Outliers

I’m half way through Malcolm Gladwell’s latest work and found he offers clues to what perpetuates the divide between the haves and have nots.   Interestingly it may be a source for ideas of how we can shrink that divide.  I encourage you to pick up a copy an give it a read, it’s hard to put down.  Here’s an excerpt:

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Perhaps the best explanation we have of this process comes from the sociologist Annette Lareau, who a few years ago conducted a fascinating study of a group of third graders. She picked both blacks and whites and children from both wealthy homes and poor homes, zeroing in, ultimately, on twelve families. Lareau and her team visited each family at least twenty times, for hours at a stretch. She and her assistants told their subjects to treat them like "the family dog," and they followed them to church and to soccer games and to doctor’s appointments, with a tape recorder in one hand and a notebook in the other.

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: there would be the strict parents and the lax parents and the hyperinvolved parents and the mellow parents and on and on. What Lareau found, however, is something much different. There were only two parenting "philosophies," and they divided almost perfectly along class lines. The wealthier parents raised their kids one way, and the poorer parents raised their kids another way.

The wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time, shuttling them from one activity to the next, quizzing them about their teachers and coaches and teammates. One of the well-off children Lareau followed played on a baseball team, two soccer teams, a swim team, and a basketball team in the summer, as well as playing in an orchestra and taking piano lessons.

That kind of intensive scheduling was almost entirely absent from the lives of the poor children. Play for them wasn’t soccer practice twice a week. It was making up games outside with their siblings and other kids in the neighborhood. What a child did was considered by his or her parents as something separate from the adult world and not particularly consequential. One girl from a working-class family—Katie Brindle—sang in a choir after school. But she signed up for it herself and walked to choir practice on her own. Lareau writes:

What Mrs. Brindle doesn’t do that is routine for middleclass mothers is view her daughter’s interest in singing as a signal to look for other ways to help her develop that interest into a formal talent. Similarly Mrs. Brindle does not discuss Katie’s interest in drama or express regret that she cannot afford to cultivate her daughter’s talent. Instead she frames Katie’s skills and interests as character traits—singing and acting are part of what makes Katie "Katie." She sees the shows her daughter puts on as "cute" and as a way for Katie to "get attention."

The middle-class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn’t just issue commands. They expected their children to talk back to them, to negotiate, to question adults in positions of authority. If their children were doing poorly at school, the wealthier parents challenged their teachers. They intervened on behalf of their kids. One child Lareau follows just misses qualifying for a gifted program. Her mother arranges for her to be retested privately, petitions the school, and gets her daughter admitted. The poor parents, by contrast, are intimidated by authority. They react passively and stay in the background. Lareau writes of one low-income parent:

At a parent-teacher conference, for example, Ms. McAllister (who is a high school graduate) seems subdued. The gregarious and outgoing nature she displays at home is hidden in this setting. She sits hunched over in the chair and she keeps her jacket zipped up. She is very quiet. When the teacher reports that Harold has not been turning in his homework, Ms. McAllister clearly is flabbergasted, but all she says is, "He did it at home." She does not follow up with the teacher or attempt to intervene on Harold’s behalf. In her view, it is up to the teachers to manage her son’s education. That is their job, not hers.

Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style "concerted cultivation." It’s an attempt to actively "foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills." Poor parents tend to follow, by contrast, a strategy of "accomplishment of natural growth." They see as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own.

Lareau stresses that one style isn’t morally better than the other. The poorer children were, to her mind, often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence. But in practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. The heavily scheduled middleclass child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to. In Lareau’s words, the middle-class children learn a sense of "entitlement."

That word, of course, has negative connotations these days. But Lareau means it in the best sense of the term: "They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. They appeared comfortable in those settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention It was common practice among middle-class children to shift interactions to suit their preferences." They knew the rules. "Even in fourth grade, middle-class children appeared to be acting on their own behalf to gain advantages. They made special requests of teachers and doctors to adjust procedures to accommodate their desires."

By contrast, the working-class and poor children were characterized by "an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint." They didn’t know how to get their way, or how to "customize"—using Lareau’s wonderful term—whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.

In one telling scene, Lareau describes a visit to the doctor by Alex Williams, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, Christina. The Williamses are wealthy professionals.

"Alex, you should be thinking of questions you might want to ask the doctor," Christina says in the car on the way to the doctor’s office. "You can ask him anything you want. Don’t be shy. You can ask anything."

Alex thinks for a minute, then says, "I have some bumps under my arms from my deodorant." Christina: "Really? You mean from your new deodorant?" Alex: "Yes." Christina: "Well, you should ask the doctor."

