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Sociology as Class War

I just finished Andrew Cherlin’s new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America [1]. It’s a solid piece of historically-informed synthesis.

But it’s also full of examples of my least-favorite feature of contemporary sociology of the family. Because almost all writing that gets labeled “sociology” is done by members of the overeducated elite, the values common among that elite are taken for granted and treated as objectively correct, whereas values common in working-class or poor communities are pathologized. “Good parenting,” for example, is defined as parenting the way the upper class does it.

This gives sociology an unpleasant us-helping-them flavor. Bad enough when elites try “teaching folk songs to the folk [2]“; must they now teach Ivy League fight songs to the folk?

None of these progressive sociologists would dream of suggesting that the rich are better—but all their solutions for the problems of the poor turn out to be attempts to make the poor act and think more like the rich, and never the other way around. Or they suggest, as I said about [3] 2010’s Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture [4], that “poor or nonelite Americans [are] simply elite Americans without the resources to act on the values they obviously share with the authors.”

Here’s an especially egregious example from Cherlin, in which another sociologist, Annette Lareau, phrases something in a way critical of upper-class mores and Cherlin straight-up rephrases it to turn the criticism into praise. Cherlin summarizes Lareau’s research findings like this:

The middle-class [parenting] style of cultivation entailed verbal reasoning and negotiation between parents and children; organizing out-of-school activities and transporting children to and from them; and intervening in schools to ensure that their children were treated well. The “natural growth” style [of working-class parents], on the other hand, entailed verbal directives issues to children without much questioning or negotiation; unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time; and reluctance to confront and question authorities such as teachers. The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as encouraging independent acting and thinking—just the kinds of skills that can be used to obtain and succeed at a high-paying job.

Emphasis very much added. Who’s this “we”? As someone who was lucky enough to spend much of her childhood in “unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time,” but also has a pretty strong and unpleasant sense of entitlement as a result of privilege, I think Lareau was closer to right than Cherlin.

It’s possible to do sociology which questions elite morality. Kathryn J. Edin and Maria Kefalas’s truly excellent [5] 2005 Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage [6] allows the women they interviewed to speak for themselves, at length, and takes their moral beliefs seriously. Edin and Kefalas found that the women they studied (who were also their neighbors, which is why the book is so good) felt sorry for them because they had no children. These women believed that you shouldn’t wait too long to have kids. Children brought hope and joy into neighborhoods where people were often tempted to despair. Edin and Kefalas were able to accept this critique of their own delayed-marriage, delayed-childbearing lifestyle.

And Cherlin himself offers praise for one non-elite community: He shows obvious respect for the “caring self” fostered by black communities. But that’s an exception; throughout most of the book elite values are assumed to be best.

If you’re a progressive (or anyone, really) doing sociology of the family, and you can’t name at least three major, substantive issues on which poor people are more likely to be right than rich people, you probably have not discovered an objective morality which just happens to line up with the values of the contemporary elite. You are, instead, an unwilling covert operative in the class war—fighting on the side of the rich.

So I’ll lay some of my cards on the table. It’s obviously a massive generalization to suggest that there’s a common “working-class” or “poor community” culture—in fact, one of the best contributions of Cherlin’s book is his delineation of the many ways in which working-class and less-educated people have adopted beliefs and practices which began as upper-class norms. But here are some things I believe which go against the norms of my own overeducated class. This list is not exhaustive:

The point here isn’t that I want you to agree with me about each of these specific moral claims. Most of them can be abused. Some of them become much shakier when other elements of a coherent moral worldview are absent—delaying marriage but not childbearing isn’t the best possible path. And, most important, as a Christian I believe that “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a central part of the moral life. My task is to love and serve regardless of what other people do, not come up with rules for how others should conduct themselves.

But as a Christian I also believe that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven. Why do progressive sociologists keep greasing the camel?

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com [9], and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith [10].

Follow @evetushnet [11]

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "Sociology as Class War"

#1 Comment By collin On January 16, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

These are aspects lost on a lot of liberals but the most interesting point, “It’s okay to marry young. It’s okay to have children before you’re financially stable.”

Isn’t one of the biggest problems:
1) Working class wages have stagnated since 1974 and it is taking longer for people to become more stable.
2) Most working class jobs need more flexibility in scheduling. A technician or nurse aid to work often have to work weekended and nights making a stable life increasing hard. (At this point most studies show women incomes are decrease if they have children and I suspect less flexible working hours is one reason for this.)

3) I don’t think liberals are not just thinking that marrying later is necessary for success. However, studies have shown couples that marry 23 or older get divorced less. There is evidence that being more career settled improves your marriage success.

