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Middle-class parents and poor parents tend to have very different parenting styles, research shows. Why is that, how does it impact future outcomes, and what can we all learn from both parenting styles?

Are you poor? You are probably parenting your kids All Wrong — yes, in capital letters! At least, that's what some people would have you think, and when they write about that, they often point to one person's research in particular.

Sociologist Annette Lareau studied 88 families of different racial and socio-economic class backgrounds and then selected a final 12 for further examination. For three weeks, she and her research team spent lots of time with these families, watching them attend religious services, go doctor's appointments, sports, supermarkets, and spend time at home in the evenings. From this study, the findings of which were published in a book titled Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Lareau concluded that there were two distinct parenting styles.

In short, middle-class families' parenting style was such that they prepared their kids to remain middle class, while working-class families parented in a way that made them remain working class. 

How Does Class Affect Your Parenting?

Middle-class families tended to practice what Lareau calls "concerted cultivation", while she dubbed the style she saw among poorer parents "accomplishment of natural growth". The differences are very significant, with outcomes being just as interesting. So where exactly do middle-class parents differ from working-class parents?

Lareau says about middle-class parents: "They actively foster their children’s talents, opinions, and skills by enrolling the children in organized activities, reasoning with them, and closely monitoring their experiences in institutions such as schools." Examples would include encouraging children to ask why they receive a less-than-stellar grade, preparing them to ask their doctors questions about their health, and explaining routines.

The childhood of the middle-class kids Lareau studied were packed with activities, from sports and other extracurriculars to birthday parties and homework, which the parents took very seriously and spent a lot of time organizing. 

Middle-class kids' childhoods are spent focusing on their individual development through organized activities, which Lareau believes helps them learn how to manage time, challenge authority, and navigate bureaucracy. As time goes on, middle-class children develop an "emerging sense of entitlement". 

The working-class children Lareau observed had completely different childhoods: rather than experiencing dialog-based parenting, they were simply ordered what to do. Unstructured time, time spent exploring the neighborhood with friends or watching TV with their extended family, was another feature of a working-class childhood, according to Lareau. She says: "These parents care for their children, love them, and set limits for them, but within these boundaries, they allow the children to grow spontaneously." Then, she goes on to add that "the working class and poor parents in the study often were very distrustful of contacts with 'the school' and healthcare facilities". Thus, working-class kids develop an "emerging sense of constraint". 

Lareau made it clear that all parents want their children to thrive and be happy, but the ways in which they go about making that happen are very different.

A follow-up of her initial study revealed that working-class children grew into adults who were more likely to have dropped out of high school or at least not to have pursued tertiary education, that they had more work experience than middle-class kids the same age, and that they generally entered adult life earlier.

This follow-up might seem to confirm the initial idea that parenting practices influence socio-economic outcomes, but could other factors be at play, too?

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