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Unequal Childhoods

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

Annette Lareau
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 2
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Unequal Childhoods
    Book Description:

    Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families, Unequal Childhoods explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are the frenetic families managing their children's hectic schedules of "leisure" activities; and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security. Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process of "concerted cultivation" designed to draw out children's talents and skills, while working-class and poor families rely on "the accomplishment of natural growth," in which a child's development unfolds spontaneously-as long as basic comfort, food, and shelter are provided. Each of these approaches to childrearing brings its own benefits and its own drawbacks. In identifying and analyzing differences between the two, Lareau demonstrates the power, and limits, of social class in shaping the lives of America's children. The first edition ofUnequal Childhoodswas an instant classic, portraying in riveting detail the unexpected ways in which social class influences parenting in white and African American families. A decade later, Annette Lareau has revisited the same families and interviewed the original subjects to examine the impact of social class in the transition to adulthood.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94990-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Concerted Cultivation and the Accomplishment of Natural Growth
    (pp. 1-13)

    Laughing and yelling, a white fourth-grader named Garrett Tallinger splashes around in the swimming pool in the backyard of his fourbedroom home in the suburbs on a late spring afternoon. As on most evenings, after a quick dinner his father drives him to soccer practice. This is only one of Garrett’s many activities. His brother has a baseball game at a different location. There are evenings when the boys’ parents relax, sipping a glass of wine. Tonight is not one of them. As they rush to change out of their work clothes and get the children ready for practice, Mr....

  6. CHAPTER 2 Social Structure and Daily Life
    (pp. 14-32)

    The families described in this book created their lives within a specific social context. They did not build the roads they rode on, hire the teachers who taught in the schools their children attended, decree which parks would be well maintained, decide how rapidly the city would clear snow from the streets, establish the values of the homes on their street, or compose the racial, ethnic, or social class balance of their schools or neighborhoods. Nor did they determine the availability of high-paying jobs in the area, set the education and skills required to fill those jobs, pace the growth...


    • [PART I. Introduction]
      (pp. 35-37)

      SOCIAL CLASS DIFFERENCES IN CHILDREN’S life experiences can be seen in the details of life. In our study, the pace of life was different for middleclass families compared to working-class and poor families. In the middle class, life was hectic. Parents were racing from activity to activity. In families with more than one child, parents often juggled conflicts between children’s activities. In these families, economic resources for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, children’s activities, and other routine expenses were in ample supply. Of course, some parents often felt short of money. At times they were not able to enjoy the vacations...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Hectic Pace of Concerted Cultivation: Garrett Tallinger
      (pp. 38-65)

      Mr. Tallinger’s elation over an evening with no prior commitments is testimony to his family’s hectic pace. His reaction highlights the degree to which the concerted cultivation of children controls adults’ leisure time. Both Don Tallinger and his wife, Louise, work full time in professional jobs with travel requirements. Their three children, Garrett (a fourthgrader), Spencer (a second-grader), and Sam (a preschooler), are enrolled in a variety of activities. On any given weeknight or weekend day, one, two, or sometimes all three of the boys have events, often at different times and in different parts of town. Organized sports are...

    • CHAPTER 4 A Child’s Pace: Tyrec Taylor
      (pp. 66-81)

      For nine-year-old Tyrec Taylor, organized activities were an interruption. In contrast to Garrett Tallinger, Tyrec centered his life on informal play with a group of boys from his Black, working-class neighborhood. Aside from going to school and to summer day camp, Tyrec took part in only two organized activities: he went to Sunday school periodically throughout the year and to Vacation Bible School in the summer. In fourth grade, he pleaded with his mother for permission to play on a community football team that he learned about through a friend. Eventually, Ms. Taylor relented and agreed that he could join...

    • CHAPTER 5 Children’s Play Is for Children: Katie Brindle
      (pp. 82-104)

      In middle-class homes, adults treat children’s activities seriously. A request for help is not likely to be waved aside. Since parents in these homes often are preoccupied with their children’s lives, things that are important to children can easily become major events for their parents as well. This in turn increases the pressure on children to succeed (recall how Mr. Tallinger yells to “encourage” Garrett during a soccer game). Middle-class parents follow up on children’s interests, often by enrolling them in organized activities, but also by watching impromptu skits or joining in backyard ball games or playing word games with...


