People would tell me it was because so many parents were working, but then I would look around at the handful of parents at a PTA meeting and realize that almost all of those parents were working, too, so that didn't seem to be the complete answer.
People would tell me it was because parents didn't speak English, but then I would think about the demographics* and realize that at least 50% of the parents were native English speaking, 450+ families that is, and so that didn't seem to provide the answer, either.
I tried not to take it personally (because I was White while the majority of the parent body was not), but I just couldn't figure it out. I felt frustrated because I wanted things to get better and I didn't know how to make it happen. The usual techniques were falling flat!
Because I needed it to make sense, I began a personal quest several years ago so I could understand this phenomenon. I discovered a book that has provided me with some of the answers, “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life” by Annette Lareau (2003).
If you are a middle class person interested in understanding poor and working class families, you should read this book. Then you should reflect on how you personally approach childrearing, in actuality or in your mind's eye. Your middle class assumptions about how it is "supposed to be done" will become apparent to you.
Here are a few of my notes from Chapter 1 to give you an idea of what Lareau has identified.
Point #1: Lareau has determined that there is a “cultural logic of childrearing” that differs between the social classes.
Middle class parents:
- For middle class parents, less effort is needed to provide basic support (food, housing, transportation, and other necessities).
- The parenting style of middle class parents results in concerted cultivation of the child.
- Middle class parents create and provide a steady diet of organized activities for their children. These activities stimulate the child’s development and foster cognitive and social skills.
- Middle class children miss out on leisure time and kin relationships.
- Middle class parents make sure their children have experiences that cultivate their talents and give them any opportunity that might contribute to their advancement.
- Middle class parents talk more with their children. This develops greater verbal agility, produces larger vocabularies and creates more familiarity with abstract concepts. They learn to question adults and address them as relative equals. Children become more comfortable with authority figures. The emphasis is on reasoning.
Working class and poor parents
- For working class and poor parents, more effort is needed to provide basic support (food, housing, transportation, and other necessities).
- The parenting style of working class and poor parents results in natural growth of the child.
- Children experience long stretches of leisure time and child initiated play.
- Working class and poor parents do not create and provide a steady diet of organized activities for their children.
- Extended family typically lives nearby. Children are likely to have daily interactions with kin.
- Working class and poor parents do not consider the concerted development of children an essential aspect of good parenting.
- Working class and poor parents create clear boundaries between themselves and their children. They tell their children what to do rather than persuade them with reason. The crucial responsibilities of parenthood do not include eliciting children’s feelings, opinions and thoughts. The emphasis is on directives.
Point #2: Because of the differences in parenting styles, children from different social classes develop different types of social competencies.
Middle class children
- learn the “rules of the game” that govern interactions with institutional representatives (eye contact, shaking hands, etc.)
- learn by imitation and training how to make rules work in their favor.
- learn to share information and ask for attention.
Working class and poor children
- learn to have less eye contact than middle class children when conversing.
- learn to be unobtrusive and subordinate when they are around adults.
- learn to organize their leisure time because it is in their control. They spend long periods of time away from adults.
I will periodically refer to Lareau's findings because they reveal so much. In the meantime, I have questions about the future of public education.
As Lareau discovered, middle class parents talk more with their children. Their children develop greater verbal agility, larger vocabularies and more familiarity with abstract concepts. These children learn to question adults and address them as relative equals. They become more comfortable with authority figures. The emphasis is on reasoning.
On the other hand, working class and poor parents create clear boundaries between themselves and their children. They tell their children what to do rather than persuade them with reason. The crucial responsibilities of parenthood do not include eliciting children’s feelings, opinions and thoughts. The emphasis is on directives.
The two approaches to childrearing, and the two outcomes manifested in the children, are very different.
Question #1: Can middle class kids and working class/poor kids have their educational needs met at one school, or do they need to be placed in two different schools where their two different educational needs can be best addressed?
Question #2: If kids are kept together and if the school wants to be effective for both sets of students, how should they do it -- blend the two approaches, dovetail them, or place them side-by-side?
Question #3: If children from different social classes are separated from each other to maximize the attainment of their educations, what does that do to the concept of "public education" and what effect will it have on the ability of Americans to relate to different groups within our society over the long run?*The school's demographics during this time were: Asian=26%, Latino=24%, African American=38%, White=8%, Free/Reduced Price Lunch=63%, student enrollment=906+ (2004 figures)