#2 Comment By Ludovic On January 16, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

‘The “natural growth” style [of working-class parents], on the other hand, entailed verbal directives issues to children without much questioning or negotiation; unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time; and reluctance to confront and question authorities such as teachers. The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as encouraging independent acting and thinking’

This observation, which is fairly commonsensical, might go a way in explaining some of the relative lack of academic, professional (even among those students with the natural aptitude) among, for example, certain Hispanic groups or African-Americans in the U.S.

Obviously economic status is a predominant factor, but it nevertheless seems the case that a parenting ‘style’ that encourages or even inculcates mental and psychological flexibility, dynamism, and confidence (along with a healthy dose of exposure to stress, as in the case of regimented sports) would be a significant life-advantage over a more reflexive reactivity to routine parental diktat, especially since such relatively authoritarian roles depend to a significant degree on the elicitation in the child of an emotionalism heavily colored by anxiety, trepidation, even fear and are therefore essentially contrary to states and habits of analysis, reflection, and intellectual tranquility, inquiry and confidence. Children so raised would logically be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis those raised in the more ‘middle class’ manner, which, I surmise, may likewise engender a more developed conceptualization of and defense against psychological (namely emotional) manipulations and a greater awareness of their ubiquity in everyday relational, social and professional life.

#3 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 16, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

I disagree with much of what you write, Eve (I’m a left-winger, and much more liberal than you on sexual morality issues), but I think you’re dead on here. A healthy society is going to have to be one that encourages fertility and childrearing more than ours does. Yes, even among unmarried women in their late teens and early twenties. Whatever the costs and however it might affect your life, abortion (except when there are serious health threats to the mother) is never the right choice.

I’d add that if we made the nuclear family less central to childrearing, and if the state took over more of the responsibilities and costs of childrearing, people would be more willing to have more children and to have them younger.

#4 Comment By Forester On January 16, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

Interesting article. Let me add to your list as someone who is also over-educated but who grew up rural and not well off.

-Big houses are overrated. Sharing a bedroom with siblings is a good thing, not a bad thing.

-Having a sparkling clean house is overrated. Exposure to germs is good for kids, not bad for kids.

#5 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 16, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

If you want to read a work of family-related anthropology that really takes the values of poor people seriously, read Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping.

#6 Comment By Steve On January 16, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

Wonderful. I spent many years participating in radical-left movements (think Occupy) which are composed almost entirely of the Sociologist class. (Indeed, I had a number of friends who were pursuing advanced degrees in Sociology or a related discipline.) One of the things that drove me away was the realization that so much of the rhetoric of the “social justice” movement was a cover for class hatred. Black racial animosity was to be excused–actually, was never to be questioned– while racial hatred by poor whites from meth-ridden rural districts was to be condemned as “oppression.” Everyone was constantly in danger of being “triggered” and every public space had to be a “safe space” and any act of unintentional human rudeness was coded an oppressive “microaggression.” Eventually it was hard to see the movement’s hyper-emphasis on “safety” as anything but the hysterical helicopter-parenting of the suburban middle class applied to politics. The fact that there were basically no working-class participants in the various movements was never mentioned– or, when it was brought up, one was accused of being a male chauvinist ignoring the struggles of “P.O.C.”s, transgendered people, women as defined by radical feminism, and other people whose struggles are largely confined to college campuses and Portland, Oregon.

#7 Comment By Frank Stain On January 16, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

Right after the quote from Cherlin on Lareau that you cite here, Cherlin says:

working class children, in contrast, develop an emerging sense of “constraint”, in which they were more deferential to, and distrustful of, authority figures, which left them less well prepared to act independently but perhaps better prepared for manual and low-level white collar jobs

Cherlin, quite clearly, is not giving his personal thumbs up to the elite parenting style. He is saying that if economic and social success today requires kids molded for independence of thought and initiative, then the working class parenting style is not going to be up to the task. But this is exactly what Lareau says in her account of middle-class parenting

This kind of training developed Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously. It is important to recognize that these advantages and entitlements are historically specific…. They are highly effective strategies in the United States today precisely because our society places a premium on assertive, individualised actions executed by persons who command skills in reasoning and negotiation.

The college-educated professional class has decided that dedicated, hands-on, communicative and interventionist parenting is the means by which it is going to lock in its advantages over the working class. It isn’t really a question of which style is more attractive, because parents are looking for advantage, not some abstract ideal of ‘good’ parenting. Parenting is just another battle in the class war. This is why the social class gap in children’s educational scores is now greater than the racial gap.

It’s a bit strange to me that you’ve ignored the class war going on all the time in child-rearing practices (which are really just ways to gain a class advantage) and you’ve transplanted that class war into the mind of an elitist,pointy-headed, working-class-hating intellectual.
This reflects a perspective I often find on this site, where real, flesh and blood class struggle between real social groups is transmuted into feeling bad because one is looked down upon by snooty intellectuals , which then serves as a substitute class war.

