democracy's parents: developmental engagements

gary e. davis
March 2006

Annette Lareau, Professor of Sociology, at Temple University, recently completed an ethnographic study of parenting styles (her researchers more or less lived with the families) that complements Habermas’ cognitivist focus on communicative action (though she doesn’t mention Habermas)—and provides a micro-level complement to the macro-level focus on human development I discussed yesterday and recalls the distinction between paternalistic parent-child relations vs. adult-child, educational relations that I mentioned to Bill Barger. | August 29, 2010: But the following isn’t a general approach to parenting, which is very important to me; and developing.

Unequal childhoods: class, race, and family life, 2003, by Lareau, finds that successful children are far more communicatively engaged by their parents, for the sake of facilitating broad engagement of their children’s lives, than are the parents of unsuccessful children. This might seem unsurprising; but what’s interesting is what the parents of successful children do: They’re enmeshed in a syndrome, so to speak, that educes cognitive development and independence, whereas the parents of unsuccessful children tend to believe that letting their children have “freedom”—that “natural growth” takes care of itself—is good parenting.

The parents of successful children have a sense of “bugging” and tracking their kids, reasoning with them rather than dictating, insisting on their involvement in this-and-that—what Lareau calls “Concerted Cultivation” (CC below). Parents of unsuccessful children tend to have a “Natural Growth” (NG) attitude toward good parenting.

From the table on page 31 of her book:

language use: CC involves trying to reason with the kids and justify directives; NG tends to simply issue directives. CC acquiesces to “child contestation” of adult statements; NG doesn’t find questioning acceptable. CC: “extended negotiations between parent and child”; NG: “general acceptance by child of directives”

intervention in institutions: CC: “criticisms and interventions on behalf of child” (caused by non-acceptance of constraints); NG: “dependence on institutions” (caused by acceptance of constraints). CC: “training of child to take on this role”; NG: “sense of powerlessness and frustration” and “conflict between childrearing practices at home” (paternalistic parent-to-child) “and at school” (adult-to-child).

organization of daily life: CC: “multiple child leisure activities orchestrated by adults”; NG: “‘hanging out’, particularly with kin, by child”

key elements: CC: “Parent actively fosters and assesses child’s talents, opinions, and skills”; NG: “Parent cares for child and allows child to grow”

consequences: CC: “emerging sense of entitlement on the part of the child”; NG: “ emerging sense of constraint on the part of the child”

This is a developmental class difference—not as such a socioeconomic class difference with different developmental correlates (though this may happen to be the case, too); rather, a differentiation of developmentality that fosters socioeconomic class difference! This is not a chicken-and-egg quibble. It’s within one’s power to learn to change developmental class when it’s not yet in one’s power to change socioeconomic class. The ambitious mentality of the voluntary immigrant who turns out to thrive may be equally available to the native poor who persistently fail. Americans know about African-American Bill Cosby’s rants of recent years. (The comedian has a PhD in education, by the way.)

African-American, Harvard sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Orlando Patterson wrote last Sunday in the NY Times, “A Poverty of the Mind”:

Several recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.

The main cause for this shortcoming is a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960’s: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group’s cultural attributes—its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members—and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing....What’s most interesting about the recent spate of studies is that analysts seem at last to be recognizing what has long been obvious to anyone who takes culture seriously: socioeconomic factors are of limited explanatory power. Thus it’s doubly depressing that the conclusions they draw and the prescriptions they recommend remain mired in traditional socioeconomic thinking.... Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations?....First is the pervasive idea that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim; that they focus on internal behavioral factors and, as such, hold people responsible for their poverty, rather than putting the onus on their deprived environment. (It hasn’t helped that many conservatives do actually put forth this view.) But this argument is utterly bogus. To hold someone responsible for his behavior is not to exclude any recognition of the environmental factors that may have induced the problematic behavior in the first place.

This isn’t just an African-American problem, by the way; it’s also a rural-white, American “South” problem (where I grew up). It’s also a developing-nations problem (not basically a “postcolonial” problem!).

So, how should we hold people responsible in their environment without holding them responsible for their environment (i.e., blaming them)? But wait: What’s wrong with a degree of blame, given an appropriate sense of this? What’s an appropriate sense of this? For example, if an educational program is made available (e.g., a dedicated home-school partnership program in one’s neighborhood), and the parents of unsuccessful kids don’t participate, what’s to be thought? (A dedicated program is one actively engaged in outreach, support, intervention, monitoring, follow-up, and—given chronic conditions—reframed cycles of this.)

