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Unequal Childhoods

Class, Race, and Family Life, With an Update a Decade Later

Annette Lareau (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 480 pages
ISBN: 9780520271425
September 2011
$29.95, £24.00
Other Formats Available:
Unequal Childhoods, 2nd edition, contains the now classic analysis of how social class shapes parenting in unexpected fashion in white and African-American families. A decade after the original study, Lareau revisited the families to examine social class in the transition to adulthood. The second edition has 100 pages of new material.

Social Scientists have shown that the social class position of a child’s parents matters. It matters for school success, and ultimately, occupational success. But the mechanisms have been poorly understood. Unequal Childhoods was an “instant classic” as it showed in riveting detail how families with children ten years old went through their daily routines. Middle-class families, black and white, aggressively sought to develop their children’s talents and schools through a series of organized activities, extensive language training, and by overseeing their children’s experiences in institutions such as schools. By contrast, working-class and poor families, black and white, used very scarce resources to take care of their children, but they then gave them free time to hang out, gave them clear directives, and turned over responsibility to schooling. Lareau argued that both of these cultural logics of child rearing had merit, but the middle-class strategy had payoffs in institutions.

Now, Lareau has gone back and found all of the families featured in the book. She interviewed the young adults as they were 19 to 21 years of age; she also interviewed their parents and siblings. As children are transformed into young adults, it is possible that the actions of their parents might matter less. But Lareau found that the power of social class that she witnessed when the children were ten only grew in importance through time. Middle-class parents continued the process of gathering information and intervening in their children’s lives…even when the children had moved hundreds of miles from home. As young adults repeatedly turned to their parents for guidance, the parents treated them, in key ways, as children. In working-class and poor families, the parents saw the young adults as “grown,” which was a view shared by the young adults themselves. Nonetheless, when the kids ran into problems in school or other institutions, the middle-class parents were heavily involved in managing situations to maximize opportunities. The working-class and poor parents loved their children very much, but as when their children were younger, it was harder for them to comply with the demands of professionals. Thus, the trajectories began when the children were ten continued to unfold over time. The middle-class kids generally achieved much more educational success than the working-class and poor kids. Since education is the “800 pound gorilla” for shaping labor market chances, the career prospects of the middle-class young adults are much brighter than their less privileged counterparts. Still, the working-class and poor young adults express much more appreciation for all that their parents have done for them than do the middle-class young adults. And the power of extended family is a guiding force in shaping the lives of working-class and poor lives in a way absent from the middle-class young adults in the study. While we have a language for race in America, on the subject of social class we remain blind and nearly mute. Lareau’s work helps us open our eyes and our minds to how much children’s life paths are structured when they are only ten years of age.
Preface to the Second Edition

1. Concerted Cultivation and the Accomplishment of Natural Growth
2. Social Structure and Daily Life

Part I. Organization of Daily Life
3. The Hectic Pace of Concerted Cultivation: Garrett Tallinger
4. A Child’s Pace: Tyrec Taylor
5. Children’s Play Is for Children: Katie Brindle

Part II. Language Use
6. Developing a Child: Alexander Williams
7. Language as a Conduit for Social Life: Harold McAllister

Part III. Families and Institutions
8. Concerted Cultivation in Organizational Spheres: Stacey Marshall
9. Concerted Cultivation Gone Awry: Melanie Handlon
10. Letting Educators Lead the Way: Wendy Driver
11. Beating with a Belt, Fearing “the School”: Little Billy Yanelli
12. The Power and Limits of Social Class

Part IV. Unequal Childhoods and Unequal Adulthoods
13. Class Differences in Parents’ Information and Intervention in the Lives of Young Adults
14. Reflections on Longitudinal Ethnography and the Families’ Reactions to Unequal Childhoods
15. Unequal Childhoods in Context: Results from a Quantitative Analysis
Annette Lareau, Elliot Weininger, Dalton Conley, and Melissa Velez

Appendix A. Methodology: Enduring Dilemmas in Fieldwork
Appendix B. Theory: Understanding the Work of Pierre Bourdieu
Appendix C. Supporting Tables
Appendix D. Tables for the Second Edition
Revised Bibliography
Annette Lareau is the Stanley I. Sheerr Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is faculty member in the Department of Sociology with a secondary appointment in the Graduate School of Education. Lareau is the author of Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (1989; second edition, 2000), and coeditor of Social Class: How Does it Work? (2009); and Education Research on Trial: Policy Reform and the Call for Scientific Rigor (2009); and Journeys through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts of Fieldwork(1996).
“Lareau's work is well known among sociologists, but neglected by the popular media. And that's a shame because through her close observations and careful writings — in books like ‘Unequal Childhoods’ — Lareau has been able to capture the texture of inequality in America. She's described how radically child-rearing techniques in upper-middle-class homes differ from those in working-class and poor homes, and what this means for the prospects of the kids inside.”—David Brooks New York Times
“This accessible ethnographic study offers valuable insights into contemporary family life in poor, working class and middle class American households. . . . A careful and interesting investigation of life in ‘the land of opportunity’ and the ‘land of inequality.’”—Pw Online Annex
“Uneqal Childhoods is as exciting to read as it is depressing in its implications.” (Four stars)—The Scotsman
“So where does something like practical intelligence come from?...Perhaps the best explanation we have of this process comes from the sociologist Annette Lareau, who...conducted a fascinating study of a group of third graders. You might expect that if you spent such an extended period in twelve different households, what you would gather is twelve different ideas about how to raise children...What Lareau found, however, is something much different.” —Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

