Reading Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 3: “Parenting”

Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_Let’s continue our online reading of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

In this post we move on from families to child-rearing, with chapter three, “Parenting”. As with previous chapters I’ll summarize its content, then offer some reflections, followed by questions.

1. Summary

Now Our Kids focuses on how parents raise children, and how children grow up in their homes.  It’s a pretty narrow and powerful focus.

In this chapter the narrative setting shifts again, this time to Atlanta.  Putnam identifies another contrasting pair of families, here black families rich and poor.  One lives in Buckhead, the other a little ways south.  Actually, there are two poor family stories.

One major argument of this chapter is that economic divisions have opened up within a racial minority, becoming deeper and more significant than racial divides.

Atlanta has more black college graduates and more concentrated black poverty than any of the other ten largest metropolitan area in America.  In that sense, Atlanta seems on its way to encompassing three cities, two of them prosperous and two of them black. (82; emphasis in original)

Different family stories display these gaps.  Desmond and his parents are clearly very successful economically and socially (84-92).  In contrast Lauren, Michelle, and their mother fight hard rise to stay just above the poverty line, but with the real possibility ad lived experience of falling under it (92-101).  Elijah’s experience is worse, living in the ghetto, surrounded by poverty, crime, and intermittent relatives (101-108).  His is clearly an example of what Valerie Bock referred to as an “embattled family”.

Buckhead, Atlanta

Buckhead, Atlanta


This chapter describes two very different parenting cultures that have surfaced over the past generation.  Our Kids uses Annette Lareau’s research that describes “two class-based models of parenting in America society today,” concerted cultivation and natural growth (118). In the wealthy world, the mother and father make “intensive investments of time, money, and thoughtful care in raising their kids” (92).  They are emotionally open and engaged.  In contrast the poor families are emotionally guarded and developmentally Darwinian (the teeth under the “natural growth” label), fighting a battle in their children’s selves between wildness and obedience, enforced by beatings.  One exemplary passage caught my eye:

“Were your parents warm parents?” we ask.  “Lots of hugs or where they-”

Astonished at our naivete, Stephanie interrupts.  “No, we don’t do all that kissing and hugging… That’s other races’ stuff.  I’m not kissing and hugging my kids.  I love my kids t death, but I’m not a touchy-feely person, like the Beavers.  In real life, that doesn’t happen.  You can’t be mushy in Detroit.” (96)

Put another way,

well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, while less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules…

Upper-class parents have more egalitarian relations with their children and are more likely to use reasoning and guilt for discipline, whereas lower-class parents are more likely to use physical punishment, like whupping.(119)

Two experts (Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook) are cited to the effect that these parenting differences are the most decisive for shaping a child’s “school readiness” (122).

Scissors chart about class, education, and parenting

The chapter works this split childrearing culture across a series of registers and research domains, including time spent by parents with children, parents versus grandparents as caregivers, stable versus chaotic family structures, religion, crime, brain development,verbal versus nonverbal parenting, group dinners, “serve and return interactions” (110), and how much a family spends on child care and development.

2. Reflections

This is a very powerful, content-rich chapter.  It draws on a great deal of research, which underpins the long narrative sections.

The chapter ends with a much-appreciated criticism of concerns about helicopter parenting.  Putnam thinks it far less important than “inadequate parenting.” (133)

Here Our Kids returns to an earlier theme, that historical divisions based on race are being exceeded by economic gaps.  Putnam argues that the wealthy black family has more in common with rich families elsewhere than with poor black families nearby (92).  This point should be controversial.

“Parenting” continues earlier chapters’ use of “scissors charts” (first mentioned on 64), these charts showing some issue distributed by class, widening over time.  See above for one example.

The financial sector makes its first appearance, as this chapter’s rich family includes “an IT manager for a major Wall Street firm” (85).  For me this was a welcome if belated sign, as I see financialization playing a huge role in modern economic inequality.

At one point Putnam falls back on a weak view of the digital world, which weakened his previous book Bowling Alone.  Considering child rearing when parents don’t or won’t afford time for intensive engagement, Putnam considers tv watching and internet interaction to be roughly the same, different forms of screen time (128).  That’s a hole which other, better informed research should fill.

3. Questions

Does Putnam’s picture of parenting in the present day match your experience and observations?

Does this chapter give greater nuance to its picture of a society and families redrawn by economic inequality?  Rolin Moe and others have expressed concerns on this score.

How is the town and character narrative structure doing at this point in the book?

