New Read, New Perspective

I’m only two chapters into Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough, and I’m already so intrigued by this story on education, poverty, and trying to change the life of kids living in Harlem.

Geoffrey Canada grew up in poverty in Harlem and successfully climbed to middle-class status and feels utterly grateful for how he got to where he is today. Thus, Canada began working to help other Harlem kids catch up on their academics, but after spending years working in an after-school program he started to become frustrated with just how many kids were still slipping through the cracks. Whatever it Takes details the journey Canada took to start the Harlem Children’s Zone with the goal being, “to transform every aspect of the environment that poor children were growing up in; to change the way their families raised them and the way their schools taught them as well as the character of the neighborhood that surrounded them” (Tough 19). This new approach Canada believed had the potential to change the way Americans viewed poverty and change the lives of poor children by the masses so they could “grow into fully functioning participants in mainstream American middle-class life” (Tough 4).

So why are poor people poor? Chapter two of Whatever it Takes presents a lot of research from different perspectives that attempt to answer this question. Honestly, it was fascinating to read about completely conflicting ideas society has concluded about poverty. Is it all about money, or what else might be a part of this story? Does government aid help or hinder? What resources are most key to success? How do parenting styles affect child development?

These various researchers did seem to agree on a few things: intelligence is highly valued in today’s society, intelligence and socioeconomic status are correlated, children intelligence is correlated with the intelligence levels of their parents, there are distinct parenting style differences between the middle class and poor.

The most interesting area of consideration to me was the concept of different parenting styles and the developmental effects they have on kids.

In particular, I enjoyed reading about Annette Lareau, sociologist and author of Unequal Childhoods, who was discussed as an example of someone focusing on the assets of all types of parenting; rather than looking at parenting styles with a conclusion of “this way is better.” Lareau’s theory is that middle-class parents treat kids like, “apprentice adult,” meaning that they are invited into conversations almost as equals and are encouraged to “ask questions and challenge assumptions and negotiate rules” (Tough 49). Additionally, middle-class children have very busy schedules with activities that the entire family will get involved in. Meanwhile, poor families had very different parenting styles. Children in poor families learn to entertain themselves in creative ways due to participating in far fewer extracurriculars, and kids learn to treat adults with respect; in Lareau’s study, she observed “much less freedom to talk back, question authority, or haggle over rules and consequences” in poor households (Tough 49).

Lareau concludes that the middle-class parenting style emphasis individualism at the expense of developing the family group which is developed more so in a poor family.

I fear my summarizing is far oversimplifying all of this information, but what really interested me in all of this is how recently I have observed the notion and stigma of “entitlement” becoming more common. Yet, Lareau seems to believe the middle-class parenting style is both creating this sense of entitlement while also developing the individual and skills that are currently preferred by modern American culture in the workplace: learning how to question, challenge, negotiate, multitask, and represent ones’ self.

So I guess my question is: Have we gone too far?

In my head I visualize the idea of skills gained from parenting styles as a parabola; for so long we have valued in the workplace the skills associated with middle-class parenting styles, thus my theory is, these parental tendencies were enhanced in an attempt to enhance the skills being developed by new generations of kids entering the workforce. However, like all things, you can almost always have too much. Have we too strongly favored the middle-class parenting values and now one of the outcomes – entitlement – has reached a tipping point where the parenting style is, in fact, creating undesirable outcomes?

Do we perhaps need to put a greater emphasis on fostering good family relations and respect as is found to be more commonly fostered in poor families? How do we do this? How is this cultural norm that is so deeply in rooted in our modern American culture shifted to be better balanced?

I don’t even know the true magnitude of this supposed entitlement problem I am proposing, but from my experience working with children in gymnastics, I know children behavior and belief of being “deserving” has seemed to have grown significantly in the past few years even. Meanwhile, families seem to almost always be “unique” or “broken” or “untraditional” or whatever you want to call it that boils down to the idea that families spend less time together. Seems like there could be a greater correlation there and that was just really fascinating to me.

I truly appreciate when required learning is fascinating enough to feel like you’re just learning because you want to be, and that’s so far what the entire summer program I’m on has felt like, so I am especially grateful and excited for the future learning to come in the next 6 weeks.

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