This article appeared November 30, 2017.
“Joan Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. William’s work includes What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. “
Children learn class at their mothers’ knee. Childrearing, like so many other aspects of daily life, is demarcated by class. Working-class and low-income families follow what Annette Lareau, in her important book Unequal Childhoods, called the “accomplishment of natural growth.” They view “children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they [are] provided with comfort, food, shelter” and other basics. Providing these represents a challenge and is held to be a considerable achievement.
Clear boundaries exist between parents and children, with prompt obedience expected: crucial training for working- class jobs. Class migrants often note with shock the disrespectful way professional elite children talk of and to their parents. Noted bell hooks, whose father worked for 30 years as a janitor, “we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care.”
The ideology of natural growth prevalent among the poor and the working class contrasts with the “concerted cultivation” of the professional elite. “[T]he older children’s schedules set the pace of life for all family members,” notes Lareau, and that pace was intense. Elite children do far more organized activities (4.6 for white children, 5.2 for black children) than do nonelite kids (2.3 and 2.8, respectively). Elite kids’ taylorized leisure time helps them develop the skills required for white-collar jobs: how to “set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team,” “work smoothly with acquaintances,” and handle both victory and defeat “in a gracious way.” Everything is scheduled by adults, and the schedule is intense: “Tomorrow is really nuts. We have a soccer game, then a baseball game, then another soccer game,” said one dad. Unlike in nonelite families, children of the elite are taught not to prioritize family: Lareau describes a child who decides to skip an important family gathering because soccer is “more of a priority.”
Concerted cultivation is the rehearsal for a life of work devotion: the time pressure, the intense competition, the exhaustion with it all, the ethic of putting work before family. The pressure-cooker environment in elite homes often strikes the working class as off. “I just kept thinking these kids don’t know how to play,” said a class migrant from a self-described “hillbilly” family. “I think he doesn’t enjoy doing what he’s doing half the time [light laughter],” one woman told sociologist Annette Lareau. Others acknowledged that the busy schedules might pay off “job-wise” but expressed serious reservations: “I think he is a sad kid;” “He must be dead-dog tired.”
Elite college admissions officers agree. A group convened at Harvard asked admissions officers to allow space on applications for no more than four extracurricular activities, and “Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities.” Pretty weak sauce, but evidence that performance pressure on elite kids has gotten out of hand.
The all-consuming nature of elite parenting—typically synonymous with “elite mothering”—comes back to bite women of the professional class, and not just in the form of exhaustion. A study of elite law firms found that elite men are vastly more preferred for jobs than nonelite men. The same study found that the reverse is true for women. While the female job applicants in their study didn’t get nearly as many callbacks as the elite men, the nonelite women got more callbacks than the elite women. Class privilege helps men at work; it seems to hold women back. Why? Because elite women are seen as a “flight risk,” people who will opt out of work to engage in the all-or-nothing elite battle to get their kids into a top college, to start the cycle of competition and achievement over again.
Concerted cultivation is a strikingly recent phenomenon. Both my mother (b. 1918) and my mother-in-law (b. 1923)—one affluent, one working class—thought my generation was truly crazy. My childhood is captured by the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books published in the late 1940s and 1950s. These charming books tell the story of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, an expert at curing children’s misbehavior. Mothers focus their attention on adult things while kids engage in unstructured play. No mother is ever depicted playing with her children. Nor do children expect to be entertained; they do an endless stream of errands and chores for adults and are sent outside to entertain themselves. Only one, a spoiled rich kid, has any organized activities: a piano lesson.
That’s how I was raised, and how nonelite kids are raised today. In contrast, Lareau found that in the elite families she interviewed, kids expected adults to schedule their time and spent “a significant amount of time simply waiting for the next event.” Lareau concludes that Tyrec, a nonelite child she featured in her study “needs no adult assistance to pursue the great majority of his plans.” Because his group of neighborhood friends “functions without adult monitoring, he learns how to construct and sustain friendships on his own,” something elite kids rarely do. The informal play allowed nonelite kids “to develop skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing.”
As a result of his greater independence, “Tyrec learned important life skills not available to [elite] Garrett. He and his friends found numerous ways of entertaining themselves, showing creativity and independence.” Even sibling relationships differed. The intense focus on competition in elite families fueled intense sibling rivalry of a type rarely found in nonelite ones.
Too often, in comparisons of elites to nonelites, the assumption is that nonelites should get with it and emulate their betters. That’s not always true, and parenting is a case in point. Concerted cultivation and work devotion, perhaps the two central institutions of life in the professional elite, each deserves a closer look. What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting—that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?