#8 Comment By Winston On January 16, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

Eve, both working class and elite can make mistakes. It is not an either or thing. Bigger question is why working class find it so hard to change their economic status? And now things are getting worse for them. They get shafted at every turn. here is one example:

[12]

How Regressive Local Taxes Are Rewarding the Rich
New report finds ‘fundamentally unfair’ tax system in nearly every state

Eve I do not get why people of a certain religious mindset coopt term Christian. There has to be a better descriptive term. It is like Israel coopting term anti-semitism while most semites are Arabs not Jews.

#9 Comment By grumpy realist On January 16, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

Eve, I’ve always wondered how much of sociology is true research and how much is simply an excuse to gawk at the freak show and pat yourself on the back because you don’t act like “them.”

And boy do I agree with you about having children while you’re young. We should make it much easier for young couples to have and raise kids, and we should stop penalizing women who decide to stay home and take care of their kids for a few years, then want to get back into working on a career. Let’s make better “back-on” ramps.

#10 Comment By Reinhold On January 16, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

Great article! I just read a New Yorker article about the “word gap” which discovered precisely the same thing: middle class values of education, independent thinking, and professionalism were considered just ‘the way you succeed in this world,’ full stop, not the way, say, a particular class succeeds under the assumption of a particular set of class values. The working class parents saw their role as teaching children to listen to them, to prepare them for THEIR world (likely in a non-professional working class job), and they saw the role of the schools as education and job training, so why should they have to take on that burden, themselves undereducated and overworked in the first place? Again, this is a great antidote to those middle class people––frequently on TAC, incidentally––who look at the working poor with total confusion––’why don’t they want to be like us?’

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 16, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

Eve Tushnet:

“But as a Christian I also believe that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.”

Luke 18 (King James):

18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. 20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. 21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. 22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. 23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. 24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? 27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

You’re amazing, Ms. Tushnet. You’re a Catholic and you talk about Luke 18:25 – and that you believe it – as all of us who are Christian must believe it. I’m a fundamentalist Baptist and for years I’ve asked, “Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about Luke 18:25?”

#12 Comment By charles cosimano On January 16, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

Whoa. Let’s look at reality here.

“It’s okay to marry young. It’s okay to have children before you’re financially stable. It is a good and beautiful thing when people without money have kids, even if they have little prospect of ever achieving financial stability. The problem is not with the parents, but with those who don’t offer material support so they can care for their kids.”

No, that is not ok, unless you want to spend your life working three jobs and watching your kids end up in jail because no one was home to take care of them. And whining about support is not going to produce what is not going to be there.

” Have more kids. The whole “have fewer, but invest in each one more” mentality, which Cherlin promotes, is the mentality which brought us helicopter parenting.”

And how are these kids going to have a future if they are competing with each other for resources? College is expensive, not only in time but in preparation now and you really don’t want the kids to grow up to flip burgers at three jobs at a time.

” Playing in dirt is better than being shuttled to a score of structured, supervised afterschool activities.”

Ok, I agree with that, it is conducive to long term, independent thought.

” Children should learn obedience as well as independent thought. We need to learn how to say “yes,” and to whom; we need more than critical thinking skills.”

Absolutely not! The most important thing a child needs to learn is how to say “No!” and have it stick. It may make the kid a pain in the rear at the time, but when he is fifteen it will keep him out of a lot of trouble. The true test of character of a man is in his ability to disobey.

” If you get pregnant in college, have the baby.”

Ok, I know where that is coming from, but it is a really bad piece of advice for the real world. A girl who gets pregnant in college and keeps the baby has just locked herself out of not only the career market, but the marriage market as well because no young man on the career track is going to want to be saddled with another man’s kid. She is going to be holding three menial jobs at a time and watch the kid probably end up in jail. There is no future for that decision. It is the sure ticket to the underclass. If she must give birth, at least let her have the brains to put it up for adoption.

#13 Comment By Reinhold On January 16, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

“you’ve transplanted that class war into the mind of an elitist,pointy-headed, working-class-hating intellectual.”
It’s not “ignoring the class war” to point out that sociology professors are participating in an ideological class war.

#14 Comment By Eve Tushnet On January 16, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

Hello, Frank Stain–first, thanks very much for adding context on that quote.

Also, while I’m about to defend my basic position, I should say that you’re probably picking up on the unnecessarily catty and self-impressed tone I used in this post, which I regret. I respect Cherlin a lot as a scholar and we agree on a lot of things, even though I do think his book has this specific quite common flaw.