How does this chapter handle the challenging question of assigning both agency and responsibility to parents?  I’m still thinking about Laura Blankenship’s concern about victim-blaming.

Where does this chapter sit in situating causes for this divide and these problems?  For example, some critics see Putnam as underemphasizing popular culture’s role.

Next week, chapter 4: “Schooling”.

Previously in our reading:

(Buckhead skyline courtesy of Wikipedia; scissors chart from The Economist)

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22 Responses to Reading Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 3: “Parenting”

  1. Thomas says:

    Interesting reading and lots of avenues for disagreement. I find the efforts to assess child – rearing often leave out the impact socioeconomic status has on prenatal care and nutrition and the subsequent impact on children’s cognitive abilities. An important question that I have yet to be asked: Do we believe our current politically – correct approach to child – rearing has improved our children’s decision – making skills, behaviors, and concern for the collective society?

    • This chapter mentions prenatal care and nutrition as functions of class.

      Great question! Unfortunately our decision-makers and gatekeepers are all products of that kind of child-rearing.

  2. valbock says:

    Putnam’s observations ring reasonably close to my own. I teach karate in a dojo which brings together a range of races and socioeconomic statuses, and I do see the greater emphasis on compliance and respecting elders among the working class and black folks. There’s an overlap there, and I think I attribute it to the sense that there is a great deal more to lose for a poor or Black kid who misbehaves than for a middle or upper class white kid. I will say that out here in the midwest, the folks I know are *all* into hugging and kissing their children, however. The lack of physical affection struck me as possibly a more individual difference than something that might be a pattern. A friend of my daughter’s shared this link, which I think is a thoughtful reflection on the differences noted in this chapter:

    • Respecting elders – one key class difference Putnam identifies is how families treat grandparents for child-rearing purposes. Generally the wealthy families have grandparents contributing money, while the poor folks donate time. Many kids in the latter group grow up with grandfather/mother playing a major role. That’s got to feed into the elder respect angle.

      Good article. I’d add a geographic spin to this. I heard that tough love from many southern parents and kids, both black and white… but never rich.

  3. valbock says:

    Respect is a very interesting thing. I think people attach very different meanings to it. In my white-middle-class upbringing, respecting one’s elders was largely about phrasing challenges respectfully, and about taking no for an answer gracefully, after one’s challenge was overruled. In the working class families I work with, it’s unacceptable to challenge an elder in the first place. Unquestioning compliance is what you are thought to owe those who are providing your livelihood.

    • What happens when those elders no longer provide that livelihood, if they’re unemployed and/or wracked by addictions? Perhaps that’s one source of rebelliousness.

    • Joe Murphy says:

      Valbock, when you say “Unquestioning compliance is what you are thought to owe those who are providing your livelihood,” you’ve hit on a point which has been going through my own head during this chapter. How much of this parenting style might flow from working-class parents’ experiences in employment? It strikes me that the upper-class experience of work generally prizes being “autonomous, independent, (and) self-directed,” whereas the lower rungs of the economy tend to expect compliance and reliability. I wonder if “natural growth” parenting has a component of preparing children to be treated in similar ways on the job (similar to Stephanie’s claim that “touchy-feely” parenting would put her kids at physical risk on the streets of Detroit).

      (This is, of course, variable over situation and time. My grandfather was a white-collar worker for most of his life, but tried to teach his children and grandchildren a compliant approach to work authority based in part on his experiences in the Great Depression.)

  4. geekymom says:

    I really liked this chapter. It rings true on many levels. What I’m left wondering is what can one do about it. If you just “fix” the parenting issues, do the outcomes for the kids improve? I’m guessing not, since it seems that the parenting styles derive largely from the circumstances the families find themselves in. I do take to heart that we overworry about helicopter parenting when the other extreme of that has far worse impacts on the kids and perhaps society as a whole. However, I take Thomas’ point as well, does helicopter parenting lead to an inner focus such that the adults created through such parenting would never begin to think about kids from the other side of the tracks as “their kids”?

    In the school where I teach, I see a little of that, but it’s hard to tell the regular teenage egocentrism from a true separatist attitude toward those from different class backgrounds. In fact, when I’ve seen that kind of attitude, it grates on the kids as well as me. So I feel like there’s a sense that they want to do more, and my hope is that they will begin to address the systemic issues when they have the chance rather than just plug the hole with one-off donations.