    • CHAPTER 6 Developing a Child: Alexander Williams
      (pp. 108-133)

      In a quiet street in a largely Black, middle-class neighborhood in a major northeastern city stand large, old, stone houses with expansive porches and sweeping lawns. Alexander Williams lives in one such six-bedroom home. He is the only child of a middle-class African American couple. His parents, Christina Nile and Terry Williams, met when they were students at a small, predominantly white, religious college in the South. They had been married ten years before Alexander was born. Alexander’s mother uses her maiden name, Christina Nile, at work, but she goes by Mrs. Williams at church. A tall woman with honey-colored...

    • CHAPTER 7 Language as a Conduit for Social Life: Harold McAllister
      (pp. 134-160)

      Off a busy street, a few blocks from a small business area, lies the Lower Richmond public housing project. Since the road to the housing project dead-ends, and most who live or visit there do not own cars, there is little traffic. Few people wander accidentally through. All the residents are African American, and so is much of the surrounding area (the project edges a large swath of the city that consists exclusively of Black neighborhoods). A white working-class neighborhood is within walking distance, however. The housing project is considered a dangerous area; local businesses, including the pizza parlor, refuse...


    • [PART III. Introduction]
      (pp. 161-164)

      CHILDREN DO NOT LIVE THEIR LIVES out within the walls of the home. Instead, they move out into the world. They are required by law to go to school, and school is a powerful presence in their lives. Many children, as I have shown, have organized lives chock full with activities run by adults; other children have a slower-paced life wherein they hang out with cousins, watch television, and play outside. As children move out of the radar screen of the home environment, parents do not differ by social class in their love and concern for them. As the cases...

    • CHAPTER 8 Concerted Cultivation in Organizational Spheres: Stacey Marshall
      (pp. 165-181)

      All families interact with many different institutions. For middle-class mothers, the boundaries between home and institutions are fluid; mothers cross back and forth, mediating their children’s lives. When Ms. Marshall, a middle-class African American mother, discovered how unhappy her tenyear-old daughter, Stacey, was after her first gymnastics class in a private program, she did not hesitate to intervene. Almost seamlessly, the daughter’s problem became the mother’s problem. Ms. Marshall firmly believed that it was her responsibility as a parent to ensure that Stacey’s activities provided an opportunity for positive, self-affirming experiences. Like other middle-class mothers we observed, Ms. Marshall acted...

    • CHAPTER 9 Concerted Cultivation Gone Awry: Melanie Handlon
      (pp. 182-197)

      In the middle class, children’s activities outside of the home often penetrate deeply into the heart of family life and in so doing create opportunities for conflict. For the Handlons, it is homework that poses the most consistent threat to household harmony. Homework conflicts occur, or are mentioned, during virtually every visit field-workers make to the Handlon home. Ms. Handlon’s observation that “life would be easy” if it weren’t for homework sums up the enormous impact the issue has on this family.

      Like the Tallingers, Marshalls, and Williamses, the Handlons have important forms of social, economic, and cultural capital. They...

    • CHAPTER 10 Letting Educators Lead the Way: Wendy Driver
      (pp. 198-220)

      Across all social classes, parents pay close attention to their children’s education. Working-class and poor parents are no less eager than middleclass parents to see their children succeed in school. They take a different approach to helping them reach that goal, however. As Wendy Driver’s mother indicates in the quote above, working-class and poor parents often fear doing “the wrong thing” in school-related matters. They tend to be much more respectful of educators’ professional expertise than are their middle-class counterparts. Thus, working-class and poor parents typically are deferential rather than demanding toward school personnel; they seek guidance from educators rather...

    • CHAPTER 11 Beating with a Belt, Fearing “the School”: Little Billy Yanelli
      (pp. 221-232)

      When the founders of the country were raised, children were routinely disciplined by physical force. By the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, dominant child-rearing ideology suggests the importance of reasoning with children and giving children “appropriate choices.” Compared with earlier historical times, authoritarian child-rearing methods, particularly disciplining children through corporal punishment, have fallen out of favor.

