Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Paradoxical Pathways: An Ethnographic Extension of Kohn's Findings on Class and Childrearing

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Paradoxical Pathways: An Ethnographic Extension of Kohn's Findings on Class and Childrearing

Article excerpt

Stratification is a central issue in family research, yet relatively few studies highlight its impact on family processes. Drawing on indepth interviews (N = 137) and observational data (N = 12), we extend Melvin Kohn's research on childrearing values by examining how parental commitments to self-direction and conformity are enacted in daily life. Consistent with Kohn's findings, middle-class parents emphasized children's self-direction, and working-class and poor parents emphasized children's conformity to external authority. Attempts to realize these values appeared paradoxical, however. Middle-class parents routinely exercised subtle forms of control while attempting to instill self-direction in their children. Conversely, working-class and poor parents tended to grant children considerable autonomy in certain domains of daily life, thereby limiting their emphasis on conformity.

Key Words: ethnography, inequality, leisure, parent-child relations, parenting styles.

The relation between social structure and parenting has been a long-standing interest in the social sciences, yielding a large literature that seeks to explain variations across social classes in childrearing (for an overview, see Hoff, Laursen, & Tardif, 2002). One of the most important figures in this area is Melvin Kohn. Over the course of nearly 5 decades, Kohn has studied the psychological consequences of social class, especially as it impacts family life (Kohn, 1959, 1963, 1969; Kohn & Schooler, 1983; Kohn & Slomczynski, 1993). In particular, he and various colleagues have investigated how occupational conditions stemming from class membership affect the value commitments through which parents approach childrearing, with middle-class parents emphasizing selfdirection and working-class parents stressing conformity to external authority.

As surveys of the field have noted, however (e.g., Hoff et al., 2002), the assumption that value commitments mediate the relation between social structure and parenting behaviors requires strict empirical evaluation. We thus seek to extend Kohn's finding concerning the relation between class and childrearing values by drawing on an ethnographic data set that includes both detailed interviews and observations. We use these data to analyze the roles self-direction and conformity play in the childrearing practices of middle-class, working-class, and poor families. Our goal is to extend the analysis of the class-childrearing relation beyond an acknowledged (Kohn, 1977, pp. xxxii-xxxiii) limitation of previous studies: their reliance on reports of behavior rather than direct observation. By closely examining parents' attempts to enact value commitments in childrearing, we hope to clarify processes that remain partially obscure in the research carried out by Kohn and his colleagues.

Our paper focuses on how parents enact commitments to self-direction and conformity in two domains of family life: verbal interaction between parents and children and the use of leisure time. As Kohn leads us to expect, we find abundant evidence that in the day-to-day business of childrearing, middle-class parents tend to stress the importance of self-direction. They often place their children in situations in which they must make decisions and then prod them to provide (rudimentary) justifications. Middleclass parents also tend to use leisure activities to promote children's nascent sense of curiosity and self-control. Working-class (and poor) parents, by contrast, tend to stress conformity to external authority. This is clearest in their relatively frequent use of directives in interactions with their children. As a consequence of these contrasting emphases, children have substantially different experiences depending on the economic position of their families. Beyond this, however, we find that the way in which a commitment to conformity or self-direction is "translated" into actual childrearing practices is far from simple. …

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