Concerted Cultivation vs. Natural Growth (Annette Lareau)

Annette Lareau is an American sociologist with an interest in parenting, social class and racial issues. Between 1993 and 1995, Lareau and her field workers investigated the daily lives of 88 American families with children. The investigators instructed families to treat them like “the family dog”, accompanying them to sports practice and doctor’s appointments, and spending several days and nights at their homes.

While one might expect the researchers to observe many different styles of parenting, reflecting the diversity of the sample, the parenting styles observed by Lareau and colleagues can in fact be sorted neatly into just two categories. Race appeared to have little effect on parenting, but socio-economic status did. According to Lareau, working-class parents pursued an approach that she called ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ while middle-class families adopted a strategy termed ‘concerted cultivation’.

Children from concerted cultivation households spend much time in after school classes or programmes such as taking piano lessons or being on a football team. Parents in these families are very involved in their children’s free time, shuttling them from activity to activity. Concerted cultivation parents also emphasize negotiation, encouraging their children to question authority figures, including themselves. As a result, children from concerted cultivation homes are accustomed early to structured environments, tend to be less intimidated by authority and acquire a sense of “entitlement”, believing they are “worthy of adult interest” and can “customize” their environment. Lareau gives the example of middle-class ‘Alex’, who is taken to the doctor’s by his mother. In the car, she tells her son that he should not be shy and ask the doctor anything he wants. Alex interacts in a relaxed way with the doctor, asking him questions and even interrupting him when he gets his age wrong and uses a word Alex does not know.

In contrast, children from poorer natural growth homes tend to spend most of their time playing outside with siblings and other children from their area. Parents spend little time at home because they are working, waiting for public transportation or queuing at social service agencies. They do not “schedule” their children’s time or care much about cultivating their children’s talents and interests. Parenting tends to be authoritarian, with children following commands without negotiation. Around authority figures such as teachers, working-class children and their parents tend to be subdued and passive, looking at the ground and not asking questions.

Lareau takes great pains to stress that one style is not “morally better” than the other (indeed, the working-class children often seemed more creative, independent and better behaved). She does claim, however, that children raised by concerted cultivation enjoy a huge advantage in educational and professional settings, having learnt to be organised, confident and articulate.

Coming from a family that is probably somewhere in between these two extremes (although tending towards concerted cultivation), I agree that both approaches have their merits. While the advantages of concerted cultivation are evident, the disadvantages may be less obvious. For instance in her book ‘The Price of Privilege‘ American psychologist Madeline Levine suggests that middle-class children may have more psychological problems than expected, often suffering from depression, drug addiction or anorexia.

Fortunately, there appears to be a middle way. The ‘slow parenting’ movement advocates letting children explore the world independently and opposes ‘over-parenting’. Parents choosing slow parenting are often middle-class and educated, and in my opinion this approach offers a way of dissociating the positive effects of concerted cultivation (self-confidence, entitlement) from the negative effects (lack of creativity and independence). For a practical example, ‘forest kindergartens’, where children aged 3-6 play relatively independently in a wooded area, are often associated with the slow parenting movement. While it has been argued that forest kindergartens do not adequately prepare children for school, Gorges (2004) found that such children showed more knowledge, creativity and social skills than their peers and were better at maths, reading, sports and music.

Links:

The first half of this article reviews Annette Lareau’s book ‘Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life ‘.

http://idler.co.uk/idleparent/ is the website of Tom Hodgkinson, a slow parenting advocate from the UK.

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Posted on February 10, 2012, in Holistic education. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I found this blog very eye opening Kolja.

    During my time in the world of work, I often observed that some individuals were better at climbing the “company ladder” than others. This ability seemed unrelated to intelligence; it was more about conveying confidence, asking questions, and having the ability to express your ideas convincingly; abilities engendered by cultured cultivation.

    I had never considered that parenting style (which as you point out, is often correlated with social class), could affect people’s success in the world of work. But looking back, the people that often seemed most unconfident around figures of authority were often from working class backgrounds, while those best able to integrate themselves with the management and high status employees were often raised in middle class families, where one would imagine concerted cultivation would have been the primary parenting style.

    You point out that middle-class children have more psychological problems than expected, and that no-style is ‘better’. But if the point of education is to equip our children with the tools necessary to flourish and excel in the world of work, and if children exposed to natural growth appear to be less successful in this arena, surely we can conclude that concerted cultivation is a superior parenting method?

  2. I think it’s important to note that Lareau only claims that no style is ‘morally’ better. That concerted cultivation is better from a careers/life-outcome point of view, I think, is not contested by anyone. It is society that makes one style superior to the other, rather than concerted cultivation being somehow ‘inherently’ better. That said, if we trust Lareau’s observations, concerted cultivation appears to come with a cost to creativity, which I think is sad (and probably economically harmful to society as a whole). Also, I personally feel sorry for young children whose lives are ‘overscheduled’. An interesting observation of Lareau is that the intense scheduling associated with concerted cultivation appears to be a relatively recent invention. Of the middle-class parents in Lareau’s original study, none reported having a very active schedule when they were young. So giving children plenty of time for free play appears to have been the norm in the past. In summary, I think it is vital to dissociate the postive social effects of concerted cultivation (bringing children up to question commands and be confident around authority figues) from the negative effects (loss of creativity and, possibly, unhappy childhoods due to overscheduling).

  3. The first half of your article comes straight from Gladswell’s Outliers. That is strange.

  4. It introduced me to characters like Jim Thorpe, the “Galloping Ghost” and the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. Five among the ten games had been played in Dolphin Stadium where as the rest five were played at the Orange Bowl. They are members of the Eastern Division of the American Football Conference (AFC), the National Football League (NFL).

  1. Pingback: Lareau annette | Edollartrade

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