    In response to Bryan’s question about victim blaming. I think there’s less of that in this chapter, for sure. However, it’s quite clear that the families of the lower class pictured here lack full agency. They are mostly reactive rather than proactive. They don’t have enough information and their world view is quite small which leads them to settle for less than they could probably get. Was it this chapter that mentioned the research about how decision making is affected by the stress of being poor? That strikes me as pertinent to most of what we’ve seen so far. When you’re worried about paying rent, putting food on the table, etc., your brain’s power is focused on that rather than thinking about how to help your kid with his homework.

    In general, I wish solutions were offered. I hope that’s coming, but maybe not. Because it’s kind of depressing to know these things exist and not have good ways of addressing them.

  5. Hi all — I’ve been away for a while but jumping back in. One issue I have with this chapter is what I call the “nanny show” effect, that smug satisfaction any somewhat normal parent feels when watching one of those shows where the no-nonsense British nanny comes in and fixes the crazy, irresponsible people (“at least my kids don’t….”). I think that 99% of Putnam’s readers are patting themselves on the back during this chapter that they’re good parents, and probably they are, since they’re relatively well-educated adults who spend their leisure time reading about social and political issues. One very creepy moment (I think it was in this chapter – I don’t have the book in front of me) was the mother who insisted her children read every day because she knew it would be good for their long-term success. It did not seem to occur to her that they or she could enjoy reading every day and do so for that reason.

    • Welcome back, Mary!
      I hadn’t thought of that nanny show effect, but it strikes me as a dark power of this book. It must reinforce the class identity of many upper- and upper-middle-class readers.

      re: that creepy moment, I don’t recall reading the wealthy families expressing much intrinsic joy in what they do. Maybe that’s just me.

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  9. I’m finally finding time for more of this book.

    My entire reaction to this chapter is a reflection on my own upbringing. My mother quit working outside the home when she got pregnant with me and never went back. Never. For all the ways I was overly sheltered as a child, there is so much about me that is directly linked to having a stay at home Mom. These are high standards. I have dismissed the idea of having children because I can’t reconcile the way I believe is “best” with what I also know is best for me (good god I can’t even stand my DOGS for four hours without a break.) My family lived on my dad’s one salary and lived pretty comfortably but simply, and a bit off-grid compared to my friends. I spent evenings reading and practicing piano (only 30 minutes tv allowed, and only educational) and summers playing school, going to camp and VBS, and picking/freezing/canning/weeding.

    What my parents and many of their generation fail to understand is how difficult it is to live that way today. I feel that even amongst the middle to upper middle class, two salaries are required, especially if you have chosen jobs in academia, particularly if those jobs are not in the fields traditionally granted the larger salaries. I love my work and I know I make more than most people who struggle but it still sometimes feels like a struggle. I have been much poorer. I have juggled three jobs. I can’t even fathom doing that while also raising a child; I could hardly care for myself.

    On the other hand my parents are not overly affectionate. They believed in corporal punishment past the age it is typically practiced, and due to religious beliefs our home life was very strict. I could still thrive in this environment by being an academic and musical achiever, and that is where I spent my energy. So I saw a little bit of both of these households in my own experience.

    I am fascinated by the connection between childhood development and the brain, and always have been. I was taught about it as a child, actually, since my public school system still had the Talented and Gifted program and we studied our own intelligence (strange meta instruction when you are 8!) As much as I resent some of my childhood as an adult, I can definitely say it was STABLE. What a difference that made.

    • My dear Jenny, thank you for sharing so much of your life. I admire your boldness, and like the way your background sketch ties into Putnam’s chapter (and didn’t know about your musical nature!).

      Excellent point about two incomes. That’s a huge change from just the recent past. And it explains much about the various stories Putnam shares. Notice how many poor folk have one income, and the wealthy families either have two or one very lucrative one?

      PS: what is, or was, VBS?

      • I was a piano major in college, actually. I spent six hours a day playing as well as participating in multiple ensembles as a singer, flutist, or percussionist. I didn’t read much for pleasure in those four important years, which is why I am always feeling behind!!

        VBS = Vacation Bible School. Doctrinally approved church-located day camp of sorts. 🙂

        If I as a relatively wealthy person (in the scheme of things) can’t fathom supporting just my husband and our pet kingdom on one salary, I can’t imagine the life of a single parent raising a family. Phew.

  10. Ryan Martese says:

    Type in quote on page 92. You had “intensive investments of time, money, and thoughtful CAR in raising their kids.” In the book, the quote is “intensive investments of time, money and thoughtful CARE in raising their kids.”

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