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Families & Community

Want to get in on the hot new trend for middle-class parents? Just act like a poor parent

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Like many other college-educated, NPR-listening, middle-class white parents in America, I've read the latest cover story in The Atlantic, "The Overprotected Kid." In it, Hanna Rosin argues that American parents put too much emphasis on safety, and it's killing kids' creativity and courage. 

The solution Rosin offers is a more adventurous kind of play, a kind of play that is possible in an entirely different kind of playground. The example she gives is an "adventure playground" known as The Land in Great Britain's North Wales:

The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It's only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek.

The Land has already inspired a documentary film, and Rosin isn't the only American who's flown across the pond just to see it.

But here's the thing: You don't have to go all the way to Britain to see creative kids playing independently among piles of junk. Poor kids in America do that all the time. 

Rosin nearly admits as much when she cites the work of sociologist Annette Lareau, who studied the parenting styles of both middle-class and working-class parents for her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods. Lareau found distinct differences in how parents raised their kids, depending on their class background. The kids from middle and upper-income families were more likely to have lots of enrichment activities, such as sports or music lessons, and they were often surrounded by adults. The working-class kids had more time to themselves, more time with family and more time to play. Lareau labeled the middle-class parenting style "Concerted Cultivation." She called the working-class style "Accomplishment of Natural Growth."

As a sociologist, Lareau said there was no reason to think that one parenting style was necessarily better than the other. But it was clear the middle-class parenting style resulted in greater advantages later in life,  not because the middle-class kids were more intelligent or talented, but because their middle-class values were more likely to be rewarded in the workplace. Middle-class kids were encouraged to talk to adults as equals, question authority and negotiate their way to a better outcome. Working-class kids had a life separate from adults. Lareau wrote that they were more likely to be taught to respect authority, not to challenge it. 

I've seen some of these differences in my own reporting. When I met parents at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids, they would often talk about how important it was that their kids be "good." One parent bragged to me that her son doesn't talk during class. I couldn't imagine any of my middle-class friends bragging about their kids in the same way. 

And yet, the kids at Congress, like many of the kids I've met during my work with State of Opportunity, are incredibly independent. Many of the kids at Congress told me they walk to the playground by themselves on the weekend. One boy told me about buying ice cream by himself, and getting in trouble for staying out too late. He's in third grade. 

I've noticed living in Grand Rapids that often kids in the least "safe" neighborhoods are given the most freedom to roam. I visited one of these neighborhoods last summer for an interview. It was the kind of neighborhood where some people will lock their car doors as they drive through. As I got out of my car and walked up to the front porch for my interview, I noticed a group of three kids playing in an old playground across the street. I looked down the block to see if any adults were watching them. Nope. I was the only adult within sight. 

Whenever I hear middle-class parents complain that kids these days don't go outside and play like they used to, I think about those kids in southeast Grand Rapids. Those kids aren't overprotected. 

The problem is when low-income parents let their kids run free in the streets, nobody thinks it's a sign of great parenting. Sometimes it's treated as a sign of neglect, a reason to call Child Protective Services. 

The message seems to be: If you're a middle-class parent who lets your child roam the neighborhood, you must be up on all the latest research about child development. If you're poor and you do the same thing, you must be a bad parent.