Parenting a writer

Via a friend of a friend, a beautiful post on being a writer, with advice to a woman who wants to support her daughter — starting with "let her be bored" and "let her be lonely."

It reminded me of Annette Lareau's article on the role of social class in childrearing (possibly available here). Lareau contrasts the predominantly middle-class style of parenting, which she calls "concerted cultivation," with a more working-class orientation, "accomplishment of natural growth." There are many differences between the two styles, but a key one is the amount of unstructured time children have. Middle-class kids have less: they're enrolled in lessons, sports, clubs, camps, and afterschool activities. Parents prioritize exposing their children to new things, and shielding them from negative influences. As a result, middle-class children have a richer variety of experiences, but less experience negotiating conflict and making decisions, weaker ties to others, and less contact with people of different ages and backgrounds: "Because most of his school events, church life and assorted activities are organized by the age (and sometimes gender) of the participants, Alexander interacts almost exclusively with children his own age, usually boys. Adult-organized activities thus define the context of his social life."

In contrast, working-class and poor kids are more connected to extended families and the community, and have much more free time.

The way families use language differs, too. Working-class parents are more likely to speak in directives ("Billy, shower."). Middle-class parents prompt their children for information and further explanations, and are more likely to view things other than health and safety as negotiable. As a result, middle-class kids develop more expansive vocabularies and feel they have the right to use them.

There are advantages to both styles. Which is not to say they're equal — it's easy to see how middle-class kids are acculturated into what Lareau calls an "emerging sense of entitlement" (as opposed to working-class kids' "emerging sense of constraint"), and how middle-class parenting values are supported by schools and authority figures (at least, when it's middle-class parents and middle-class kids who are exercising them: "talking back" can be interpreted as an act of defiance or as an example of critical thinking, depending on the relative power of the speaker).

But there is also a great deal lost in the middle-class model. As M. Molly Backes notes in the blog post above, there's little a parent can do to support an emerging writer in terms of pushing her into clubs and activities (there is no "Poet Boosters" equivalent to "Band Boosters"), but writers do need lots of time to think without distraction. That's something parents can support, but I think it's also something that makes them uncomfortable. And while facility with language is important to a young writer — something more likely to be fostered in middle-class families — there's also value in growing up hearing many different types of speakers: Grandma, the guys on the corner, the storekeeper who remembers when your mom was a kid, the local cop, creepy Uncle Bob. Contrast that with a child who scores well on vocabulary tests but can only write in the voice of Jack from soccer, Taylor from soccer, Michael from soccer, Zachary from soccer…

As with any sociological study, there is overlap between the groups in Lareau's research and many parenting practices did not correlate with class at all. But I think it's valuable to think about the reasons why some parenting styles are considered more legitimate than others, and ask when they are truly about children's development and when they're an outgrowth of class anxiety. As much as people complain about "helicopter parents," the true venom is directed at parents deemed neglectful. Naturally this makes parents feel like they're falling down on the job if they don't pack children's schedules and otherwise engage in "concerted cultivation." As Backes' post shows, though, some activities can only be cultivated through trust, which in the moment feels like neglect. That's okay. Raising a writer means being comfortable with weeds.

2 Responses to “Parenting a writer”

  1. E.V. Says:

    One cannot form a writer. One becomes a writer through their passion for writing, and their determination to be a writer. Letting your child be lonely, and be bored will not make her a writer.

  2. LauraFo Says:

    I don't think she's suggesting you stuff your child in a closet for 12 years and hope she comes out a writer. She's talking about supporting (not "forming") children with interests that are solitary.

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