      Yet compliance with professional standards varies systematically rather than randomly. Parents who use belts are at risk for being considered abusive much more than parents who engage in verbal abuse of children (i.e., a mother who tells a child...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Power and Limits of Social Class
      (pp. 233-258)

      At the end of fifth grade, the children looked forward with trepidation and excitement to their transition to being with “big kids” in the local middle school. Lower Richmond and Swan schools each separately marked this life transition with a graduation ceremony, held on hot, sunny days in June. At Lower Richmond, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the ceremony, particularly on the part of the children and their families. Many parents arrived at school carrying bouquets of flowers and clusters of circular, shiny silver balloons emblazoned with phrases such as “CONGRATULATIONS GRADUATE!” Mothers, especially African American mothers, were in starched,...


    • [PART IV. Introduction]
      (pp. 259-262)

      FIFTH-GRADE GRADUATION IS A LONG time ago now. As the young boys and girls traveled through middle school into high school and beyond, they not only grew taller—Garrett Tallinger is now well over six feet—but also took on the concurrent signs of adulthood: some of them acquired tattoos on their arms or backs, the young men’s voices deepened, and young women—like Melanie Handlon—emulated fashion magazines with their trendy hairdos and bright nail polish. They varied in their personal styles. Some dressed fashionably and some favored Tshirts and jeans. But, unquestionably, they all became young adults.


    • CHAPTER 13 Class Differences in Parents’ Information and Intervention in the Lives of Young Adults
      (pp. 263-311)

      The children inUnequal Childhoodscame of age in unsettled economic times. Had they been born decades earlier, when the United States had a strong manufacturing economy, job prospects for those with a high school diploma (especially young men) would have been much brighter.¹ As economies have become global, the United States has lost many relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs to workers in other countries.² Overall, the supply of “good jobs”—ones with high wages, health benefits, vacation time, and pensions—in the American labor market is dwindling; meanwhile, the number of “bad jobs”—those with low wages and no benefits...

    • CHAPTER 14 Reflections on Longitudinal Ethnography and the Families’ Reactions to Unequal Childhoods
      (pp. 312-332)

      In qualitative research, the way the researcher acts in the field is inextricably connected to data quality. Thus, by tradition qualitative researchers often share the “story behind the story.”¹ Throughout my career, I have contributed to this tradition by sharing the missteps that are inevitable in a research project.² As part of the second edition, I once again share some of the more problematic details, which otherwise would remain private, of my methodological decisions and my experience conducting the longitudinal research. I also summarize and discuss the reactions of the families to the book.

      I present this information for three...

    • CHAPTER 15 Unequal Childhoods in Context: Results from a Quantitative Analysis
      (pp. 333-341)

      As social behavior shifts, new cultural forms arise. For example, many of the characteristics of the middle-class mothers described in the first edition ofUnequal Childhoodshad become so prevalent that as the research for that edition was underway, a new term—“soccer mom”—entered the national vocabulary. In addition to prompting the development of new terminology, changes in family life reverberate through the culture in other ways. In recent years, elaborate “mom organizer” calendars have flooded the marketplace. These calendars have columns available for entering each child’s schedule, color-coded schemes for keeping track of each family member’s commitments, and...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 342-344)

    The children ofUnequal Childhoodshave grown up. They are scattered, not only to different cities, but to different positions within our country’s system of social stratification.¹ In the five years since I followed up with the study participants, the gaps between them have continued to widen. Garrett Tallinger has recently started a career as an account executive. Alexander Williams is now in medical school. Stacey Marshall has left behind her plan to become a physician and is getting a doctorate in the humanities. Not all of the middle-class youth are professionals: Melanie Handlon is a hair stylist. But in...

  12. APPENDIX A. Methodology: Enduring Dilemmas in Fieldwork
    (pp. 345-360)
  13. APPENDIX B. Theory: Understanding the Work of Pierre Bourdieu
    (pp. 361-364)
  14. APPENDIX C. Supporting Tables
    (pp. 365-376)
  15. APPENDIX D. Tables for the Second Edition
    (pp. 377-384)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 385-428)
  17. Revised Bibliography
    (pp. 429-452)
  18. Index
    (pp. 453-461)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 462-462)