In light of this Free Range story about the mom who was accosted by police for allowing her 10-year-old to walk by himself to soccer practice, Slate had a long series of posts about “helicopter parenting.”
The different writers seemed to agree that more parents today are hovering over their children and scheduling their free time to the point kids do not know how to function as adults in college. But throughout the high-brow discussion, the differences in attitude among low-income and middle-class parents continuously came up: Are poor families less likely than upper middle income families to be helicopter parents, therefore raise better adjusted children? Or, is the opposite true?
This research in an old New York Times Magazine article about the achievement gap between black and white and poor and middle-class students cited by Slate’s Emily Bazelon was eye-opening and really adds another element to this debate:
Another researcher, an anthropologist named Annette Lareau, has investigated the same question from a cultural perspective. Over the course of several years, Lareau and her research assistants observed a variety of families from different class backgrounds, basically moving in to each home for three weeks of intensive scrutiny. Lareau found that the middle-class families she studied all followed a similar strategy, which she labeled concerted cultivation. The parents in these families engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.
The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.
In her book “Unequal Childhoods,“ published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. … Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.“ Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.“ But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth“ disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.
To this, I refer to the “mommy gut.” In the case of the mom at Free Range Kids, clearly she is a “concerted cultivating” type who enrolled her child in soccer and even admitted she is a bit of a “helicopter parent.” It is understandable why she would resent a lecture from a police officer in allowing her child to walk a third of a mile from their home. I think, generally, everyone on this site would fall into this realm.
For me, personally, I think my family has struck a good balance between scheduling activities and having a lot of free time. (At 5, Ari is not at an age where he can roam the streets alone.) There are many kids at Ari’s school who have scheduled activities every day after school. We are talking Chinese class, piano lessons, karate, gymnastics, etc.. I have taken my cue from Ari who has successfully completed a once a week cooking class he was sad to see end and is now enrolled in an art class taught by the same teacher, who also happens to be his daytime teacher. He works well in quiet activities with people he knows.
On other afternoons he spends time with friends, playing video games or watching TV. The latter two are in limited amounts, which I attribute to the fact my husband and I fortunate enough to work from home. I do think having resources, like time, helps and definitely guides the choices we make as parents.
What do you think about all this talk about helicopter parenting, or excuse me, “concerted cultivation?” Surely, there is a difference between those two as well.