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Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

reviewed by Peter W. Cookson Jr. - 2006

coverTitle: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
Author(s): Annette Lareau
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520239504 , Pages: 343, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

The social stratification literature has been enormously enriched by the research and scholarship of Annette Lareau.  In her previous work Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (1989), Lareau broke new ground in using ethnographic techniques to understand the processes of how families and individuals come to understand their roles in the class system.  By viewing social reproduction from the “inside-out” Lareau gives us an internal map of the socialization experience that is detailed, personal, yet at the same time, generalizable.  Those of us who are interested in issues of social inequality, particularly as they relate to education, have learned a great deal from Lareau’s work and have found it extremely helpful in assisting students to understand the realities and the strengths of class divisions.  

Lareau’s theoretical north star is the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who argued convincingly that individuals of different social locations are socialized differently.  At first blush such an assertion seems self-evident, almost banal.  In a social environment such as ours, however, there is a strong moral mandate to ignore differential socialization.  Class culture is hard to reconcile with the myth of one people.  The myth of one people is foundational for the continuance of inequality because it ignores the overwhelming significance of class power and the influence of ruling elites in public life.  

In her work, Lareau has refrained from using much of Bourdieu’s terminology but she has retained the central concepts of his work: habitus, field, and capital.  Differential socialization begins with what an individual feels is natural, which Bourdieu calls habitus.  These background experiences also shape the amount and forms of resources (capital) individuals inherit and draw upon as they confront various institutional arrangements (fields) in the social world.  In American life, the intersection of race and class makes the analysis of habitus, capital, and field highly complex and nuanced.  

It is this complexity and nuance that is so evident in Lareau’s new book: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  In this study Lareau conducted intensive observations of twelve families (six white, five black, and one interracial) with children nine and ten years old.  She met most of the children in her study when she visited their third grade classrooms in an urban school and a suburban school.  She describes her methodology as follows: “We introduced ourselves to each family, we said that, following a famous study, we wanted to be treated like ‘the family dog’” (p. 9).  By not intervening in family processes, Lareau and her colleagues became participant observers in the intimate life of families and thus give us a view of how families come to interpret the world through their words and their actions.  


In the first part of her book, Lareau compares the experiences of middle-class and working-class families. In the second part of her book, she shows how the organization of daily life is interwoven with language use, with an emphasis on reasoning in middle-class families and directives in the working-class and poor families.  In the third part of her book, Lareau describes the ways parents differ in their relationship to the school and how they represent their children’s interest in school.  

An intellectual lever for Lareau is her distinction between “concerted cultivation” and “the accomplishment of natural growth.”  By spending time with the families in her study, she uncovered ways in which social class makes a significant difference in the routines of children’s daily lives: “The white and black middle class parents engaged in practices of concerted cultivation.  In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children’s talents, opinions and skills.  They scheduled their children for activities.  They reasoned with them.  They hovered over them and outside the home and they did not hesitate to intervene on the children’s behalf.   They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children’s development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills.  The working-class and poor parents viewed children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.  I have called this cultural logic of child rearing the accomplishment of natural growth” (p. 238).

These observations are not entirely new.  To name but one scholar who spent a life time uncovering the underlying logic and structure of differential class socialization, Basil Bernstein’s early work on language and code theory in some ways preceded and then paralleled Bourdieu’s work.  All of us know from experience as well, that individuals learn class codes by internalizing explicit and implicit rules of behavior and thought that become over time, “common sense.”  Class socialization not only shapes our behavior and language but ultimately our thought and the metaphors by which we give life meaning.  

For upper class parents, the primary focus of socialization is the internalization of class consciousness and the willingness to sacrifice the self for class cohesion.  For middle-class families such as those studied by Lareau, they focus on socializing their children to succeed in the white collar occupational structure.  Virtually from birth, the middle-class child is building a resume of accomplishments that will earn him or her entry into the upper reaches of the business and professional world.  For working-class and poor children there is little resume building.  Instead, children learn the ways of the adult world through shared experience, through community connections, and ironically by achieving a higher degree of freedom than the middle-class child.  The iron cage of respectability is the social trap of the middle class:  both upper class and poor children are allowed to develop more naturally because their families for diametrically different reasons are less concerned about fitting in to the middle class occupational structure.

The significance of Lareau’s work is that she takes these observations and gives them life through her willingness to share the lives of children and their families.  Much of the socialization literature is highly abstract.  Lareau’s abstractions are always embedded in the lives of real people.  To understand inequality she experiences the dailiness of how inequality actually becomes institutionalized.  The intersection of biography and social structure is a critical one because it reminds us that social structure exists in the lives of people.  It is fair to say that the physical world would exist without human intervention; but in the social sciences the object of study is always created by humans as they live each moment, each day, each week, each month, each year.  

By studying her families in a naturalistic fashion, Lareau avoids the trap of excessive abstraction but must constantly guard against the challenge of knowing each tree in the forest but being unable to describe the forest itself.  She does this with amazing grace and intelligence.  Perhaps the reason she is able to do this so well is that Lareau is a gifted writer.  Her use of language is simple yet astute.  She writes as though she were speaking to you, and thus there is a sense of fidelity about Lareau’s work that one seldom experiences in social science and almost never experiences in journalism.  She makes no attempt to sensationalize the study’s participants, she draws only conclusions that are based on data, and she is modest in her claims.  Perhaps it is this very modesty that makes Unequal Childhoods so powerful.  

This book could be used in a variety of courses on social stratification and social inequality.  Students who study education would be particularly well served by reading Lareau’s new book.  On a practical basis, she gives us insight into the differences between middle-class, working-class, and poor children. Thus, invites educators to imagine a strategy of differentiated instruction that would be effective.  At a slightly more abstract level, Lareau’s work helps to puncture the mythology that differences between children can somehow be mandated through federal law such as "No Child Left Behind."  

In short, I highly recommend Lareau’s work to scholars and practitioners and to any reader who wishes to understand how class socialization works from the inside out.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 33-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12114, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 2:50:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Peter Cookson Jr.
    Ideas without Borders
    PETER W. COOKSON, JR. teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University and is the founder of Ideas without Borders, a Washington DC-based educational consulting firm focusing on human rights and 21st century learning. In May 2011 his book, Sacred Trust: A Children's Education Bill of Rights will be published by Corwin Press; currently, he is completing research for The Great Unequalizer which will be published by Teachers College Press.
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