because parents insisted on it. They would threaten to hit kids, or to severely punish kids if they were not respectful. But we saw children do things that middle class children would have found intolerable. Like sitting three or four hours in church without complaining. Waiting for an hour for the adults to go, and never saying, “Are we gonna go? I wanna hurry...” The middle class kids would say ugly things to their parents, like, “I hate you! I hate you! Why are you doing this to me?” They would negotiate with them and complain to them. But that was part of the general concerted cultivation, where middle class parents value what children had to say. Then there were situations where the children were protesting and it was part of the family ethos to listen and respect what children had to say, even if it was unpleasant.

Duffy: But while the whining and talking back may be annoying for parents, Lareau says the result is that middle class children grow up with a sense of entitlement, and much better prepared to negotiate institutions...

Lareau: They get the sense that their opinions matter, even though they are eight and nine years old, they expect adults to respond to them and create an individualized program for them in schools and activities. And so the children are being trained to negotiate with people in positions of authority. In the book, I describe a black, middle class boy who I call Alexander Williams. And he’s in the car, driving to the doctor and the mom says, “Now, Alexander, I want you to be thinking of if you have any questions for the doctor.” And Alexander says, “Well, I have some bumps under my arm from my new deodorant.” She says, “Well, you should ask the doctor.” He asks the doctor and, in fact, he corrects the doctor at different points in the doctor-patient visit. While in a poor family we visited that was African-American, there was a girl who was very animated. But when the doctor asked, “Do you have any birthmarks?” She said, “I have a birthmark!” Her mom said, “Will you just cool it?” And so her contributions were not valued and she was not being instructed in how to negotiate with people in positions of authority.

Duffy: Lareau says that the differences in child raising are very distinct between the lower and middle class. Life is hectic and fast-paced in middle class homes, with children’s activities determining the schedule as family members race from one activity to the next. In lower and working class families, children’s lives are more relaxed. Whether because of economics or culture, kids tend to play outside with less adult supervision. There is a separation between the adult world and that of a child. That separation exists in the language of lower class children as well, who defer to adults and authority figures. Middle class children, however, learn to act like little adults. They begin to challenge authority and negotiate at a young age, which may seem rude, but provides advantages in institutions such as school.

—Vincent Duffy

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