The Norman Transcript

February 14, 2014

Lareau says class differences affect upward mobility

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Child rearing may cast a long, powerful shadow over one’s upward mobility, according to research on classes differences.

Inequality and the American family was the focus of Dr. Annette Lareau’s lecture Thursday night. Lareau spoke as a guest of a University of Oklahoma Presidential Dream Course.

Lareau is the author of “Unequal Childhoods, Unequal Adults: Class, Race and Family Life.” She is the Stanley I. Sheerr professor of social sciences and professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She also is the president of the American Sociological Association.

Her award-winning book is based on participant observation of families with children in the third and fourth grades. “Unequal Childhoods” demonstrates that middle-class parents seek to develop their children’s talents and skills through a series or organized activities, reasoning and language development and close supervision of their experiences in school.

Lareau’s original study looked at 12 families of working and middle-class families. The study consisted of 20 visits in one month, with each visit lasting two to three hours. Performing the study, Lareau’s team found their presence had an impact on behavior, but that impact subsided over time.

The biggest differences Lareau found between working and middle-class families was time use, language use and intervention in institutions.

As an example, Lareau described one visit to the doctor with a middle-class family in which the child was encouraged to ask the doctor questions. Lareau compared that to a doctor’s visit with a working-class family in which the child was told to be quiet throughout. Her findings demonstrated that in that instance, the level of trust the parents had was different and that the middle-class child was taught a sense of entitlement.

Ten years after her original study, Lareau performed a follow-up study to see if her findings were consistent and had the same impact on young adulthood. Lareau said her follow-up study suggests that class differences continue and grow in significance.

Lareau said the differences between classes is most prominent in how they interact with institutions. Middle-class parents try to foresee and forestall potential problems and enhance experiences, while working-class parents are not proactive in working with institutions such as school or a sports team.

Lareau described Wendy Driver, from a white, working-class family, as believing her parents were awesome and very active in her life.

Lareau said her follow-up study suggests that while Driver’s parents were very active in ascertaining the commitment of Driver’s fiancee, planning her wedding and providing transportation and child care, they weren’t active in her interaction with institutions.

Lareau said when Driver went to community college and had a problem concerning her classes, she never thought to ask her parents.

“At 18, Wendy said, ‘I’m 18. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.’ This is very similar to when Wendy was in third grade and the school discussed putting her in a different class due to a learning disability and her mother was cautious and did not want to step in to the discussion,” she said.

At the end of her second study, Lareau said no one from her original study who was from a working-class family was upwardly mobile.

Lareau said resistance to studies of social class persist because most Americans consider themselves to be middle class and more attention is placed on racial cleavages, but her studies have proven class difference has a lasting impact.

“Class remains important in child rearing, and we need to have more conversations about the differences in class,” Lareau said.

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