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.
The first half of this article reviews Annette Lareau’s book ‘Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life ‘.
is the website of Tom Hodgkinson, a slow parenting advocate from the UK.