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.
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”.
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 car 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).
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.
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.
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: