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March 29, 2006

Annette Lareau (III): civic implications

This is my third consecutive post about Unequal Childhoods. Here I explore the book's civic implications, which Lareau does not address very explicitly. Organizing people to address their own problems from the grassroots up is an alternative to all the ideologies I described yesterday, and it might be the best way to solve the problems that Lareau uncovers. However, it's hard to take successful grassroots political action without good civic education, and that is something that children of all classes lack.

All the families Unequal Childhoods have problems that are "political." In other words, they cannot solve their dilemmas without coordinating their efforts with many other families and individuals. For the most part, the problems of the poor and working-class families involve dysfunctional public institutions or a lack of resources and opportunities. For example, one girl in the study has learning disabilities. She is receiving no special help at school. According to the rules of her school district, it would take a minimum of 120 days (out of a 180-day school year) for her to be assigned to special education (pp. 210-1). These rules--at least as Lareau describes them--must be changed; but it takes collective action to change bureaucratic procedures.

In general, the problems that face middle-class suburban families result from competition among themselves, not from underperforming or under-funded institutions. They are very good at obtaining excellent services from schools, doctors, and other organizations. If their schools were unresponsive, they would simply move. Nevertheless, their lives are not idyllic. They rush from activity to activity. If a parent refuses to take her kid to an inconvenient soccer practice, the child will be cut from the team. And if the child is cut from the team, she will lose access to peer networks and learning experiences. One parent says (p. 49) "There's something arrogant about soccer. I mean, they just assume that you have the time, that you can get off work, to lug your kids to games. What if you worked a job that paid an hourly wage?"

One middle-class family struggles with an unmanageable load of homework. As the father says (p. 188), "I dont think I did that much homework in college." This burden could be the fault of teachers; but I suspect the underlying cause is pressure from other middle-class parents. It would take counter-pressure from many families to lower those demands.

As David Moore observed in a comment on Monday, each class would benefit from interacting with the other. The working-class kids miss educational opportunities that the middle-class children take for granted; and the middle-class kids miss opportunities to invent their own activities and manage their own affairs. In the fiction that suburban kids read, the young protagonists always decide what to do from hour to hour--something that only working-class kids actually do. Getting the two groups together would help both--but that, too, would require collective action.

In short, families' most serious problems require political skills to address. To what extent do children learn such skills? Again, it depends on their families' social class. Middle-class kids learn their rights. They know how to understand professionals and institutions and get the most out of them. They exchange information with one another. But they have no experience in organizing collective action and will usually respond to dissatisfaction by simply exiting from an institution--not a solution to all their problems. Working-class kids, meanwhile, learn how to self-organize and mediate conflicts. But they have low expectations of institutions and do not know how to navigate or change them.

In an inner-city school, the phrase "good citizenship" means "restraint ..., avoiding fights, being respectful" (p. 235). In contrast, a middle-class Mom arranges music lessons because (p. 113) "I'm convinced that this rich experience will make him a better person, a better citizen, a better husband, a better father--certainly a better student." Middle-class kids also have a precocious sense of their rights, as reflected in this comment by a fourth-grader: "This is America. It's my prerogative to change my mind if I want to" (p. 130).

Poor and working-class children can organize themselves, because they must fill hours of unstructured time. They "learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize. Children, especially boys, learn how to negotiate open conflict during play" (p. 67). Poor boys "play games that they have devised themselves, complete with rules and systems of enforcement" (p. 80). They thereby obtain "skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing." These are certainly civic assets, and ones that schools usually overlook. However, poor kids lack experience in following organizations' rules and don't know how "to pressure an organization to be responsive to ... individualized needs" (p. 81).

Their parents have great difficulty interpreting institutions. They "merge authority figures into one indiscriminate group. Thus, classroom teachers, resource teachers, librarians, and principals are usually all referred to as 'the school.'" (p. 238). They rarely exchange information with other parents about school policies (p. 214). Above all, they feel powerless and resentful. Ms. Yanelli says (p. 205), "I think, 'Why do you let the school do this to you time after time?"

Meanwhile, middle-class children have been placed in neighborhoods, schools, and organizations that work. Their parents demand excellent and tailored services to meet their "specialized needs" (p. 173). Parents exchange detailed information about schools and other institutions. They also encourage their children to advocate for their own interests, even to the point of interrupting and challenging a physician. "The incivility of interrupting a speaker is overlooked in favor of encouraging children's sense of their individual importance and of affirming their right to air their own thoughts and ideas to adults" (p. 125).

Middle-class children develop skills that will be useful in some forms of political action. They can make speeches, marshal evidence in favor of their views, confidently address adults, work with acquaintances and strangers, and follow and criticize institutional rules. Finally, they are explicitly educated about politics. Their parents read the daily newspaper. In one family, "The African American Baptist church they attend each Sunday includes sermons on social and political issues such as the national debt, welfare policies, and poverty programs. They also discuss political issues at home over the dinner table" (p. 119).

However, the middle-class kids are basically being prepared for white-collar work. Their first strategy, when they are confronted with institutions that don't respond to their needs, will be to "exit" in favor of other options. They have little experience in organizing peers to take collective action.

Lareau cites "Family Life First," an excellent collective effort by parents in Minnesota. Participating parents ask coaches to reduce demands on all kids at once. This is a rare effort and one that goes against the competitive logic of modern bourgeois culture. (It was started, although Lareau doesnt explain this, by Bill Doherty, a family counseling professor who realized that his clients' stress arose from competition and required a political response rather than a therapeutic one.)

March 29, 2006 11:00 AM | category: none

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