I have a nostalgic view of how childhood used to be back in the day. I didn’t get to experience it too much, since like a good Asian boy I practiced the piano all afternoon and then did my supplementary math textbooks. But now and then I would hit the streets and play with my friends. We would play games like Kick the Can, Kickball or touch football… it was glorious. I look fondly back on those treasured memories, and hope that my own kids get a chance to experience that sort of outdoor, child-driven play.

But of course, like any modern parent, after Bee and I started a family, we started to obsess about my kid’s education and childhood development in a way that my parent’s generation never did. I have a special interest in poverty alleviation, and am especially interested in what programs like KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone are doing to turn poverty-stricken kids into college-bound success stories. On a personal level too, I figure that whatever they’re doing is working… so maybe if I can figure out what it is, Charlie and Olive can benefit from those learnings.

So to start learning more, I picked up a copy of, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.” And wow, there were whole chapters on childhood development that blew my mind. This excerpt especially:

The middle-class families [that sociologist Annette Lareau] observed followed a strategy that she labeled “concerted cultivation.” The parents in these families considered a child’s development to be a parent’s responsibility, and so they planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance that development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum. They engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults, and encouraged them to ask questions and challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They taught them how to navigate institutions and get what they needed from professionals like doctors and teachers.


The working-class and poor families did things very differently. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority, or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were told to defer to adults and treat them with respect. Their schedules were less hectic than the middle-class children, and the kids were much better at entertaining themselves. They spent more time with family and less time with instructors and professionals. In every way, there was a sharp and distinct boundary in their lives between the world of adults and the world of children. This strategy Lareau named “accomplishment of natural growth.”

In her book Unequal Childhoods, published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach. Unlike the analysts using the HOME scale, who concluded that certain parenting styles were simply better and others decidedly worse, saw advantages and disadvantages to each strategy. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents, exhausts children, and emphasizes the development of individualism, at times at the expense of the development of the notion of the family group. Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence, and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, she wrote, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.”

Yes, that’s exactly it! That’s what has always bothered me about the modern middle-class upbringing. All those things, in fact. Family is hugely important to me, and I also like how self-directed the “working-class and poor” children are. My mom was an immigrant, and this feels a lot like much of my own upbringing. But then the book goes on to talk about the benefits of “concerted cultivation”:

Modern American culture, Lareau wrote, valued the qualities that middle-class children were developing over the ones that poor and working-class children were developing. “Central institutions in the society, such as schools,” Lareau wrote, “firmly and decisively promote strategies of concerted cultivation in child rearing. For working-class and poor families, the cultural logic of child rearing at home is out of synch with the standards of institutions.” …

Most of the advantages of concerted cultivation are less direct. Middle-class parents get involved in (and occasionally obsessed with) their children’s activities and recreations much more than less well-off parents do. According to Lareau, in poor and working-class homes, “children’s leisure activities are treated as pleasant but inconsequential and a separate world from those of adults,” but in middle-class homes, “things that are important to children can easily become major events for their parents as well.” As a result, Lareau wrote, middle-class children get used to adults taking their concerns seriously. They grow up with a sense of entitlement, rather than a sense of constraint, and that gives them confidence in academic settings. Likewise, the emphasis on reasoning and negotiation in their homes gives middle-class children a natural advantage when dealing with institutions, whether banks or hospitals or schools. Middle-class children look at their teachers as a resource from whom they can demand attention, help, and praise; poor children are taught by their parents to see teachers as authority figures to be deferred to in person and resented at a distance. All of these cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests, and, later in life, in the workplace.

Crap, that really rang true for me. My parents were extremely involved in my education up until seventh grade, when for various reasons that was no longer possible. I realize now that I had a mix between the “concerted cultivation” and the more working-class upbringing… I loved to read and to program computers, so that kind of evened the score. But I did often feel like I was at a disadvantage over other kids, and now I’m beginning to see why.

So what kind of education will we give Charlie and Olive? This final paragraph makes it sound inevitable that they will get the “concerted cultivation” approach:

One surprising finding in Lareau’s research was that middle-class parents seemed mostly to be unaware of the advantages they were conferring on their children. The benefits of concerted cultivation, she wrote, do not “seem to be fully understood by parents.” There was a close fit, she wrote, “between skills children learn in soccer games or at piano recitals and those they will eventually need in white-collar professional or technical positions” – but ask a suburban mom why she was chauffeuring her daughter to an 8:00 A.M. soccer game, and she would say it was because soccer was fun, or good exercise. The transmission of class advantage often took place without notice. Lareau pointed out that the middle-class parents she studied all grew up like the poor or working-class children in her survey, with a lot of unstructured and imaginative play, interacting much more with children than with adults. And yet when it came time for them to raise their own children, they followed a different path.

Will we cultivate our kids along these lines? Holy cow, I realized with a shock that we are already cultivating them! Charlie goes to museums, is about to start soccer in the spring, and in general has way more stimulation than I ever had. And what’s crazy is that I can see how some of his friends are also getting this same upbringing, and it’s making a huge difference for them.

In all honesty, I am a sucker for nostalgia and would love to have our kids have that idyllic childhood that the kids in my neighborhood had: lots of free play outdoors. In fact, I am going to insist that that be a big part of our kids’ lives.

But at the same time, the world is so competitive these days. So many kids are being cultivated… I feel like it’s become a requirement of modern parenting. A big part of me is saddened by this. But another big part of me wants the best for our kids… and it’s becoming clear that concerted cultivation is a key part of that.

Next up, I’m going to read Professor Laureau’s book, “Unequal Childhoods“, to learn more about the pros and cons of all three parenting styles. Hopefully we can blend together the various parenting styles into a healthy hybrid of sorts? I would like to give our kids some balance in our parenting, but don’t feel educated enough to know what that might be. I’ll keep you posted.

How were you raised: did you experience “concerted cultivation”, or were you more often given space and freedom? How do you think you will raise your kids?