"Less than one in five Americans think 'race, gender, religion or social class are very important for getting ahead in life,' Annette Lareau tells us in her carefully researched and clearly written new book. But as she brilliantly shows, everything from looking authority figures in the eye when you shake their hands to spending long periods in a shared space and squabbling with siblings is related to social class. This is one of the most penetrating works I have read on a topic that only grows in importance as the class gap in America widens."—Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind and The Commercialization of Intimate Life

"This is a great book, not only because of its powerful portrayal of class inequalities in the United States and its insightful analysis of the processes through which inequality is reproduced, but also because of its frank engagement with methodological and analytic dilemmas usually glossed over in academic texts. Hardly any other studies have the rich, intensive ethnographic focus on family of Unequal Childhoods." —Diane Reay, American Journal of Sociology

"Lareau does sociology and lay readers alike an important service in her engaging book, Unequal Childhoods, by showing us exactly what kinds of knowledge, upbringing, skills, and bureaucratic savvy are involved in this idea, and how powerfully inequality in this realm perpetuates economic inequality. Through textured and intimate observation, Lareau takes us into separate worlds of pampered but overextended, middle-class families and materially stressed, but relatively relaxed, working-class and poor families to show how inequality is passed on across generations." —Katherine Newman, Contexts

"Sociology at its best. In this major study, Lareau provides the tools to make sense of the frenzied middle-class obsession with their offspring's extracurricular activities; the similarities between black and white professionals; and the paths on which poor and working class kids are put by their circumstances. This book will help generations of students understand that organized soccer and pick-up basketball have everything to do with the inequality of life chances."—Michele Lamont, author of The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration

"Drawing upon remarkably detailed case studies of parents and children going about their daily lives, Lareau argues that middle-class and working-class families operate with different logics of childrearing, which both reflect and contribute to the transmission of inequality. An important and provocative book."—Barrie Thorne, author of Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School

"With rich storytelling and insightful detail, Lareau takes us inside the family lives of poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans and reminds us that class matters. Unequal Childhoods thoughtfully demonstrates that class differences in cultural resources, played out in the daily routines of parenting, can have a powerful impact on children's chances for climbing the class ladder and achieving the American dream. This provocative and often disturbing book will shape debates on the U.S. class system for decades to come."—Sharon Hays, author of Flat Broke with Children

"Drawing on intimate knowledge of kids and families studied at school and at home, Lareau examines the social changes that have turned childhood into an extended production process for many middle-class American families. Her depiction of this new world of childhood--and her comparison of the middle-class ideal of systematic cultivation to the more naturalistic approach to child development to which many working-class parents still adhere--maps a critically important dimension of American family life and raises challenging questions for parents and policy makers."—Paul DiMaggio, Professor of Sociology, Princeton University

"Annette Lareau has written another classic. Her deep insights about the social stratification of family life and childrearing have profound implications for understanding inequality -- and for understanding the daily struggles of everyone attempting to raise children in America. Lareau's findings have great force because they are thoroughly grounded in compelling ethnographic evidence."—Adam Gamoran, Professor of Sociology and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

"With the poignant details of daily life assembled in a rigorous comparative design, Annette Lareau has produced a highly ambitious ethnographic study that reveals how social class makes a difference in children's lives. Unequal Childhoods will be read alongside Sewell and Hauser, Melvin Kohn, and Bourdieu. It is an important step forward in the study of social stratification and family life, and a valuable exemplar for comparative ethnographic work."—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk and Slim's Table

Portraits of the Youth a Decade Later


Note to the reader: The second edition of Unequal Childhoods (2011) shows the continuing influence of social class in the transition to adulthood of the youth featured in the study and presents national data to show that the effect of class differences on children’s participation in organized activities can be seen in a large representative sample. It also describes the reaction of the families studied to the book after its publication. Still, there were space constraints on the amount of information that could be presented about the youth and their families. While the second edition of the book contains the key information, additional details about each of the youth are presented here.


Citation information: Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Second Edition with an Update a Decade Later, University of California Press on-line supplement.


Middle-Class Youth
Melanie Handlon

Stacey Marshall
Garrett Tallinger
Alexander Williams


Working-Class Youth
Wendy Driver
Tyrec Taylor
Billy Yanelli


Poor Youth
Katie Brindle
Harold McAllister


Notes to online portraits

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