[lg policy] The Middle Class (Thinks It) Knows Best: Daring to Intervene in Disadvantaged Households

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Feb 14 16:34:56 UTC 2015

The Middle Class (Thinks It) Knows Best: Daring to Intervene in
Disadvantaged Households

    *Written by Susan D. Blum, Lizzie Fagan, Kathleen C. Riley*

In a recent New Yorker article, Margaret Talbot
<http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/12/talking-cure> discusses
Providence Talks, a project designed to address the so-called "language
gap" that, according to 30-year-old research claims, is directly related to
an "achievement gap" at school. Generalizing from data about language use
in only six African American families on "welfare," researchers estimated
that by the time disadvantaged children enter school, they will have heard 30
million fewer words <http://tmw.org/> than the children of professionals.
This research reveals several methodological problems: too few children and
families were studied, the link between the number of words and school
achievement is only suggestive and many other aspects of children's lives
that might account for school failure were left unexamined.

But, here we want to focus on problems with the interventions being
promoted to assist these families: first, the proposed cures are not
necessarily welcomed by disadvantaged households; and second, the cures,
even if implemented, may have unfortunate side-effects.

First, when outsiders come in and tell low-income young parents how to talk
to their children, the advice is never about only language. Because the way
we talk is deeply enmeshed with how we think, feel and act in the world,
our critiques of how others speak are frequently a smoke-screen for our
critiques about other aspects of their lives. For instance, when Lizzie
Fagen was a 23-year-old social worker in New York City, she went to the
house of a Seventh-Day Adventist family. Confident in her own training and
expertise, Lizzie suggested that the mother's strict religious rules, such
as forbidding her son to read comic books, were interfering with his
education. After all, aren't we often told to invite children to read
anything they find interesting? The mother responded, in effect: "How dare

But many young and insecure parents would not have the same ability to
resist a social worker's authority; instead, they would attempt to
implement the suggested changes, and yet the results could be deleterious.
The parents might simply fail at it (and feel it as a failure) because
talking in new ways (especially to one's children) usually depends on one's
ability to take on new ways of thinking and behaving, so closely are talk,
action, and belief intertwined. Further, to the degree that they do succeed
in superficially executing these new ways of talking, these families may
lose much of what was valuable about the way they would have raised their
children. This unfortunate effect is what we wish to address in the rest of
this post.

have shown that most children around the world grow up capable and
competent of saying the basics
in most of the settings they will encounter in their immediate communities.
Moreover, they are raised to become the kind of people valorized by their
communities, and the socialization strategies employed by their caregivers
are designed to accomplish this end. In some societies, children are placed
on someone's back and experience the world as if from an older person's
point of view, while others are placed on cradleboards to be kept safe and
out of the way. In some societies, children are not seen as potential
conversational partners until they are able to utter certain telltale words
while elsewhere they are engaged in "say-it" routines even before they can

White middle-class North American professionals tend to engage in the
latter behavior, believing that in this way they are showing children not
only what can be discussed, but also how it should be discussed. If the
children don't get it out of their mouths as expected, the adults scaffold
their attempts and applaud their every effort.

In upper-middle-class families, every moment is a teaching moment. Talbot
described the model mother in a training film used by the Providence Talks
program, shopping with her child at a high-end grocery store.

"Bubba, we're running out of room. What are we going to do? Did Mommy buy
too many groceries today? I think we should get the creamy, too, because
Murphy does not like when I get that crunchy. And we like to have the
peanut butter because peanut butter's good for you. It's got protein."

In this idealized world of privilege, children are not left alone for an
instant. Every moment is scheduled and every moment is devoted
to college prep, test prep. No action is done simply for itself because it
is useful or enjoyable; every action is subject to evaluation and display.

Socialized in this way, children learn to do things because it pleases a
parent or teacher; they learn to crave praise. In Susan Blum's
<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-d-blum/> research with high-achieving
college students, she found students often go through the motions of doing
things simply because it is expected, all the while withholding their own
selves, leading to what Marxists call "alienation" and Sartre "bad faith."
Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County, has shown that children
who believe their parents' love is dependent on their continued
demonstration of success, are disproportionately depressed

Are we sure that we have the knowledge to push this behavior on others?

Although now regarded as universally normal by our professional class,
there is actually no scientific foundation for claiming that the North
American standard for raising children is necessary (or even sufficient)
for turning out responsible adults. And yet, professionals now try to teach
everyone to act in this way. For instance, the Providence Talks program
attempts to train parents to engage their children in talk about objects in
a book and for every question answered or for every word uttered that's
even within the ballpark, the parent must announce: "Good job! Way to go!"
Interventions such as these can be counterproductive, especially if one is
not brought up to behave in this way with children.

We would like to suggest that some of the household interactions among
less-advantaged people promote self-sufficiency
and resiliency
in ways that are lacking in upper-middle-class homes where children
sometimes develop into coddled caricatures of themselves... "excellent sheep
<http://www.excellentsheep.com/>" (an inspired term suggested by a student
of William Deresiewicz). By contrast, children who do not seek adult
acknowledgment for every accomplishment are less likely to have a fragile
sense of self, which Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child
<http://www.alice-miller.com/books_en.php?page=7>, spells out so clearly.
Alfie Kohn, in Punished by Rewards <http://www.alfiekohn.org/>, and Daniel
Pink, in Drive <http://www.danpink.com/books/drive/>, show how the need for
positive reinforcement for every action reduces people's motivation for any

In a diverse society such as the United States, plans to alter the
parenting style of every citizen in order to level all distinctions and
provide each child with all of the communicative tools needed to succeed at
school and everywhere else are ill-founded and ill-advised. It is an
unrealizable dream that any socialization style would be sufficient to
raise children capable of handling every situation they will ever
encounter. For example, the children of professionals would have no idea
how to respond when caught in El Barrio without the language of respect and
defense that children growing up in that neighborhood have at their
fingertips. Of even more concern to their parents (presumably), these same
coddled children, when grown into adults, will have no idea how to
persevere at a job if they are not fed constant affirmations for their

What all of us need to learn is how to learn. How to face unfamiliar
situations and figure out what to do next, sometimes on our own, sometimes
with others. In such settings, we need to know how to figure out how to
communicate in new ways, not simply rely on the ways we've already been
taught and received an A in.

Are we really so confident that the talk-infused child-bolstering style of
middle-class exemplars represents the ideal way to teach these ways of
learning to communicate? Are we so sure we should replace all other forms
of child rearing with something so alien and with such potentially adverse

How dare we?!

* Follow American Anthropological Association on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/AmericanAnthro <http://www.twitter.com/AmericanAnthro> *



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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