That said: You argue, “Cherlin, quite clearly, is not giving his personal thumbs up to the elite parenting style. He is saying that if economic and social success today requires kids molded for independence of thought and initiative, then the working class parenting style is not going to be up to the task.”

I don’t think this is fair to Cherlin! He’s not saying, “Upper-class parenting styles make you prosperous, and if they’re not actually morally best, well, ‘That’s not my department, said Werner von Braun.'” What he’s doing is something less utilitarian but also less careful. He’s using “better” in a way which incorporates both “useful for attaining prosperity,” and “morally good.”

This btw is my instinctive answer to the question I asked at the end of this post, of why progressive sociologists so often grease the camel. I think they are typically quite uncomfortable talking in explicitly moral terms, so they try to speak as if all they’re doing is telling you how to attain or maintain material well-being. Everybody wants to be comfortable (maybe?) so that’s not too controversial. But they’re also not cold-hearted materialists, so they aren’t willing to promote behavior which might make somebody prosperous but isn’t actually something they believe to be morally acceptable. So “better” parenting is “parenting which makes kids more likely to attain worldly success, but also is moral in my own eyes.”

Smuggling in this contraband morality has a few bad effects. First, it becomes really hard to talk about trade-offs. If “better” is both “morally good” and “conducive to prosperity,” how can we talk about doing the right thing even when it damages your economic prospects? Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single instance where Cherlin even mentions such a trade-off. This may be part of why the last chapter of his book is full of wishful thinking: There’s no evidence that more individualist, expressive, feminist, elite-like attitudes will actually bring economic gains to the less-educated, but hey, it’ll probably happen, right?

And if “better” is tightly tied to “conducive to prosperity,” of course the rich are going to look more moral. It’ll be all but impossible to see the goodness in ways of life which are dominant among the poor. Cherlin is really great about letting poor people describe their struggles in their own words, but not good at seeking grassroots rather than top-down, elite-managed responses to those problems. When an elite academic doesn’t explicitly seek out the ways less-educated people are better than his peers, it’s really easy to miss those ways (nothing in the culture will help him see them), and miss the strengths already present in poor communities.

Finally, you add, “This reflects a perspective I often find on this site, where real, flesh and blood class struggle between real social groups is transmuted into feeling bad because one is looked down upon by snooty intellectuals , which then serves as a substitute class war.”

Here’s why I think the greased-camel thing is important. First, look, of course it’s important to respect, listen to, and be willing to accept correction from the people you study and desire to help. That’s not a fluffy-feelings distraction from the “real” issues. It’s a real issue in itself.

But also, the unacknowledged assumption that upper-class values are correct damages the analysis. “Us helping them” is never a path to accurate class analysis. I think I talked enough about this above but I just wanted to make clear that I am raising this whole issue in part because it makes the books we get on sociology of the family less useful. (To the extent that books on sociology of the family were ever going to be useful in the first place, I guess.)

All that said, thanks for engaging with me, and I hope this gives you a better sense of where I’m coming from.

#15 Comment By Sam On January 16, 2015 @ 11:10 pm

“Have more kids. The whole “have fewer, but invest in each one more” mentality, which Cherlin promotes, is the mentality which brought us helicopter parenting.”

Biologically speaking, this practice is known as r-selection. It’s what organisms do in unstable environments where the viability or survivability of one’s offspring is low. While conducive to passing one’s genetic material, it doesn’t strike me as conducive to the flourishing of the individual.

There’s nothing immoral in having lots of kids, of course, but there is nothing moral in seriously advising people to go the way of the tadpole. It’s just bad advice. Cut it out.

#16 Comment By A Zook On January 17, 2015 @ 8:44 am

Yes…and corporatist conservatives don’t want to help the poor OR listen to them… why don’t we admit that most americans with middle to upperclass have been culturally indoctrinated to generally despise and/or ignore poor people and their concerns. IMO it’s something both sides have failed at because both sides are wedded (in different ways) to the historically extreme individualism that is now part of the religion, americanism’s, dogma.

#17 Comment By Rosemary On January 17, 2015 @ 9:56 am

The first time I encountered this argument was in Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” and it troubled me. I have been trying hard to raise children without a sense of entitlement. I wonder whether an entitlement mindset isn’t “successful” because of Western society’s marginalized view of authority; what happens when someone with a sense of entitlement subverts authority, but does it with style or at least non-abrasively? Who, in a position of authority, wants to take that on, especially when it’s coming from a talented and eloquent individual whose family might be fairly influential or at least willing to take legal action? And as often as this entitlement strategy bears fruit, how often do children of the wealthy fail precisely because of it? There could be plenty of reasons why we don’t hear about this, quite possibly because their parents’ money will keep them off of welfare. I have seen entitlement mentality backfire on plenty of adults. I don’t think one can gave success with that strategy unless one has a soft place to fall, which working class children like mine don’t have.

