Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life - Annette Lareau Everyone thinks they understand the concept of inequality, whether based on economic standing, race, education or environment. But do we really understand? When children are enrolled in the same public school system, (theoretically) have access to the same extra-curricular activities and the same social safety nets, why is there still such a discrepancy. Ms. Lareau explored these issues in her in-depth study of 12 third-graders from various racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Ms. Lareau and her team went into the homes of her subjects, followed the children to school, doctor’s appointments and extra-curricular activities. Acting as “invisible” observers of real life they noted the differences (and similarities) in the attitude of the parents, the children themselves as well as the peripheral people in their lives, such as teachers, coaches and social workers. For the purpose of her study Ms. Lareau chose to name her economic classes as “poor”, “working class” and “middle class”. Her findings and conclusions were interesting and sometimes a little disturbing, but truthfully, not all that surprising.

This book is not the type of book I would reach for on a bookshelf, but a friend (whose opinion on books, among other things, I value and trust) posted an excellent review on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/681109783). When I finished reading his review I started thinking back to when I was raising my daughters and began mentally ticking off the study criteria and conclusions he mentioned in his review. That was the reason I read this book … I wanted to see how I “stacked up” to the norm in the parenting department. Or, in other words, how badly I had possibly “messed up”. Going into the book with that as my sole focus I think my impressions of the book are a little different from someone who may be reading this for educational purposes. I understand that this was an ethnological study and thereby needs clear demographic boundaries. According to the book’s definition I am firmly planted in the “working-class” with the occasional dips of my big toe into “poor” and “middle-class” pools. From my perspective I could relate to many of the issues that were discussed in this book and that made it extremely interesting to read. However, when it came time to listen to the study’s conclusions I found myself disagreeing with the author. Not because her conclusions were incorrect according to her study, or because they painted such a drastic discrepancy between the classes of children, but because she was being statistical and analytical and I was being emotional. That could not be helped; I started reading this book with a personal agenda.

I did enjoy the book. It certainly opened my eyes to many aspects of the inequality the book discusses. I am pleased that I read this edition as it had additional chapters following up on most of the original participants into their adult years. Following the first study Ms. Lareau supplied all the participants with a copy of the original publication. In this edition discusses their reactions to her findings. That was interesting reading, as the feelings were so diverse. The only negative comment I have about the book, and about Ms. Lareau as a sociologist, is that she took an inordinate amount of pages to justify why she did the study in the manner she did, and why she came to the conclusions she did. She became almost apologetic (and, if I dare say it, whiny) in her attempt to explain. I found this unprofessional. Twenty-twenty hindsight is fine if she wanted to discuss the “if I knew then what I know now I would have done it this way …” possibilities, but this was her study, her parameters and her conclusions – she should not feel the need to apologize for her findings.

So what did I take away from this study and this book? I certainly have a better understanding of the why’s behind certain behaviors, actions and decisions. And most importantly, I came to the conclusion that I was pretty upper-middle-of-the-road in the mom department and didn’t mess up too badly.