Alex’s mother, Lareau writes, "is teaching that he has the right to speak up"—that even though he’s going to be in a room with an older person and authority figure, it’s perfectly all right for him to assert himself. They meet the doctor, a genial man in his early forties. He tells Alex that he is in the ninety-fifth percentile in height. Alex then interrupts:

ALEX: I’m in the what?

DOCTOR: It means that you’re taller than more than ninety-five out of a hundred young men when they’re, uh, ten years old.

ALEX: I’m not ten.

DOCTOR: Well, they graphed you at ten. You’re—nine years and ten months. They—they usually take the closest year to that graph.

Look at how eas
ily Alex interrupts the doctor—"I’m not ten." That’s entitlement: his mother permits that casual incivility because she wants him to learn to assert himself with people in positions of authority.

THE DOCTOR TURNS TO ALEX: Well, now the most important question. Do you have any questions you want to ask me before I do your physical?

ALEX: Um…only one. I’ve been getting some bumps on my arms, right around here (indicates underarm).

DOCTOR: Underneath?

ALEX: Yeah.

DOCTOR: Okay. I’ll have to take a look at those when I come in closer to do the checkup. And I’ll see what they are and what I can do. Do they hurt or itch?

ALEX: No, they’re just there.

DOCTOR: Okay, I’ll take a look at those bumps for you.

This kind of interaction simply doesn’t happen with lower-class children, Lareau says. They would be quiet and submissive, with eyes turned away. Alex takes charge of the moment. "In remembering to raise the question he prepared in advance, he gains the doctor’s full attention and focuses it on an issue of his choosing," Lareau writes.

In so doing, he successfully shifts the balance of power away from the adults and toward himself. The transition goes smoothly. Alex is used to being treated with respect. He is seen as special and as a person worthy of adult attention and interest. These are key characteristics of the strategy of concerted cultivation. Alex is not showing off during his checkup. He is behaving much as he does with his parents—he reasons, negotiates, and jokes with equal ease.

It is important to understand where the particular mastery of that moment comes from. It’s not genetic. Alex Williams didn’t inherit the skills to interact with authority figures from his parents and grandparents the way he inherited the color of his eyes. Nor is it racial: it’s not a practice specific to either black or white people. As it turns out, Alex Williams is black and Katie Brindle is white. It’s a cultural advantage. Alex has those skills because over the course of his young life, his mother and father—in the manner of educated families—have painstakingly taught them to him, nudging and prodding and encouraging and showing him the rules of the game, right down to that little rehearsal in the car on the way to the doctor’s office.

When we talk about the advantages of class, Lareau argues, this is in large part what we mean. Alex Williams is better off than Katie Brindle because he’s wealthier and because he goes to a better school, but also because—and perhaps this is even more critical—the sense of entitlement that he has been taught is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.

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2 thoughts on “Outliers

  1. Very interesting… I will order this work from Amazon today. Yet, I must confess that there are no surprises here.
    I personally grew up in a ‘poor’ household with similar parenting style, yet like Katie, I simply made my own way and in doing so, rose above ‘my place’ in society. I can recall my father, God rest his soul, who thinking to protect me from my self, would often remind me: “know your place son!”
    I was fortunate to have married a young lady who was a self-motivated, and together we achieved an upper middle class life style, which greatly benefited our children and has in no small measure contributed to their own individual and personal success. However, I also must confess that were it entirely up to me, all the structured activities would likely not have been achieved to the same extend as happened.
    Could it be that the higher-achieving parents, who very likely came from lower income homes, used their individual personal drives to succeed and to do a little better than their respective parents were able to? The facts seem to support this!
    What would be very revealing, is in 15 years time, observe where Katie is on the social income ladder, compared to Alex. She is ‘teaching’ herself to deal with adults and to stand up for what she believes is her basic right.
    In my own case, my desire to become successful in my chosen field, and to contribute to society on many different levels, and to rise above my ‘born – place’ has served me well. This cannot be said for some of my younger siblings.
    So, in conclusion, it seems that the more affluent parents will, on balance, successfully work their way out of jobs – and that the extra effort being involved in their children’s young lives by providing structure will ensure each successive generation will achieve even more… but not in all cases.
    There is however the real possibility that over achieving parents could also fill their young children’s lives to the point that their formative years are so structured that the joys of childhood and growing into young adults will prove counterproductive. Alas, the daily news is full of headlines about very well-to-do parents whose young adult children have chosen very destructive paths, as is the case in today’s Mid Ocean.
    My father’s words sometimes haunt me, but only because I did not make the effort to explain to him, that his view of ‘my place’ and my desire to be as good as anyone else, regardless of their place, was worth the risk.
    This is a very thought provoking piece Denis, thank you for taking time to write it.

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