- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

I’m far from a parenting expert, and I’ve only been an actual parent for a little under two years. But what does one make of David Brooks’ recent sociology-laden column for the New York Times? (It’s behind the Gray Lady’s subscriber firewall, alas.)

Highlighting the work of sociologist Annette Lareau, Brooks posits a dichotomy between the parenting methods in upper-middle-class homes — his famous Bobo contingent — and working-class homes.

Here are the relevant passages:

Looking at upper-middle-class homes, Lareau describes a parenting style that many of us ridicule but do not renounce. This involves enrolling kids in large numbers of adult-supervised activities and driving them from place to place. Parents are deeply involved in all aspects of their children’s lives. They make concerted efforts to provide learning experiences. …

Working-class child-rearing is different, Lareau writes. In these homes, there tends to be a much starker boundary between the adult world and the children’s world. Parents think that the cares of adulthood will come soon enough and that children should be left alone to organize their own playtime. …

Lareau says working-class children seem more relaxed and vibrant, and have more intimate contact with their extended families. ‘Whining, which was pervasive in middle-class homes, was rare in working-class and poor ones,’ she writes.

But these children were not as well prepared for the world of organizations and adulthood. There was much less talk in the working-class homes. Parents were more likely to issue brusque orders, not give explanations.

The upshot of all this is that Bobo kids, according to Brooks and, by proxy, Lareau, are faring much better in today’s information economy than are working-class kids. I don’t have the data handy to unpack that assertion, but I’m sure it’s true, as far as it goes.

Here’s the thing, though: Doesn’t working-class parenting, at least as it’s described by Brooks, sound like the norm for 20th-century middle-class families? Are the social capital imperatives of the new economy so different from post-war America that the country must radically overhaul its approach to parenting so it looks more like exurban Bobo-stan?

In the parenting-outcome snapshots he provides, Brooks writes that upper-middle-class kids are going on to become doctors while working-class kids are having children out of wedlock and abusing drugs. Which, on its face, is not all that surprising, given that class inequality — and all the social dysfunctions that such inequality entails — is as old as civilization, even in dynamic, mobile America.

But does lower-income parents’ unwillingness to shuttle their children from piano lessons to soccer to swimming and back really belong at the top of the list of aggravating factors?

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