Unequal Genes: A Review of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life


Going through a humanities program at an American university, I learned that the evidence for hereditarianism isn’t so much argued against as it is ignored.  For example, a class would be given a paper to read on case studies of how words are used in middle-class and lower-class homes, and then the direct link would be made to the lower classes doing relatively poorly on standardized tests, without any other hypothesis being considered.

A person who does honest research and looks at questions of what causes different life outcomes from all possible perspectives finds out that cross-adoption studies show that unrelated people who grew up in the same home are no more alike than any two strangers in the general population.  To many in academia, the research on nature/nurture might as well have never been done.

So why read a book like Unequal Childhoods?  Annette Lareau, a sociologist at Temple University, is part of the know-nothing tradition of the human sciences.  Building on observations of children from 88 families, she and her associates provide in-depth observations of 12 families with nine- or ten-year-olds — six White families, five Black and one interracial.  The families were divided into three categories based on education and economic situation: middle and upper class, working class, and lower class.  From comparing the kind of interactions the children have with their families and the outside world, the author thinks that she can explain how unequal childhoods lead to unequal adulthoods.

Although Lareau’s conclusions are wrong, the book proves interesting for two reasons.  First of all, she inadvertently shows that environmentalist ideology — the belief that who we are is shaped mostly by what happens to us — has led to the middle class being absolutely miserable.  Secondly, she provides an intriguing account of how people of different IQs interact with each other and how they deal with government and private institutions.

Why the Middle Class Is Neurotic

The main dividing line that the author finds is between the middle/upper class and the two lower ones.  It’s common among educated Americans to follow the advice of experts, who in recent decades have made suggestions such as avoiding corporal punishment and treating children as equals.  The middle and upper class follow a parenting style the author calls concerned cultivation, while the lower and working classes follow one of accomplishment of natural growth.

Concerned Cultivation Accomplishment of Natural Growth
Key Elements Parent actively fosters and assesses child’s talents, opinions, and skills Parent cares for child and allows child to grow
Organization of Daily Life Multiple child leisure activities orchestrated by adults Child “hangs out,” particularly with kin
Language Use Reasoning/directives;Child contests adult statements;Extended negotiations between parents and child Directives;Rare questioning or challenging of adults by child;Child generally accepts parent directives
Intervention in Institutions Criticisms and interventions on behalf of child;Training of child to take on this role Dependence on institutions;Sense of powerlessness and frustration;Conflict between child-rearing practices at school and at home
Consequences Emerging sense of entitlement on the part of the child Emerging sense of constraint on the part of the child

The author finds that there are few differences in child-rearing between Blacks and Whites of the same social class.  Race is little more than an afterthought in the book.  What Lareau fails to inform the reader is that middle- and upper-class Blacks do worse on standardized tests than Whites of the working and lower classes.  This fact has led some gene-ignoring researchers to claim there’s a sort of hidden institutional racism X-factor that holds Black children back.  With this author, however, this inconvenient piece of data is ignored.

Families are given their own chapters to illustrate each point.  We start with the Tallingers (all names are fake).  The parents appear to be of North European descent, both with Ivy League degrees. They are raising three boys, including nine-year-old Garrett who is the target of the study.  He has an IQ of 119, but his passion is sports.  A table of his activities for the month of May shows one week where he participates in soccer four times, baseball three times, swimming five times, and basketball once.

Lower-class children participate much less in extracurricular activities, and, when they do, the parents don’t attach nearly as much importance to them.  The Tallingers live their entire lives around Garrett’s sports practices and piano lessons.  They will rearrange their work schedules in order to give him a ride to where he needs to be.  The other two comparatively inactive sons are often dragged along and grow resentful of their brother.  Middle-class children in general have relatively poor relationships with their siblings during childhood. Middle class children also have no relationships with their extended kin — an element of the individualist tendencies of Western family structure.  The family structure itself seems fragile: If a soccer match is scheduled for the same time as a family outing, the sporting event tends to get priority.

While Garrett enjoys his busy schedule, he is often exhausted.  The parents put up with the inconveniences because they’re convinced that their son gains an advantage from all this activity.  Middle-class children spend most of their leisure time in events organized by adults.  The author calls this a “bureaucratic” existence.

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All these activities don’t just consume time, but money.  The Tallingers estimate that the extracurricular activities of Garrett alone cost $4,000 a year, and that excludes any lost work productivity on the part of the adults.  Seeing the time and money middle- and upper-class parents are putting into each of their children, it’s no wonder that they have so few of them.

Environmentalist ideology has led society’s genetic elite to absurdly overestimate what a stimulating environment can do for their children, and needlessly fear a less managed existence.  After giving a son or daughter the basic necessities of life and educational opportunities, further investments likely result in diminishing returns.  If intelligent parents knew this, they would be less busy, have much less anxiety and possibly have more children, since doing so would be more financially feasible and enjoyable.

The Tallingers contrast sharply with the Black working-class Taylors.  Nine-year-old Tyrec lives with his mother, a thirteen-year-old sister and an eighteen-year-old stepbrother.  Besides occasionally going to Sunday school, the target of the study lives an unstructured existence.  Once he begged his mom to let him play football.  After she relented, he wanted to quit when the sport cut into his playtime.  Ms. Taylor made him finish the year, but was relieved that he didn’t go back for the next season.  She didn’t see organized activities as worth the time or expense.  They were simply something to fill a schedule and wouldn’t have much effect on how her children turned out.