How should one manage the problem-solving relationship? How should one approach instilling adult-to-child skills in paternalistic (or passive, if not destructive) parent-to-child relations that embody a laissez-faire or “Natural Growth” attitude? We have here a therapeutic issue, an “emancipatory” issue that requires facilitating family-centered developmental processes, in effect—to put it abstractly—re-historizing the environment through educational and therapeutic activity, in a broad-based sense of this (community-based human development).

Returning to Patterson:

It is often assumed [in social science] that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense. Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior.

But Patterson is being typically sociocentric by not leading attention toward the real locus of human agency (psychoeducational development) and the real problem: cultural lifeworlds that are dysfunctional. There’s need to become an origin of cultural transformation, “walking the talk.”

People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want. The same cultural patterns can frame different kinds of behavior,...

But the keynote should be of a different kind: getting beyond the frame into the picture to face gaining capability to own action (activity, practices, habits)—behaviors won’t do it—which is durably constructive.

...and by failing to explore culture at any depth, analysts miss a great opportunity to re-frame attitudes in a way that encourages desirable behavior and outcomes.

See, this isn’t a competence-oriented (or capabilities-focusing) approach to change.

My favorite is Jim Crow, that deeply entrenched set of cultural and institutional practices built up over four centuries of racist domination and exclusion of blacks by whites in the South.Nothing could have been more cultural than that. And yet America was able to dismantle the entire system within a single generation, so much so that today blacks are now making a historic migratory shift back to the South, which they find more congenial than the North.

After sharing some background that I’m interpolating below, Patterson continues:

..So why were [black youths] flunking out [when they showed clear appreciation of the need for educational success]? Their candid answer was that...the “cool-pose culture” [so-called by sociologists] of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation’s best entertainers were black.

ot only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America’s largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book [emphasis added].

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is—or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

Of course, such attitudes explain only a part of the problem. In academia, we need a new, multidisciplinary approach toward understanding what makes young black men behave so self-destructively. Collecting transcripts of their views and rationalizations is a useful first step, but won’ t help nearly as much as the recent rash of scholars with tape-recorders seem to think. Getting the facts straight is important, but for decades we have been overwhelmed with statistics on black youths, and running more statistical regressions is beginning to approach the point of diminishing returns to knowledge.

The tragedy unfolding in our innercities is a time-slice of a deep historical process that runs far back through the cataracts and deluge of our racist past[, though m]ost black Americans have by now, miraculously, escaped its consequences...

But it’s not miraculous at all. They did the work (likewise for AsianAmerican success). And the work done may be relevant to developing regions outside the U.S. (e.g., Arab life in Europe, Chinese life around new urbanization, etc.).

The families that Lareau’s research group studied in intricate detail included AfricanAmerican families as well as AngloAmerican (I don’t like “Black“ and “White“). The developmental class difference is not an ethnic matter; it’s an individualized developmental matter, a parenting matter, an educational matter, an emancipatory matter that crosses ethnic, even socioeconomic, lines—a matter to be constructively owned by the only “forces” that can cause aggregate affects: the persons living the matter. Sociocentric thinking has a kind of natural-growth perspective on social progress that welcomes theory’s abstract sense of practice: Create a resourceful program that embodies all your favorite policy values and let things take their natural course, while the trench-level dynamics of progress remain a black box. (Clinton’s welfare reform approach was considered harsh at the beginning, but it works.) Sociocentric thinking is underdeveloped in its appreciation of the psychoeducational “mechanics” (including “tough love”) of real social progress.

I don’t mean to imply that dedicated home-school partnership, for example, is the miracle cure for social evolution. But, as far as my experience goes, that example seems to be almost a miracle cure (given a dedicated intervention cycle like I mentioned above).


There has been a long-running controversy in educational studies about the chicken-and-egg dynamic of education vs. socioeconomic success: Which is the crucial factor for the other, since data standardly show that socioeconomically successful families have children that go further in education, thus promoting socioeconomic success, which is correlated with even more higher education?

The case for the primacy of socioeconomic success implies that educational reform more geared to the job market (rather than “academics”) would help kids who were failing in the standard curriculum. But, since the job market needs academic skills, how about integrating academic skills into vocational programs? Make the academics “real world”. Appreciate the “hands-on” style of some learners. In short, educate for socioeconomic success rather than general human development.

