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Sociology 352 The Family May 8, 2009 Prof. Brines Family Interaction in Working Class Households Restricted Code and “Natural Growth” Childrearing The Case of Harold McAllister (Lareau, Chapter 7) The language of daily life in the McAllister household keeps things short and simple.

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Sociology 352

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Sociology 352 l.jpg

Sociology 352

The Family

May 8, 2009

Prof. Brines


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Family Interaction in Working Class Households

Restricted Code and “Natural Growth” Childrearing


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The Case of Harold McAllister (Lareau, Chapter 7)

  • The language of daily life in the McAllister household keeps things short and simple.

  • Negotiations are infrequent

  • Very little “word play” of type observed in the Williams’ home.


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Harold shops with his father (p.148)

Harold picks up a plain blue beach towel in the bottom rack. He holds it up. His dad says, “You want a plain one?” Harold nods. His dad then wanders down the aisle. He picks up a peach towel set, looks at it, and says, “These come in a set but they don’t have a big towel.” (Researcher infers that Mr McAllister thinks this is a better buy).


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Harold rejects the peach towel set:

Harold looks at the peach towel set and then firmly shakes his head. “Them girl colors,” he says. His dad picks up the set and raises it, suggesting that Harold is wrong and should get it… Harold shakes his head again and says, “Girl colors.” His dad picks up the blue towel again and unfolds it. Harold shakes his head; he says, “It big.”


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  • Harold is able to successfully convey meaning to his father through nonverbal gestures and indirect, short statements. We might not be able to follow it, but Harold’s dad “knows what he means.”


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Working class kids are at a disadvantage when trying to transpose restricted code into school settings

The Bottom Line according to Bernstein:

If you can't handle elaborated code, you are not going to succeed in the educational system.


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Mastery of Elaborated Code= Cultural Capital

P. Bourdieu, 1986:

“Cultural capital”:

Forms of knowledge, “tastes,” or demeanor that give a person fluency in a society’s upper-status culture. Upper-middle class parents provide children with cultural capital, the attitudes and knowledge that make the school a comfortable, familiar place in which they can succeed easily.


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Other types of “capital” involved in the transmission of class advantage

“Human capital”: The set of skills or vocational competencies that one acquires in school (or on the job) that boosts a person’s productivity

“Social capital”: The number of people you can count on to provide support, and the resources those people have at their disposal.


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Families, Schools and Opportunity


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Concerted Cultivation and Institutional Interventions

  • Middle class children benefit from their parents’ direct intervention

  • Institutions (schools, organizations) respond with a “custom fit” for child’s needs.


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Example: Stacey Marshall (Chp. 8)

  • Mom’s intervention gets resources reassigned so that Stacey has access to a better gym class; gets into gifted program.

  • Stacey learns that it is reasonable to expect organizations to meet the specialized needs of individuals. In fact, these children come to believe that they are entitled to personalized attention.


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Successful parents: not merely a “squeaky wheel” response

It matters how parents attempt to intervene:

Appeals to the mission of the institution

Exploitation of social capital, especially “weak ties”

Visible effort on part of parents

Prompt action and compliance with school routines (kid gets to school on time, permission slips returned, etc.)


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A Failed Attempt: Melanie Handlon (Chp. 9), another middle-class child

  • Mom’s intervention was accusatory, did not appeal to the institution’s “better nature.”

  • Teachers are largely unaware of Mom’s efforts to be Melanie’s “agent.”

  • Mom does not respond promptly to school requests for information; Melanie is also habitually late


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Among Working Class Parents

  • Fewer attempts at intervention; firmer boundaries between home and school

  • Parents have less trust of schools, more suspicion…although they defer to teachers’ expertise

  • Fear of intervention by school into home (re. discipline patterns)


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Example: Wendy Driver’s Mom (Chp 10)

  • 4th Grader Wendy was still unable to read, but Mom resisted intervention:

    “I don’t want to jump into anything and find it is the wrong thing.”

    Note caution and self-doubt when it comes to confronting schools and their “experts”


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The Role of Race

  • Middle Class Black parents were vigilant in defending their children against racism

  • Overall, class had much more of an effect on the rhythms of family life than did race

  • Race and racial barriers became a more important factor as children got older


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Who Bears the Costs of Concerted Cultivation?

  • Parent interventions are expensive:

    Monetarily: Stacey Marshall’s mom hired testers to re-test Stacey’s IQ

    Time: High search and information costs, and parents have to maintain their social capital

    The latter costs are borne mostly by mothers.


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Recent School Reforms

  • Emphasis on building school-to-family ties correctly identifies the problem

  • Analysis of “family deficit” or “family indifference” misses the source of the problem.


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Have these class differences always existed?

  • Lareau: No – far more pronounced today.

  • Through early 20th Century: Important for all children to learn virtues of “hard work”

  • Baby Boom generation: Much unstructured after-school play across all social classes.


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1980s and beyond: Increased rationalization of daily life

  • Prevalence of institutions and relations that emphasize competitive, efficient, maximizing and self-interested action.

  • Increased emphasis on building human, cultural, and social capital of kids so they can compete adequately

  • Investment in “quality” of children goes into hyperdrive


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Also, fewer opportunities today for unstructured play

  • Parental concerns about neighborhood safety

  • Worries about “latchkey” children

  • Declining birth rates (why would this matter?)

  • Physical layout of suburban developments


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A rising “backlash” against concerted cultivation?

  • Parental revolt against “hyperscheduling.”

  • Emerging phenomenon of rude, out-of-control kids with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement:

    TV Reality Show: Nanny 911!


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