Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Perfect Parenting?

My friend, Susan, makes a good point about the tyranny of parenting books. People are buying them. Therefore, editors like herself, publish more oppressive parenting books. And scientists continue to produce studies on how to make a smarter child.

Middle class parents are driving this movement.

Earlier in the week, I mentioned the Times Magazine article, Too Much by Margaret Talbot. Despite a flurry of articles in the press about excessive homework, a recent Brookings Institute study shows that homework levels have stayed constant for twenty years.

Then why do parents think that homework has increased, and their beleaguered children are overwhelmed? Turns out that it is probably only the middle and upper class that have a problem with homework, because these groups have so little time. After school, kids are whisked off to soccer practice or SAT drills. Parents also have little time to help them with homework, because their jobs have become more demanding. There's no time for homework because kids and parents are over scheduled.

In contrast, working class families practice less child-centered activity. Children play more with kids their own age in open-ended, unstructured activities.

Behind the seeming contradictions of steady homework levels and the anti-homework backlash, in other words, is the reality of social class. In her new book, ''Unequal Childhoods,'' Annette Lareau, a sociologist at Temple University, argues that middle- to upper-middle-class families today tend to practice a child-rearing strategy she calls ''concerted cultivation,'' which involves, among other things, frequent interventions at school on behalf of your children, active (and often opinionated) monitoring of homework and the organizing of family time around children's extensive schedules of team sports, lessons and performances. (One of the more striking documented changes in how children spend their time is the increase in hours spent watching siblings perform.) Children in working-class and poor families, by contrast, are more likely to be raised in a spirit of ''natural growth,'' meaning they spend less time in the company of adults like teachers and coaches and more with other children in the kind of self-directed, open-ended play for which affluent parents often profess nostalgia these days. The effects of these differing strategies -- which are not only a matter of resources but also of beliefs and habits -- are to reinforce class divisions, helping to prepare middle- and upper-middle-class children for life in the middle and upper classes by accustoming them to asking (and nagging and negotiating) for what they want, and giving them the sense of entitlement that comes from having so much of the family's life formatted around their activities. In this context, homework can seem like a burden because it interferes with other cultivating activities.

I talked with a friend about this article this morning. Margie lives in a upper middle class suburb in Long Island. Her three year old is in several activities even though Margie worries that the child is too tired. As she talks with the other mothers from her town about gymnastics and speech therapy, she's afraid that her daughter will be behind the other kids in kindergarten, because she missed out on an activity. Even though Margie grew up with unstructured playtime and she knows that it makes more sense, it is very hard to isolate yourself from the other hysterical parents.

Perhaps middle class parents are their own worst enemy. They buy parenting books, which promote guilt and anxiety. Later, they over schedule their children and themselves, which leaves little time for free play or even homework.

Why this hysteria about building the smartest child? Why is every family in my neighborhood rushing off to test their kid's IQ? Why has child rearing become so competitive? Have we forgotten that is better to have a happy child than a smart child? Can we blame it on the economic squeeze of the middle class?

UPDATE: Being Daddy has an excellent post on the subject. He thinks that society as a whole has become obsessed with perfect parenting, which explains all the busy bodies who criticize the parenting of total strangers. (Someone yelled at me yesterday that I was going to dislocate my kid's shoulder as I held his hand while we crossed the street.) He writes, haven't we all too-much become parenting experts of sorts?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

< ? Redhead Blogs # >

< ? Blogging Mommies # >