When my husband and I moved into a working class community in southwestern Ohio, the parenting gap became a daily reality. As young parents ourselves with a three-year-old and seven-month-old, we have a lot in common with many of our neighbors—like the fact that we love our children to death and would do anything to help them succeed.
But there have also been times when we’ve discovered differences in the approaches we take to parenting.
There was the time our neighbor gave her fussy baby a baby bottle full of Mountain Dew, in order to “put her to sleep.” It was cheaper than formula and did the job. There was the time I had to ask a friend to stop spooning my five-month-old bites of her ice cream. We hadn’t yet started solids, I explained, and when we did I wanted to start with vegetable
There were the many nights when our son was the first on the street to come inside for bedtime. It’s commonplace for even toddlers stay up until midnight, and bedtime routines often consist of putting kids in their rooms with the TV on.
There were play dates to houses that smelled so badly of smoke that I had to suggest we all play outside, and give my kids baths afterwards.
There were the times when my son—then two and a half—asked me why some of the other kids who were older than him “still didn’t talk very well.” My sister had a speech delay growing up, and my mom was very attentive and had a college degree in early childhood development, so I’d be the last to say that speech problems are a parent’s fault. And yet, there are common practices that do little to encourage development: things like having the TV on all day and failing to provide sufficient age-appropriate stimulation like reading, engaging in play and conversation, and taking outings to the park or library.
Though we live in one part of town, we go to church in another. Parents in that community tend to be college-educated and disciples of attachment parenting. Discipline involves less yelling and spanking and more time-outs and instructive conversations. More moms are married and have the resources to stay at home part-time or full-time. Breastfeeding is the norm and nothing to be embarrassed about, as it still is among some of our working-class friends. The moms group is hopping with activity: nutrition classes; parenting book discussions; outings to the zoo, local farms, and museums; Mom’s craft nights; plans for a babysitting co-op; “Pumpkin Spice Latte Playdates” in which moms meet at the park to drink coffee while their kids play.
The parents in this community are not saints, but they do inhabit a very different parenting culture.
And while I’ve learned something from the moms in my working-class neighborhood about being more laid back and less of a helicopter parent, some of the other parenting differences are troubling. As Richard Reeves and Kimberly Howard explain in their Center on Children and Families paper, the parenting gap is one factor driving the opportunity gap. Reeves and Howard find that when parents struggle to create a supportive and stimulating home environment, their children are less likely to be upwardly mobile.
So why do parents who dearly love their kids parent them in ways that will hurt their chances for future success?
In some ways it’s a question any parent can relate to. There is always the struggle to put into practice what we know we ought to do, to be consistent and loving when we are tired and stressed, and to break the bad habits we learned from our own parents (and that they probably learned from theirs). For poor and working-class parents these struggles can be even more acute, for several reasons.
How can you take your child to story time if you don’t have money for gas? How can you justify buying a zoo membership when bills are unpaid? How can you give your children the attention they need when you are working multiple low-wage jobs and taking online classes and generally operating in “survival mode”?
People won’t do what they don’t know. For example, I didn’t start caring about nutrition until I started learning about how my body works.
Even if public services like Head Start, home visits, and parenting classes are available (as they often are), if the targeted clients of these programs do not trust the providers, these programs will fail to be effective.
Lack of Social Capital
Working class young adults are increasingly unaffiliated, and when they become parents they lack the kinds of supportive communities from which their college-educated peers benefit. Given that our neighborhoods are often divided along class lines and that the parenting gap also occurs along class lines, poor and working class parents are less likely to see up close and personal the kinds of models that could teach them to parent well.
I tend to think that without fixing the last factor, fixing the first three will have minimum impact. Given that we are social creatures who take our cues from one another, a supportive community that encourages positive parenting practices is crucial. Most of us don’t have the strength to continually go against the grain of a dominant culture, unless we can do so through membership in some kind of sub-culture.
I’ve seen this play out in my own parenting. Take the area of nutrition, for example—not because it’s the most important factor in parenting but because it is a very concrete example. When we lived in New York City I was surrounded by organic grocery stores and juice bars and like-minded moms who were committed to making homemade baby food and teaching their kids to love brussel sprouts. Although I’d never been a health nut before, it rubbed off on me. When we moved to Ohio, I became more complacent about my children’s eating habits. Fast food once a week didn’t seem so bad when my neighbors were having it every day. I found myself letting my two year old have a cup of Kool-Aid or a lollipop because I didn’t want to offend the neighbor who offered it. This place, too, was rubbing off on me. But when I’d meet up with a friend from my church’s moms group I’d be sure to pack a healthy lunch—I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t feeding my kid’s well. The positive potential of peer pressure amazes me.
Living on both sides of the parenting gap has helped me to move from judgment to understanding, particularly when I realized that I too struggle as a parent with the gap between knowledge and behavior, my desire to do good and my habit of not doing it. With this as a starting point, I think it is possible for parents of all demographics to find creative ways to work together to create the kind of parenting culture in which all of our children can thrive.