Annette Lareau: Parenting Styles & Unequal Childhoods

Struck by a wave of random joyfulness, I returned home from tuition one day galloping with my front hoofs up. My mother, seeing my excitement, interrupted: “Finish your homework first!” I was momentarily puzzled. I can’t be happy until I finish my homework? Then I realized she misinterpreted my hand gestures. She thought I was asking for permission to play games on the computer. I was amused.

That happened when I was still in Primary School. At that formative stage, my parents were my biggest influences. It goes without saying that the way they parent me will have effects on my subsequent life. And so it was interesting to read in Unequal Childhoods Annette Lareau’s basic but influential classification of two types of parenting styles: Natural Growth vs Concerted Cultivation. The theory is based on 137 interviews and intensive observations of 12 families in the US, comprising 4 each of middle-class, working-class, and poor families with kids aged 8 to 10.

Parenting Style 1: Natural Growth

Associated with poor and working-class parents
Believe in adequacy of providing love, food, and safety
More free time; richer ties with extended families
Use of directives and physical discipline
Fosters adherence to authority

Parenting Style 2: Concerted Cultivation

Associated with middle-class parents
Believe in need to transmit important life skills
More adult-organized leisure activities
Greater use of reasoning and verbal discussions
Fosters individualism

Lareau’s distinction is made not to suggest that one parenting style is better than the other. You could say that children need guidance to avoid straying into negative influences. You could also say that kids these days are too sheltered because they are too micromanaged by their parents. It can be said that the Natural Growth approach develops better social skills, since the kids have to navigate their play groups without supervision, whereas the the Concerted Cultivation approach develops better cognitive skills, in order to persuade parents to act according to their wishes.

However, Lareau contends that these styles lead to different educational outcomes. This is because society is not a blank slate allowing for freedom of expression. Instead, modern education places a premium on mental skills over social skills. Every child is put through the same treadmill of schooling, until they are sorted into different tracks based on how they scored in languages, math, and sciences. Thus those whose parents with styles aligning to Concerted Cultivation will likely be advantaged.

Annette Lareau Parenting Styles

Horse: Watch and learn! [Credit: Flickr]

This inequality is worsened when we consider how the parenting styles are associated with class. Natural Growth is associated with poor and working class parents and Concerted Cultivation, middle-class parents. Oh-oh, widening inequality! But, why is this the case?

Simply put, the poor and working-class parents have little choice. Their circumstances mean they likely need to work for survival, and thus have little spare time to organize activities for their children. As their class status is also associated with lower education, they also intervene less in their children’s school work, instead relying on teachers out of necessity. Their authority takes a more top-down nature, because they are likely to have less time and lower ability to engage in reasoned discussions with their children.

And if you don’t do well early, it only gets increasingly harder later. So when we look at classmates who score lower than you, have a little more empathy. It’s not always that they are not trying hard. Sometimes they really have to try doubly or triply hard, day after day, just to get a score like yours. And even that is not a given.

Annette Lareau Parenting Styles

Imagine them racing in the opposite direction; that’s inequality. [Credit: RunnerSpace]

Unequal Childhoods: Not All Bleak

Interestingly, I was the first in the family to be sent for tuition. In Primary 3-6, I went for group tuition in Science and Creative Writing (yes). Those were my weaker subjects, but I was already in the top classes by then. I guess my mother might have jumped on the bandwagon a bit when it was my turn. But she did place full trust in school teachers. When my tuition clashed with compulsory supplementary afternoon classes in school, the former gave way. And after I entered a top school in the next phase of education, I had no further tuition.

My mother’s parenting style is to me clearly one of Natural Growth. That I managed to excel in education from early on counts as an anomaly to Lareau’s model. But when I look around me, I’m hardly special. Many of my peers in University had poor scores in the PSLE. They had to overcome cumulative barriers to get back on even terms with me, in terms of educational achievement.

Were they helped by inspirational teachers? Or were they helped by their CCAs? Most CCAs promote better educational outcomes and protect against risky behaviours. And while the classroom privileges mental skills, outside the classroom social skills matter more. This is an arena where children of Natural Growth parenting styles are likely to thrive better, which in turn boosts their prospects in the arena where they are more likely to struggle.

However they did it, they must have galloped like a horse with their front hoofs up.

Annette Lareau Parenting Styles

Horse: I want to play computer games! [Credit: Flickr]

Don’t go on to blame your parents, though, for your unequal childhoods. If anything, they are also victims of personal and institutional circumstances. All you can do now is to be a little more conscious when it’s your turn to be a parent. The good thing about binary models like Lareau’s is that, once we learn about them with an open mind, we gain the agency to try both.



Annette Lareau – Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2011)

Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a Sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I seek to help you create freedom in everyday life, with empathy and the sociological imagination.

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