#18 Comment By Leslie Fain On January 17, 2015 @ 10:35 am

I liked this post a lot, and I have just got to say that “greasing the camel” is a phrase I want to start incorporating into my daily conversations.

#19 Comment By grumpy realist On January 17, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

Heck, if I remember my history, the very last thing that employers are looking from working-class employees are people who demonstrate “independent thinking”. Show up, punch the clock, do your work, then go home at the end of the day and never ever complain.

The older I get, the crankier I get about U.S. business and think we’ve run off the deep end. We need to bring manufacturing back to the US, support unions, squash business from abusing employees (especially with this JIT scheduling), push them to stop discriminating (age and parents returning to work) and stop paying CEOs so much. Oh, and stop this “we only have to worry about the stockholders” attitude.

#20 Comment By Brock Barsanti On January 17, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

You use the word elite a lot in your argument and you refer to some people as elite and some as non elite. I do not understand why you would make these labels on people because you never say what makes them elite. I just think that you over look the fact that there are some people who are elite in areas that don’t make them rich or recognized. I just think that you use the word elite a little to much of a cavalier manner. Otherwise I agree.

#21 Comment By Frank Stain On January 17, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

Eve, thanks for your response to my post. I see what you mean about Cherlin smuggling in the moral judgment under the cover of material well being. I also agree with you that Cherlin’s concrete recommendations are among the least persuasive aspects of his book.
I still don’t see why Cherlin is guilty of class war, when it seems to me the class war is going on between professional class and working class parents. Cherlin notes that the advantage on spending on enriching activities between the top 20% and bottom 20% tripled since the 1970s. The professional class are pursuing a strategy that looks exactly like class war to me.

#22 Comment By Mont D. Law On January 17, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

(It’ll be all but impossible to see the goodness in ways of life which are dominant among the poor.)

Virtually no one sees any value in these ways of life, conservative or liberal. As far as I can tell the only difference between the two sides is the solutions offered.

#23 Comment By Birdbooting the Flak Catchers On January 17, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

“The fact that there were basically no working-class participants in the various movements was never mentioned– or, when it was brought up, one was accused of being a male chauvinist […] “

There was a young woman who used to change into her student revolutionary costume on the train into Philadelphia from the Main Line. The boots were very important, as I recall. Mutual friends generally laughed about it, but it struck me as sinister, though not quite as sinister as the neocon foetuses then preparing for their great ascent. She ended up as a sociology instructor of course.

#24 Comment By T. Sledge On January 17, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

While one has to be educated to pursue certain careers in life and even extremely highly educated for others, the notion that “basic parenting skills” requires years and years of formal study is something I don’t buy.

My mother was born in 1915 the daughter of a poor black tenant farmer. Some of the basic principles that she operated under during the 40 years she had at least one dependent child under her roof (from my eldest brother’s birth in the 1930s to my youngest sister’s high school graduation in the early 1970s) could very well apply today:

Everybody has limitations, even Nobel Prize winners, so you had just best realize that YOU have some. The key to your success is to find what you are good at that will also allow you to keep a roof over your head and food on the table and master that; money can’t buy happiness but the complete absence of any will pretty much guarantee misery, so learn how to manage it; it is as foolish to be envious of someone because he has more money as it is to be envious of him because he has better looks, more athletic ability, or a sharper brain — maximize YOUR skills and stop fixating on someone else. The only material things that you have a RIGHT to are the ones you earned through your own honest effort; so don’t expect to acquire any by any other means.

None of those principles requires an advanced degree to inculcate, and if they are taken to heart they pretty much guarantee you’ll get off your ass and pull yourself out of poverty.

#25 Comment By lancelot lamar On January 17, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

I love you, Eve Tushnet. You are one of the most original and incisive voices writing today. Thank you for not following the herd.

#26 Comment By Troletarian On January 18, 2015 @ 12:18 am

Great article, and great conversation in the combox! I’ve been noticing (and resenting) the cultural glass ceiling that’s in place for anyone who can’t adopt upper class attitudes and behaviors. You can have twice the skill and ability of your peers, but if you can’t pass for culturally upper class, you’ll watch them get promoted past you all day long.

#27 Comment By Dain On January 18, 2015 @ 1:28 am

I’m curious to what extent the “helicopter parenting” phenomenon overlaps with the so-called “nanny state.” While I’m sympathetic to critiques of HP, I support taxes on cigarettes, biggie sodas, and gambling, all of which hit the poor the hardest.

