The smallest details of parenting (breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, sleep training versus attachment, Montessori versus Waldorf) tend to spark the loudest debates. But despite the seemingly endless differences, it seems that parents are far more distinctly and broadly divided. In fact, sociologists have observed two main parenting styles, each with distinct views on the purpose of childhood and the role of the parent. And data that suggests that which style parents practice has everything to do with what they have in the bank.
A Tale of Two Kids and Two Parenting Styles
In her 2003 book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau mines the parental dichotomy via the story of two Black boys: one from an upper middle class family, and another whose family was on public assistance.
One boy, Alexander Williams, lived in a six bedroom house in a middle class neighborhood with his father, a lawyer, and his mother, a high level manager at a major corporation. Alexander participated in soccer, baseball, two choirs, Sunday school, piano, guitar, and school plays. In his limited free time, he sometimes had playdates with friends, who were all his age.
Harold McAllister, on the other hand, lived with his mother and sister in an apartment in a public housing project. He went to one week of bible camp each summer, and the occasional bible study during the year, but otherwise spent most time not in school playing outside with the 40+ neighborhood kids, who ranged in age. While Alexander spent all of his free time in activities organized and directed by adults, the parents in Harold’s neighborhood let kids play by themselves, without constant supervision or direction.
How to Grow a Child
The lives of the two boys illustrated an important point for Lareau: While kids from upper and middle class families are spending record amounts of time in school and other organized, adult-led activities, there’s evidence that working class and poor children still experience a relatively autonomous childhood, in which they make their own fun, largely without their parent’s input.
Lareau came up with a name for the difference in parenting styles she observed. Middle class (and wealthier) parents practiced what she calls “Concerted Cultivation.” The purpose of childhood, according to this parenting style, is to accrue skills that will lead to greater opportunity later on. The role of parents, then, is to nurture the child’s talents through a range of experiences.
Working class and poor parents, on the other hand, tend to subscribe to a philosophy that Lareau dubs “accomplishment of natural growth.” They trust that providing “love, food, and safety” will suffice, and don’t feel obligated to develop their child’s talents. Faced with current material hardships, and seeing a difficult adulthood ahead for their children, working class parents are focused on letting their kids enjoy a more relaxed childhood, protecting them from adult priorities for the time being.
Independence and Dependence
That independence that Harold and kids like him experienced ultimately paid dividends. In recent years, Lareau has followed up with the children she studied, and watched as their diverging childhood experiences played out in their adult lives. By the time they were college aged, the working class kids had a wealth of practical skills that their middle class peers lacked. They could balance a checkbook, do laundry, and find their way to and from school.
Middle class college kids, on the other hand, experienced what Lareau calls a period of “prolonged adolescence.” When the pandemic hit, it was middle class parents who were deciding for their children whether they should come home and how they’d get there. “Their parents ran their lives, in ways that you could argue are not completely developmentally appropriate for kids who are 21 years old,” Lareau says.
Importantly, growing up in a low-income household is far from easy. In fact, it’s linked with a slew of negative consequences ranging from worse health to lower educational outcomes. And Lareau’s follow-up work found that middle class kids came to college with beneficial soft skills. If they were struggling in school, they knew how to ask for help. If they weren’t happy with their grades, they weren’t afraid to challenge them.
Boredom is Strength
While Lareau’s work makes it clear that middle class childrearing leaves little room for childhood autonomy, she found that this wasn’t the intention of middle class parents. Those parents actually strove to raise independent kids, but got in their own way, constantly placing their kids in situations micromanaged by adults.
This careful curating of their kid’s days, however well intended, couldn’t replicate the free, unsupervised play that has been linked to the development of problem solving and social skills, self control, emotional regulation, language development, creativity, lower levels of anxiety and fewer phobias. So while Lareau is careful not to frame one parenting style as better than the other, she acknowledges that the constant parental intervention (especially during later childhood) common to concerted cultivation can lend itself to “a sense of learned helplessness, which is not good for kids,” Lareau says.
She describes a scene in Unequal Childhoods in which Alexander learns he has nothing scheduled on a Saturday, while his Mom is away on a business trip. Facing a day with no planned activities, he is notably upset and whines to his mother. This scenario is not unique. Lareau calls middle kids like Alexander parental dependent, comparing them to ping pong balls that complete one activity and immediately turn to their parents for guidance on what to do next. She found working class kids to be far more independent, occupying themselves without their parent’s help by playing outside and with friends, a skill which Lareau calls “a real strength.”
Does Concerted Cultivation Lead to Depression?
Some experts go so far as to blame the lack of autonomy that middle class kids experience for rising rates of anxiety and depression. Psychologists like Peter Gray, a research professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College and author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, says that without opportunities to play on their own, kids feel out of control of their lives. They’re unable to find opportunities to problem solve, make decisions, follow rules, practice self control, and learn how to get along with others, which is strongly correlated with anxiety and depression.
“In school and in other adult-directed activities, adults decide what children should do and how they should do it, and adults solve the problems that arise. But in play, children themselves must decide what to do and how, and they must solve their own problems,” Gray writes. “In play, children learn to control their own lives and to manage the physical and social environment around them…they also learn and practice many of the skills that are central to life in their culture and thereby develop competence and confidence.”
Gray cites the research of psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies whether young people feel in control over their lives, and observed a decline in this sense of control over recent decades. She attributes her findings to, among other things, a shifting cultural focus from intrinsic goals, like making friends or getting good at a hobby one enjoys, to extrinsic ones, like getting good grades or finding financial success.
There’s no definitive research to confirm the link between the two phenomenon, but there’s no question something about the way middle class kids are living is extremely stressful. A 2019 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine named five categories of children that are at risk for poor health. Four of them, children living in poverty or foster care, those with an incarcerated parent, and those who had recently immigrated, were regulars on the list. But there was a new category of at-risk children: those in high achieving schools.
Trying Natural Growth
There will likely be limits to what parents can do in communities where everyone else is practicing concerted cultivation. If there aren’t any kids playing outside in your neighborhood, sending your kid outside to play can only do them so much good. But Lareau says the key is for parents to step back and let their kids fail. Parents might even stop short of intervening when, given the opportunity to decide how to entertain themselves, kids choose screen time.
“That anti-TV ethos — ‘I don’t want them sitting home on TV all weekend’ — that’s very much a middle class view,” Lareau says.
Yes, for many parents, the idea of giving a child unstructured time feels radical. And it might be. But what Lareau’s research seem to suggest is that sometimes parents may need to make radical choices for the good of their kids, even if it means letting go of the plough for a little while.