Friday, March 30, 2007

You Have to Choose How to Raise Your Kids, Even If You Don't Want To

Sociologist Annette Lareau studies how the different home lives of middle class and working class kids gives an advantage to the middle class kids in school, in dealing with other professionals, and in later life. The middle class parents are more likely to engage in "concerted cultivation" of their children's lives. Parents help kids fill every minute with structured activities, which all work in concert in the larger project of cultivating the child's talents. Working class parents, by contrast, are more likely to give their kids much more control of their free time to promote what Lareau calls their "natural growth." From the middle class perspective, the working class kids grow up with stunted potential. From the working class perspective, the middle class kids grow up with no childhoods.

When parents today are faced with the question of how much they should try to structure their children's time, they (we) often think back to our own childhoods. In most cases, parents today grew up with less structured lives than most middle class children today do. Mrs. G. and I are tempted to not schedule our kids so that they can have a life and do what they want. As I reflect on the difference between my early adolescence and my son's, though, some crucial differences emerge. Sure, I watched lots of stupid cartoons. But there were not enough TV options, and no computer options, to keep me from reading or playing outside all the time. My son, on the other hand, could play "World of Warcraft" 24/7. That is, in fact, his plan for the summer. If we choose no structure at all for his time, the choice will be made for us by the "new media."

Even if you don't want to structure every moment of your child's life, not to choose is to make a choice. The culture will rush in to fill the vacuum.

Even natural growth requires concerted cultivation.


Mark Smith said...

I am so glad that I'm not growing up today.

One trap that parents can fall into is never giving up that control. My wife gets agitated by "helicopter parents", who involve themselves in their children's lives in college and beyond. I've heard of cases where a parent went along on a job interview after college!

Gruntled said...

Of course, many helicopter parents have, as my daughter calls them, "helicopter kids," who look to their parents for guidance.