Is this inconsistent? Because while it’s easy to go after cloistered academics, do we also go after the technocrats and economists who make arguments for nanny-state style policy?

#28 Comment By ad On January 18, 2015 @ 9:42 am

“The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as encouraging independent acting and thinking—just the kinds of skills that can be used to obtain and succeed at a high-paying job.”

I must admit, I find myself wondering why people think helicopter parenting encourages “independent acting and thinking”. If that is what you want,you should probably leave the kids to themselves for a lot of the time.

I suspect the real problem is not “class war” but a reluctance to ask – or answer – awkward questions. Perhaps the real requirement is a more flexible imagination.

#29 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On January 18, 2015 @ 10:33 am

Spot-on piece. Couldn’t help smiling at the phrase “overeducated elite”. The smarmy patronizing attitude of these people is nauseating. Apart from the fact that a person’s level of education is not a measure of his or her intelligence, one’s value as a person is not measured by the size of his or her paycheck.

#30 Comment By Joan On January 18, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

Upper middle class style helicopter parenting can also be seen as a reaction to the “Tune in, turn on, drop out” movement of the Sixties. Significant numbers of young people (not a high percentage, but enough in absolute numbers to get the attention of the media) turned their backs on achievement, affluence and upward mobility in favor of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, group living, questioning authority, etc. This enraged conservatives, but it scared liberals, who championed equality but didn’t want it to mean “We’ve achieved enough; now we can kick back and enjoy.” Out of this fear was born a parenting strategy that spares no expense in preparing young people for a life of achievement while keeping their every minute so thoroughly managed that the kids end up unfit for anything else. Add some of the kinds of prejudices that come easily to the egotistical human species anyway and they’ll have done all they can to dropout-proof their kids.

#31 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 18, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

Eve Tushnet wrote:

“Because almost all writing that gets labeled ‘sociology’ is done by members of the overeducated elite, the values common among that elite are taken for granted and treated as objectively correct, whereas values common in working-class or poor communities are pathologized…”

You make a valid and important point. But because post-secondary education in the US is largely devoted to perpetuating ideologies that serve the dominant class, there is precious little that we can do about this problem – other than, as you’ve done, point it out.

I remember in the US back in the late ‘60s that Progressive Labor – arguably the most important successor organization at the break-up of SDS — produced a lot of cadre study material under the general heading “Combat Bourgeois Ideas.” Apparently Mao had made speeches as early as 1953 in which he made use of the phrase “combat bourgeois ideas” and — even as PL tried to transcribe the very wooden Chinese translations into everyday English — for some reason PL couldn’t find a simpler way to say “combat bourgeois ideas” without sacrificing the meaning, so it stuck.

Anyway, fifty years later the Chinese Communist Party administers a state capitalist system and the idea of trying to “combat bourgeois ideas” is increasingly championed by religious conservatives who (their backs to the wall) have finally entered into the beginning of a long guerrilla war with the bourgeois forces of the Enlightenment.

The decision by the bourgeoisie (following the fall of the socialist block) to throw caution to the wind and to undertake a full-blown pauperization of the working class world-wide presents the opportunity for religious conservatives and working class social conservatives to determination if they might not after all be allies in a struggle against the common bourgeois enemy.

#32 Comment By Reinhold On January 18, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

“I still don’t see why Cherlin is guilty of class war, when it seems to me the class war is going on between professional class and working class parents.”
But precisely this class war is being implemented as well by sociologists and social workers. This article is about how petty-bourgeois parenting values are being taught to the working poor as models for ‘success’: [13]

#33 Comment By Henry Clerval On January 18, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

This is an interesting perspective, and it’s a well-written post. It has a few obvious flaws. There’s a not-very-subtle implication that it’s a binary conversation between liberal wealthy overeducated elites and conservative working-class common-sense regular folk. That isn’t exactly how things line up in the actual world. There are some correlations; education creates greater opportunities for wealth acquisition, and political progressives tend to value education. Correlation, as I’m sure we’ve heard over and over, does not equal causation. Helicopter parents are neither a liberal nor a conservative phenomenon, but they do seem to correlate with economic advantage.

Interestingly, the behaviors attributed to the “overeducated elite” in this post correlate to the attitudes and behaviors of those who are the fiercest critics of the welfare state; that is, “all their solutions for the problems of the poor turn out to be attempts to make the poor act and think more like the rich.” Listen to middle class people criticizing the values and behaviors of those who benefit from public assistance, and you’ll hear exactly that same sentiment.

