Friday, June 15, 2007

What American Families Do -- Then and Now

Continuing with Kay Hymowitz in Marriage and Caste in America, she writes about "What American Marriage Does."

Hymowitz rightly rehearses the argument established in the early days of the republic that democracies depend on parents to raise children to be strong, self-reliant citizens. In fact, today, unlike 1776, most governments around the world are republics, or pretend to be. Now more than ever the nation -- the world -- needs parents who make raising good strong children the top priority of their marriage.

To this familiar republican argument Hymowitz adds a new theme: in a knowledge-based economy, children need their parents to really focus on their kids' emotional, social, and especially their cognitive development. The gap between have and have-not families depends more on how parents try to raise their kids -- or don't try -- than it does on sheer money. Annette Lareau, whose work Hymnowitz cites, calls this the difference between the "natural growth" that poor and working class parents leave their kids to, and the "concerted cultivation" practiced by middle class parents.

Any family could practice concerted cultivation. But middle class families, and especially upper middle class families like Hymowitz's (and mine), are much more likely to. The more money a family has, the better they can cultivate their kids, but many poor families find the resources of schools, libraries, community organizations, and religious institutions to make a good effort at concerted cultivation -- if they want to.

And how is this a function of marriage? Hymowitz makes the more evident point that married couples can get more resources for their kids and, especially, divide their labor to better cultivate their kids. Beyond the argument Hymowitz makes, I have been convinced that fathers and mothers tend to cultivate different skills and strengths in kids. Kids benefit greatly from having both fathers and mothers working hard to raise them.

So what American families did -- raise good citizens -- is as politically important as it ever was. What American families do now -- cultivate their kids' knowledge and skills -- is now economically vital, as well. And married families tend to do both jobs better.

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