Unequal Childhoods

Unequal Childhoods

Most people today believe that anyone who works hard enough can achieve his or her dreams. However, not everyone has an equal chance of transforming these dreams into reality. Those from higher social classes automatically start with unequal advantages over those from lower social classes. Society is not a meritocracy…no matter how much people try to convince you it is.    

Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction states that an individual is likely to end up in the same class to which he or she was born. Through ethnographic observation of 12 children and interviewing these children and their parents, Lareau explores social reproduction theory in relation to the separate child rearing strategies adopted by higher class and lower class families. She calls the type of child-rearing that middle and upper class parents utilize, ‘concerted cultivation,’ in which parents are more involved in the educational system and pack their children’s schedules with extra curricular activities that will teach them valuable skills necessary for adulthood success. For instance, their activities encourage them to speak to adults, stand up for themselves, and develop time management skills through their activities. On the other hand, working class parents engage in ‘accomplishment of natural growth,’ meaning that they allow teachers to take responsibility for their children’s educational development and support informal, independent, child-centered activities with little adult intervention.

Lareau found that this difference in upbringing led to a discrepancy in adulthood success. Those who were products of ‘concerted cultivation’ mostly matriculated to good universities. Contrastingly, the majority of those who were raised by ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ did not enrolL in college, but rather worked, supported themselves, and/or raised children by their early twenties.

The findings seem to communicate that social mobility is not nearly as possible as we are convinced it is. No matter how smart, talented, and hardworking a poor or working class child is, his or her chances of breaking into the upper class will be significantly lower than that of a simple child born into the upper class. A poor or working class individual should understand that any failures he or she faces is partially due to structural forces beyond his or her control, and not simply a lack of merit. While that may be comforting, recognizing these barriers—that those raised by ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ are inevitably disadvantaged and statistically unlikely to combat social reproduction theory—is also extremely disheartening.

What is the solution? Is there a way to make society more equal—to reward those who demonstrate the most talent and effort, instead of those simply born into fortunate situations?

Perhaps there is not a clear-cut answer. However, understanding Lareu’s research is the first step in achieving greater equality. By being aware of social reproduction theory and the inexistence of a true meritocracy, we can begin to understand the path to changing the situation. For instance, if poor and working class parents learn that not involving themselves in their children’s educational development and not having their children participate in formal extra curricular activities will disadvantage them in the long term, they may wish (if able) to adjust their child rearing strategies. While I do not argue that everyone should adopt the middle and upper class philosophies, it is important to recognize the different methods in order to rectify the situation and provide similar advantages to all children if parents so choose.

Lareau’s confirmation of social reproduction theory can be interpreted pessimistically—i.e. there is little hope of breaking the barriers of class immobility. Or it can be used to generate change. By understanding the existing structural forces, steps can be taken to change the system and take control of our own destinies. 

By Jennifer L. Shulkin





by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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