On another subject, I have to say that it strikes me as a bit irresponsible to proclaim “It’s okay to marry young.” I’m sure there are some people for whom it could be okay, but I don’t think it’s okay for most young people, especially the children of the aforementioned helicopter parents; not because it will delay their meaningful career or education, or because they aren’t equipped to be responsible spouses and parents (although those things may in fact be true for a great many of them) but because they will have a much greater chance of success in those pursuits if they have acquired enough life experience to know what they’re looking for from the institution of marriage, and to know what they’re signing up for when they become parents.

There are too many artificial binaries in this post for me to take it very seriously.

#34 Comment By Dan On January 19, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

Interesting points. I’m not sure why you’d label this as a property of left-wing sociology however. All of Charles Murry’s recent work does this same thing: assume that white upper-middle class values at objectively superior, and blame the economic struggles of the working class on their failure to adopt these values (and society’s failure to teach them these values.)

#35 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 19, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

@ Henry Clerval, who wrote:

“I have to say that it strikes me as a bit irresponsible to proclaim ‘It’s okay to marry young.’ I’m sure there are some people for whom it could be okay, but I don’t think it’s okay for most young people, especially the children of the aforementioned helicopter parents; not because it will delay their meaningful career or education, or because they aren’t equipped to be responsible spouses and parents (although those things may in fact be true for a great many of them) but because they will have a much greater chance of success in those pursuits if they have acquired enough life experience to know what they’re looking for from the institution of marriage, and to know what they’re signing up for when they become parents.”

But what if you’re both in your late teens or early twenties and you fall in love and work through problems together and have kids together and grow old together and stay in love?

Fifty years into marriage (she was 20 and I was 21) I think it’s not only “O.K. to marry young” but a good thing to marry young — so that you can be together, and together exclusively, the whole time.

No economic-based late twenties “settling” on a mate and no sexual comparisons — just two young people and, from the beginning, love.

#36 Comment By sans culotte On January 19, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

“Apart from the fact that a person’s level of education is not a measure of his or her intelligence, one’s value as a person is not measured by the size of his or her paycheck.”

Neither is one’s class.

#37 Comment By Henry Clerval On January 19, 2015 @ 7:32 pm

@ Kurt Gayle, who wrote:

“But what if you’re both in your late teens or early twenties and you fall in love and work through problems together and have kids together and grow old together and stay in love?”

That’s wonderful! You have my sincere and heartfelt congratulations. I am delighted that this has been your experience, and that everything has worked so well for you and your wife. As I said in my previous post, there are some young people for whom it’s perfectly workable. I only wish that it were true that any and every couple in their late teens or early twenties would have the same experience; in the world I see out there, most of them don’t. Sometimes it really is okay to marry young, and I am glad for it, but many, perhaps most times, waiting just a bit would increase chances of long-term satisfaction with the relationship and with life.

Best,

Henry

#38 Comment By MikeCA On January 20, 2015 @ 12:13 am

Sometimes it seems those who moralize most about the hallowed institution of marriage & the importance of family are those who have caused its decline. 40 or 50 years ago a couple would marry young because there good jobs available that paid well & in many cases were a job for life- either because of strong unions or the employee/employer social compact. Do a good job for the company and you’ll have a job for life,a defined pension & healthcare,etc. That’s a thing of the past and the Reagan revolution started the ball rolling.( Bush père was right in calling it voodoo economics) Make all the right noises about cultural issues like the 3 G’s and meanwhile institute policies that hurt middle & working class people dramatically. Turn “union” & the concept of the common good into something that only left wing,godless liberals would support. And so it has continued apace with Democrats often aiding & abetting- there are no clean hands politically.
Americans are individualistic and like having choices but I believe most also care about having a society that benefits everyone not just the wealthy. A capitalist society that makes accumulation of wealth the be all & end all isn’t going to function very well;a nation’s prioroties are reflected in its policies and we are doing poorly by any measure.

#39 Comment By cecelia On January 20, 2015 @ 2:37 am

actually – we need to rethink the have kids young thing. Consider lifespans. A female can have a career which will last from her 20’s into her 70’s. So the notion that you have to establish yourself in your twenties is not really applicable now – there is no reason why given the length of our working years – we can’t start careers later.

Also do note – younger childrearing would not be so financially onerous if we had more support for families in our government and corporate policies.

#40 Comment By midtown On January 20, 2015 @ 9:41 am

The point about making it easier to have kids at a more appropriate age, biologically speaking, is a good one. Allan Carlson has written about ways to make that more feasible. He especially looked at the cost of education and how that delays marriage and kids. I know other writers have mentioned that, like Cecelia wrote, women can marry young, have their kids, and then enter the workforce later if they need/want to. The other method is to interrupt a career already in motion, which isn’t great either.

#41 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 20, 2015 @ 10:17 am

@ MikeCA: Everything that you’ve written is true – including the list of culprits: those who have been most to blame for what has happened to the economy. I agree that today it’s much, much harder for young people to find decent-paying jobs that will support a family. The job world that my grandkids are facing is ridiculously bad.

