In 2005, scholar Kay S. Hymowitz reviewed the social science literature on child-raising, looking for an answer as to why poor black children struggled so much in school, and why poverty culture persists among the urban poor. She found that a lot of it had to do with the way different cultures see parenting. Excerpts:
So why have we been able to make so little headway in improving the life chances of poor black children? One reason towers over all others, and it’s the one Cosby was alluding to, however crudely, in his town-hall meetings: poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are four years old, the results are extremely hard to change. Academics and poverty mavens know this to be the case, though they try to soften the harshness of its implications. They point out—correctly—that poor parents say they want the same things for their kids that everyone does: a good job, a nice home, and a satisfying family life. They observe that poor parents don’t have the money or the time or the psychological well-being to do a lot of the quasi-educational things that middle-class parents do with their young children, such as going to the circus or buying Legos. They argue that educational deprivation means that the poor don’t know the best child-rearing methods; they have never taken Psych 101, nor have their friends presented them with copies of What to Expect: The Toddler Years at their baby showers.
But these explanations shy away from the one reason that renders others moot: poor parents raise their kids differently, because they see being parents differently. They are not simply middle-class parents manqué; they have their own culture of child rearing, and—not to mince words—that culture is a recipe for more poverty. Without addressing that fact head-on, not much will ever change.
In middle-class families, the child’s development—emotional, social, and (these days, above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family’s raison d’être, its state religion. It’s the reason for that Mozart or Rafi tape in the morning and that bedtime story at night, for finding out all you can about a teacher in the fall and for Little League in the spring, for all the books, crib mobiles, trips to the museum, and limits on TV. It’s the reason, even, for careful family planning; fewer children, properly spaced, allow parents to focus ample attention on each one. Just about everything that defines middle-class parenting—talking to a child, asking questions, reasoning rather than spanking—consciously aims at education or child development. In The Family in the Modern Age, sociologist Brigitte Berger traces how the nuclear family arose in large measure to provide the environment for the “family’s great educational mission.”
The Mission, as we’ll call it, was not a plot against women. It was the answer to a problem newly introduced by modern life: how do you shape children into citizens in a democratic polity and self-disciplined, self-reliant, skilled workers in a complex economy? It didn’t take all that much solicitude to prepare kids to survive in traditional, agricultural societies. That’s not the case when it comes to training them to prosper in an individualistic, commercial, self-governing republic. “[I]n no other family system do children play a more central role than in that of the conventional nuclear family,” Berger writes. For good reason.
Periodically, social critics warn of the nuclear family’s impending implosion—most recently in the New York Times style section warnings about “hyperparenting” and in Judith Warner’s new book, only semi-hyperbolically entitled Perfect Madness and featured in a recentNewsweek cover story. But though future books and articles will doubtless lament the excesses of the nuclear family, though future housewives will become desperate, and though the Mission will creep into ever-new crevices of domestic life, the stubborn truth will remain that child-centeredness is the only way parents can raise successful children in our society. According to Berger, when working properly, the bourgeois, nuclear family is by its very definition a factory for producing competent, self-reliant, and (at its most successful) upwardly mobile children. Close the factory, as in the disappearance of the inner-city two-parent family, and you risk shutting down the product line.
You could argue, of course, that the Mission simply costs too much for poor parents to enlist; Little League uniforms and piano lessons cost money, after all. But observers of the inner city have found numerous poor parents who seek out—and find—ways to do a lot of what middle-class parents do. They locate community centers or church groups with after-school activities. More important, they organize the household around school activities and homework. Unlike one of Lareau’s poor subjects, who hardly responds when she hears that her son is not doing his homework—because “in her view it is up to the teachers to manage her son’s education. That is their job, not hers”—plenty of poor parents not only say that education is important but actively “manage” their children’s educations. DePaul University professor William A. Sampson sent trained observers into the homes of a number of poor black families in Evanston, Illinois—some with high-achieving children, some with low-achieving. Though the field workers didn’t go in knowing which children were which, they quickly found that the high achievers had parents who intuitively understood the Mission.
These parents, usually married couples, imposed routines that reinforced the message that school came first, before distractions like television, friends, or video games. In the homes of low achievers, mothers came home from work and either didn’t mention homework or quickly became distracted from the subject. Sampson’s book only describes school-age children, so we don’t know how these families differed when their children were infants or toddlers, but it’s a good bet that the parents of high achievers did not start showing an interest in learning only the day their kids started kindergarten. In the ways that matter for children, these are “middle-class, lower-class families,” Sampson explains in Black Student Achievement. “The neighborhood is not responsible for the difference. Neither is race. Neither is income.” No, only the parents.
The whole Hymowitz piece, which appeared in City Journal, can be read here.