The Unintended Consequences of Concerted Cultivation

One of my favorite works by a sociologist is Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. Unlike most academic books today, it is engaging and eminently readable. It is largely devoid of jargon. Writing in the early 2000s, Lareau was amongst the first to identify dramatic shifts in how middle and upper middle class parents go about raising their kids.

She argued that middle class parenting has become more intense and demanding. Children are shuffled from one structured activity to another as parents seek to cultivate their children’s talents and skills. From travel soccer practice to art class to SAT prep. Children are encouraged to interact with adults as equals. From an early age, they are taught to share their thoughts and preferences with those in positions of authority. Authority within the family is founded on reasoning and discussion rather than the exercise of authority arising from one’s status as a parent. The world of childhood is adult organized and adult directed.

Lareau contrast this new approach to parenting, which she refers to as “concerted cultivation,” to the more traditional approach to childrearing, which she terms “the accomplishment of natural growth.” The world of childhood in this more traditional form of parenting is child organized and directed. Children pass their time playing alone or with their siblings, neighbors, and cousins. They choose their own activities and the games they want to play. Oftentimes, they create their own games and rules. They explore the outdoors. They ride their bikes around the neighborhood. They get into disagreements and fights, and resolve their arguments amongst themselves. They daydream and pass the time doing nothing in particular.

It has now been fifteen years since the publication of Unequal Childhoods. In the intervening years, middle and upper middle class parenting styles have become even more intense and demanding. Concerted cultivation gave way to helicopter parenting, which in turn gave way to snowplow parenting. Children’s worlds have become even more dominated by adults and structured activities.

The first generations of “concerted cultivation,” “helicopter,” and “snowplow” kids have finished college and entered the workforce. Last Sunday, The New York Times ran an excellent op-ed titled “We Have Ruined Childhood” by Kim Brooks describing the fallout from depriving kids of their childhood. Higher rates of depression and anxiety. More suicide. The erosion of kids’ social skills and the ability to form friendships. To her list, I would add a fear of failure and risk-taking. A lack of intellectual independence and curiosity. An inability to deal with and resolve conflicts, whether interpersonal or intellectual. A need for safe spaces and trigger warnings.

In trying to do better by our kids, we have made them more fragile, weaker, less curious, and more fearful and stressed. Focusing so intently from an early age on cultivating our kids talents and skills, on keeping them safe, on preparing them for matriculation at an elite college has robbed our kids of the very things most of us want for them. Independence. Confidence and strength. Resilience. Intellectual curiosity. Strong and durable friendships. Emotional stability. Joy and happiness.

How do we begin to restore our kids’ childhood? I have a few ideas.

First, we need to let our kids be kids again. Let them be bored. Let them play unsupervised. Let them organize their own time, with the only rule being “no TV, no devices.” Let them explore the outdoors. Let them argue and occasionally fight with their friends. Let them resolve their own conflicts. Let them make mistakes. Let them waste their time. Let them do some stupid things.

Second, we need to stop viewing every parenting decision through the lens of our kids’ college placement and cognitive-athletic-artistic development. We need to cultivate our kids less. They need fewer tutors, fewer travel teams and athletic trainers, fewer piano lessons, fewer after-school art and Tae Kwon Do classes. They need more time for aimless exploration, experimentation, and failure. They need the time and space to plot their own future, to develop their own interests, to pursue some dead ends, to reinvent themselves. Most importantly, we need to stop thinking that every parenting decision, every missed opportunity, every setback during childhood and adolescence will impact our kids’ future. It won’t. Contra-Fitzgerald, one of the great things about American society is that there are plenty of “seconds acts in American life.”

Third, we need to be less fearful as parents. We need to give our kids longer leashes. We need to let them walk up to and cross our comfort boundaries more often. We need to let them climb that rock face that seems a little bit too high for them. We need to let them bike to that friend’s house that seems a little bit too far away. We need to use the words “be careful” and “no” much less often. We need to use the words “give it a try” and “yes” much more often. We need to audit our own thoughts, behavior, and body language to make sure we aren’t consciously or unconsciously telling our kids that the world is a scary place and other people are to be mistrusted.

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