But rather than give up on all of the advantages of young marriage, I think the thing to do is to “push back” relentlessly against the bad economy in the same ways that my parents and my wife’s parents pushed back during the Depression. Still get married young, but live with parents, or grandparents, or aunts or uncles and share: Make use of one dwelling, one washing machine, one fridge – live through the joys of being crammed into a tiny bedroom with the baby sleeping in a crib in the corner.

It will work! It always did!

#42 Comment By Tom On January 20, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

Thanks Eve, brilliant

#43 Comment By David Raber On January 21, 2015 @ 8:14 am

The biblical and early Christian dichotomy between “the world” and the Kingdom of God simplifies this and similar discussions for the Christian. As someone smarter than me has pointed out, Satan was able to tempt Jesus with dominion over the world because this was Satan’s to offer. While secular elites and their intellectuals may tout certain positive values ultimately traceable to the influence of Jesus (and thank God for that), they remain a part of the secular order, the fallen world, which basically prizes material wealth and health and power (“human flourishing”) above all else. Secular elites and their intellectuals, and perhaps the majority of humanity along with them, without the benefit of the light of the Gospel, are riding camels or aspire to it, and the good-hearted among them think that all people can and should be proud camel owners.

#44 Comment By Jonathan On January 21, 2015 @ 9:40 am

“overeducated”

How much is too much?

#45 Comment By stef On January 21, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

@midtown: I know other writers have mentioned that, like Cecelia wrote, women can marry young, have their kids, and then enter the workforce later if they need/want to.

No, they can’t do that today. Maybe it worked 30 years ago. Today, someone with a technical degree (accounting, computer science, engineering, finance) can’t “take off” and have a baby or two. She will not get hired; any available job openings will get filled by new grads who are hungry and whose skills and resumes are up to date.

This advice to get married young and have a lot of children is completely financially irresponsible. If the writer wants to take the Catholic approach and say that doing this will make you a better practitioner of that religion, fine. But to pretend that these principles should be applied to everyone will just lead people to financial ruin.

The Great Depression was 80-some years ago. Things have substantially changed.

Further, if lower-class people are still using authority-based, low-word child rearing, that can’t be of any help to them. At best, their children will not develop their intellectual potential. At worst CPS will get called and the kids will get stuck on the foster-care to prison pipeline.

Last but not least, most blue-collar jobs are done by machines, automated away. Some formerly blue-collar jobs (bartender, barista, book seller) are hotly competed for by educated people.

#46 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 22, 2015 @ 8:53 am

Stef writes:

“This advice to get married young and have a lot of children is completely financially irresponsible.”

You’re right, Stef: “Completely financially irresponsible.”

In fact, having children AT ALL is “completely financially irresponsible.”

Check this out:

“To raise a child born in 2013 to the age of 18, it will cost a middle-income couple just over $245,000. That’s up $4,260, or almost 2%, from the year before. (US Dept. of Agriculture, Aug 18, 2014)

$245,000 per child GONE.

Having children is so “completely financially irresponsible” that maybe we should forget the whole child-raising thing altogether – and save $245,000 per child – and instead bring in already-raised, already educated, already-trained adult immigrants.

Sorry. I forgot. Democratic and Republican politicians have been pushing that have-fewer-children-but-bring-in-more-immigrants thing for decades already. I think they’re trying to save the rest of us from being so “completely financially irresponsible.”

#47 Comment By Stewart On January 23, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

Child OR yupster is the choice, for many. That is what my daughter and husband are now confronting, after having a child 3 months ago. Did they really need that hip apartment in Brooklyn with 2 balconies and new car they got 3 years ago? But it’s too late. They have a beautiful child and are addicted to a lifestyle that they can’t give up. The hippie/counterculture types didn’t have to downsize like these high flying materialists now being squeezed by real values
.

#48 Comment By Not E. D. Baltzell On January 24, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

@T. Sledge: I agree with you completely. And what a story.
@Connecticut Farmer: you too.
@sans culotte: I agree with you that real class has little to do with money. Some of the noblest people I know were gleaming from beneath layers of “socioeconomic” muck. And some of the lowest class in terms of manners, breeding and morals have been among the wealthiest.

Ms. Tushnet – what a civilized, worthwhile discussion you birthed here. Please do it again sometime.

#49 Comment By John F On January 12, 2016 @ 8:12 am

Just responding to charles cosimano: the pursuit of college uber alles and the denigration of “burger-flippers” is a re-inforcement of the lack of social mobility and worse has cheapened life such that only those who make the most of life according to the elites’ rules are deemed worthy of life.