So Tyrec spends his time in a more relaxed environment.  The kids in the neighborhood play outside in informal games.  They go at their own pace and are rarely irritated or exhausted.  While a middle-class child with a free afternoon will claim to be bored, the less-well-off have learned to make their own fun.  The working- and lower-class children live close to cousins whom they often see and they get along with them better than with their siblings.  Family outings are more important than organized sports or music lessons.  While middle-class families will make a child’s activities a constant topic of conversation, the working class rarely does.

An interview with Ms. McAllister, the matriarch of a Black family that lives in the projects, reveals that she considers herself a good parent because she provides food, clothing and shelter for her children, or at least gets the state to provide it.  Such parents see their job as setting limits for their children and letting them develop, while middle class parents see child-rearing as an activity of constantly cultivating a child’s talents.

A striking racial difference in child rearing among the two lower classes that the author ignores is which relatives Black and White families have around.  In poorer Black households men generally aren’t around and sisters seem to pool their children.  The above-mentioned Ms. McAllister provides a home for her sister’s children whenever they show up.  While poor Whites see their extended kin more often than rich Whites, this kind of “your children are my children” attitude is nowhere to be found.

The Use of Language

The author believes that the way middle-class parents speak to their children is what leads to class differences in verbal competence.  Middle-class people use puns, discuss the meanings of words, and enjoy language for its own sake.  A Black-middle class child suggests that he copy something for his school assignment.  His mother informs him that that’s “plagiarism,” thinking that she would introduce the word into her son’s vocabulary.  The child, Alex, responds, “That’s only if it is copyrighted.”  Discussions about the nuances of the meaning of words come up in spontaneous conversations.  Such exchanges are nonexistent in lower-class households.

The obvious reason for this is that the lower classes know fewer words, and the ones that they are familiar with aren’t interesting as topics of conversation.  Lareau seems to understand this; in a footnote she points out that one study showed that three-year-old children of professionals have larger vocabularies than grown welfare mothers.

It’s hard to see how environmentalism can explain this.  The reasoning behind the non-genetic explanations of class differences in vocabulary size usually goes as follows: A child in a middle-class home has heard X more words than a poor kid by a given age. Therefore, he’s had more of an opportunity to develop a larger vocabulary.

But it’s doubtful that even the most enriched three-year-old could’ve heard nearly as many words over a lifetime as the most deprived adult.  It’s obvious that genetically controlled intelligence determines how much of a language’s lexicon sticks.

And we have to remember that that the parent who is providing a rich language environment for the child also provides genes to the child so that the child is able to soak up this rich environment — a phenomenon that behavior geneticists refer to as the passive genotype-environment correlation: The child is the passive recipient of genes and environments from their parents and the genes and environments mesh together. The same thing happens when parents like tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf transmit genes for athletic ability to their children and also provide them with great environments for training in tennis.

The section on language is ostensibly about variation in raising children, but it can just as easily be read as about passive genotype-environment correlations between people with high and low IQs.  For example, when an upper-class child talks about something he learned, the parents will ask follow up questions.  This is not the case among less intelligent caregivers. When the higher classes discuss why they like this or that car or X-Man character, they expect one another to present relevant reasons.  Welfare mothers aren’t able to verbalize why they prefer X to Y or to figure out what does or doesn’t relate to an argument.  Middle-class families are described as always talking to one another with brief interruptions of silence, and working and lower class families as doing the opposite, with silence being the norm.  All these differences are the results of IQ inequality, not the causes of them.

Middle class parents use “verbal negotiation” with their offspring, who, according to the author, eventually end up better equipped to deal with the adult world.  Non-middle-class parents issue short, directive statements and simply expect to be obeyed.

Poor children therefore tend not to talk back or argue as much.  This idea that you should negotiate with your children and convince them to do what needs to done is another factor that makes middle-class child-rearing so time consuming and difficult.  When I started working part time as a substitute teacher, I was shocked at how my seemingly sweet White female colleagues would holler at children and boss them around.  After some experience, I realized that kids too often see flexibility and willingness of adults to accommodate as weakness and will get away with what they can.

In dealing with doctors and school administrators, middle-class parents ask questions and see themselves as active participants in taking care of their children’s health and education.  While working class parents have no problem being pushy with landlords or merchants, when talking to their kids’ teachers, they clam up and accept whatever “the school” tells them.  The vocabulary used by professionals and the pace of their dialogues ensure that they’re simply not understood by the lower classes.  The author provides examples of parents misinterpreting what teachers and doctors tell them.  When an educator talks about a kid’s “language arts skills” or “auditory reception” a working-class person can do little more than nod along.

Middle-class parents, on the other hand, are social peers or superiors to teachers, whom they feel comfortable challenging.  For the author, the lower and working classes simply have less “cultural capital” or “acquired skills” to navigate the world of the better off.

Lareau points out that the middle class parents in the study who grew up in the 1950s and 60s were themselves products of natural growth childhoods.  She doesn’t seem to see how this harms her theory of a generational transmission of different parenting styles being the source of inequality in America.  On the other hand, the author does have some good ideas about why the middle- and upper-class parents do things differently from the way their parents did.  The “institutionalization of children’s leisure” is a product of the modern world, as are “scientific motherhood” and the attempted “rationalization” of all aspects of human existence.  She writes:

The rationalization of children’s leisure is evident in the proliferation of organized activities with a predictable schedule, delivering a particular quantity of experience within a specific time period, under the control of adults… areas of family life are growing more systematic, predictable, and regulated than they have been in the recent past.

While the author believes that this new form of parenting at least has the redeeming quality of making children eventually more capable of dealing with the modern world, those of us who know the supremacy of nature in determining how humans turn out can see the modern upper-class forms of child-rearing for what they are: Wasteful in both time and money, bad for familial relations, and disastrous for fertility.


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