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A Critical Look at Lareau

Michaela's picture

Annette Lareau’s research for her book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life,” while obviously noteworthy and perhaps groundbreaking two decades ago, does pose some problems as we look at it today. Her choices to include certain participants and exclude others seem to be based solely on whether they could help her check off several boxes that she prescribed for her study. She needed to have a selection of cases where each child was a unique mix of two possibilities for gender, race, and class. This method made it easy for Lareau to classify middle class families into a tactic of concerted cultivation, and working and lower class families into the strategy of accomplishment of natural growth. This is frustrating, because it seems to be much too narrow of a focus, much too literally black and white to really presume to be truly applicable to the larger population. By ignoring factors outside of the strict dichotomy of lower/working and middle class and white and Black, Lareau limits the amount of significance that can be extrapolated from her work.

            By making her book more about class differences, albeit limited ones (the question about what it means to fit into the “middle class” looms), than about differences in race, Lareau is ignoring the link between class and race, which has been tightly tied throughout history as whites have been a dominant force over non-whites. She does acknowledge that it was hard to find a family to fit into her Black middle class category, and that she had to go outside of her two research schools, Swan and Lower Richmond, to find the Williams family, who had enrolled their son Alexander at a private school (351). But, in acknowledging this difficulty, Lareau still fails to address reasons why it may have been so hard, ignoring an important discussion about the intersections of race and class that may make it much harder for Black (or other non-white) families to reach this (ill-defined) “middle class”. As a sociologist, I think that it’s integral to acknowledge not only intersectionality, but also to call out a researcher who violates what I see to be a fundamental principle of studying diversity: nothing is to be taken for natural. By failing to pursue or even entertain some of the sociological, historical, and contextual reasons that there are more families of color who are in the lower socio-economic classes, Lareau plays into a narrative of understanding this discrepancy, based on years of colonization, slavery, and discrimination, as simply the way things are.

            Lareau’s theory, and the holes in her research, play into student experiences because she fails to validate, at least for me, the idea that there are only two ways to grow up: pressured by parents into participating in many out of school activities, or left to play and develop on your own by parents without the time or will to plan for you. In our class small-group discussion about this, we raised the question of whether we felt as though at least one of the children profiled represented our personal upbringing, the answer to which seemed to be a pretty resounding no. Although the type of childhood that one has is obviously based on more than just race, students who are not white or Black are too easily excluded from this. Students who grew up outside of the normative “middle class” or “lower/working class” backgrounds are also not necessarily represented here. But what we found to be the most troubling was that, like with race and class and gender, we had to be just one or the other, concerted cultivation or accomplishment of natural growth. Many of us felt that our families fit into more than one of these–our every minute was not scheduled, but we were given some structure to our time outside of school. While personal experience relating to the theory is not always necessary to validate that theory for readers, when no one feels represented by what is a very personal-story centered study, clearly, there is a problem.

While I would not argue that there are no children who fit into the theory of concerted cultivation or accomplishment of natural growth (clearly, the ones profiled here were made to), and I don’t question Lareau’s description of these two types of child-rearing methods, I do find fault in the simplicity of it all. There are certainly more than two blanketed methods of raising children, just as there are more than two options for race, class, and gender among the spectrum of families globally. By pigeonholing families into her dichotomous research pattern, Lareau is ignoring important differences that make many families different from what she describes. While of course it would have been difficult for Lareau to represent every type of family in her research, it is no excuse for presenting her analysis as broad-spectrum enough to apply to many more cases.