An interesting new book, Adrie Kusserow’s, American Individualisms: Child Rearing and Social Class in Three Neighborhoods, looks at the ways in which parents and preschools teach the kids of different classes to be “individuals.” She compares children in the upper-middle-class enclave of Manhattan’s Upper East Side with two Queens neighborhoods, one petty bourgeois and one working class. Families in both boroughs want their kids to be individuals, in the good old American way. But how they realize that individuality, and why, differs dramatically by class.
The kids from the bottom classes are taught what Kusserow calls “hard individualism” designed to toughen them up. Parents want their kids to be independent and self-sufficient – within a social hierarchy. Good kids obey their superiors, and show initiative and independence within their assigned role. Within the preschool world, kids compete to climb the ladder to status.
Kids from the top classes learn “soft individualism” in which they express the feelings and creativity that come from their unique selves. Good kids show independence and initiative against any constraints on their imagination. Parents and teachers try hard not be exercise power over the children. Within the preschool world, all are equal and everyone is your friend.
Rich parents want kids to be flexible to take advantage of life’s opportunities;
Poor parents want kids to be flexible to bend with life’s limitations.
The irony of this education is that the curriculum of hard, competitive individualism aims to produce people who will fit in to a fixed structure, and rise within it by following the rules. The curriculum of the soft, egalitarian individualism, on the other hand, is the training for the “masters of the universe” who will sit on the top of the social structure and set the rules that others abide by.