I flew around the U.S. for several years (thanks to federal funding) ethnographing, if you will, model programs in academic-vocational integration for high school students. To make a long story shorter than otherwise, it doesn’t work. The standard academics instill an “abstract” capability for adaptation to new learning environments that vocationally “situated learning” (Jean Lave, Situated Learning) does not especially facilitate, not because learning should be abstract; all learning needs to be situated!—rather, because the situation of vocationally-integrated academics (or vice versa) doesn’t provide the variety-of-context challenges that the fast-evolving economy needs, i.e., the self-directed learning that is flexibly adaptive (also the cultural development opportunities for those “self-expressive” values that cause effective democracy; and for the self-reflective skills that make constructive decisions), and which the standard curriculum facilitates at far less cost than otherwise (academic-vocational education—increasingly the orientation of community colleges—calls for compensatory cultural opportunities specially planned that the normal educational environment already integrates).

So, the key to socioeconomic success is making an enlightened sense of the standard curriculum work well—creative educational leadership. What’s an enlightened sense of educational reform? creative educational leadership? That’s a long story.

But one kind of point I want to note here: For most college students in late teens, education is largely funded play. I’m regularly amazed by the leisure culture around the campus. It continues a teen freedom of self formation, so vital in high school, that gets denied to youth who go into the job market or the military directly after high school. I guess the reality is that high school success wins unchaparoned, funded freedom that less-successful high school careers don’t win. This, it seems to me, has much to do with the resultant socioeconomic class differences, including early childbearing (thus poorer parenting) than otherwise. All youth should have the chance to more or less postpone adulthood until the early-to-mid ’20s, the opportunity that is standard (funded) for the college-bound. Getting the chance to explore—to put off adulthood until the mid-’20s— has become anthropologically vital. Heck, medical wonders will soon let us live to 120, right? (Creating barriers to planned parenthood is obscene.)


My discussion-list rants about the primacy of psychology and individuation, against sociocentrism, for virtue of cognitive-developmental thinking, raised to philosophical proportions, is not an academic entertainment. Nor is that a philosophization of my own experience—well, not entirely:

Though activist in spirit, I’m decidely more interested in the academics of this than your standard progressive practitioner (the literature abounds with neat handbooks). My sense of the difficulties of bridging “theory” and “practice,” which Habermas expressed in the ‘70s—and his career expresses (philosopher vs. public intellectual)—arises from my own experience during that time forward, and my adult life happens to have developed in close proximity to the appearance in English of Habermas’ work, as I went back and forth between graduate work and the trenches, university and street.

I promised last year—yikes! late 2004—to get into a close reading of Habermas’ last chapter of Truth & Justification, “The Relationship between Theory and Practice Revisited,” but have not. I’ve been too interested in purely philosophical matters (unreported) to continue the theory-practice venture recently. Yet, the above discussion fits that interest exactly in the spirit of Habermas: research-based theorization (which is a formal sense of my bias for theorizing from practice). I don’t know whether I’ll pursue the “and” of the revisitation in light of Habermas’ discussion, as his most-philosophical work of recent years is more interesting (primarily relative to others just as interesting to me). But I’m ever-aware of the “Theory”/“theory” difference that I indicated, as theory (link directly above)—and try to practice via discussion.


You can appreciate that the distance from microanalysis to macroanalysis is vast. Standard discursive formations offer historical architecture for managing scales of inquiry and guiding “discourses of appropriation” rightly. (Ah, yes: rightness. It’s more a matter of appropriation than justice. Justice is fairness. Rightness belongs with what’s good—not as primarily a counterpoint to what’s good—contrary to how Habermas and others understand the difference.... Now there's a can of worms. Is “what's good” the Good? Is Robert Audi’s recent book mistitled?: The Good in the Right: a theory of intuition and intrinsic value, Princeton, 2004. Can the efficacy of mature autonomy look like a cognitivist ethical inuitionism?—steeped in the humanitarian values of humanistic self-formation? Is this “authentic existence“?....)

Discursive work is difficult at the level of conceptual designing, and I own entitlement to take things where I find appropriate—which includes being as difficult as interests me. I tell you: There’s little that I find more fun (but...).

Of course, you’re free to loose patience and not contribute to my edification.

Needing to translate is always manageable, in principle (even if time’s not on one’s side). Better that than having little worth re-thinking. Engaging me to want to translate is delicious, because there I learn something.