This entry about the Ramey study on family time at 11d got me thinking. Laura, citing David Brooks and Tara Parker-Pope, observes that a shift towards parents spending much more time with their children doesn’t seem to have any downside.
I think so too. I’ve pointed out before that this is one positive way to think about the end of a world where children roamed freely on their own adventures through suburban wildernesses, that maybe we’re transitioning to a desirable middle-class world where families adventure together, where the world of children and adults is less culturally and socially separate than it once was.
On the other hand, I keep thinking that there’s more to it than the emotional satisfaction that some parents of my generation have found in the company of their children, and not just the conventional issue of whether we’re smothering our kids with too much control or attention.
I wonder if part of what’s happening with middle-class to upper middle-class families and time is also conditioned by the rising difficulty of reproducing social class in the United States.
I’m going to be somewhat simplistic here just to try and get the point across. Crudely speaking, you could argue that in the 1950s that the middle distribution of income was not just far larger and the ends of the spectrum drawn in closer towards that middle, but that the American middle-class imagined that it had hit upon a fairly stable formula for its own reproduction. Namely, a relatively minimalist range of signpost practices defining middle-class respectability that could be passed on to the next generation along with expanded access to a high-quality education system that included professional training at its culmination. Put the two together and you had a system for social mobility that could be imagined both as egalitarian and meritocratic, accessible to many, securely reproducible, but not a guaranteed and accumulating legacy.
The cultural signposts were defined and then demolished within the span of a single generation: Jell-O, Levittown, Leave It to Beaver, the Brady Bunch went from being idealizations to hateful conformities to ironic ridiculousness fairly quickly from 1965 to 1985. Income equity went roughly the same way, at the same pace, and higher education, while still a passport, controlled entry to an increasingly murky and complex world of economic and social advancement.
That 1950s middle-class could split the world of children and adults as radically as it did for two reasons. First, because a working patriarch could actually hope to accumulate enough in his own life to leave an inheritance for children that would help insure the reproduction of the status that he’d achieved, both indirectly through education and directly through property and money passed to the next generation. Second, because women in the home and social institutions like school could do the work of middle-class cultural reproduction in a relatively minimalist fashion, on a kind of assembly-line. You didn’t have to worry too much about a child’s interior experience of schooling and childhood if the outer signs of respectability were successfully monitored and secured.
So what I wonder a bit is if the insecurity of middle-class life and the uncertainties of reproducing it in the next generation is producing a much more intense focus on generating a flexible, responsive kind of cultural capital in the children of professionals. Jell-O, church attendance, and the pinewood derby for Cub Scouts doesn’t secure anything any longer. Nor in any simple sense does education by and of itself. So families draw together in part to cultivate the self, to create exposure to a wide range of stimulating experiences which are nevertheless selected for their potential for cultural capital creation. Music lessons, language lessons, access to computer and digital tools, constructivist toys and games, travel selected for enrichment potential rather than ’empty’ leisure, parentally-accompanied museum visits and so on. Schools do many of these activities as well, but many professional parents increasingly distrust the capacity of schools to properly enrich their children unless the school is somehow distinctively individualized in its approach to enrichment. Because, in part, the cultural capital that creates some sense of distinction in a new entrant to middle-class life is that which is intensely individualized.
This is an issue that Michele Lamont touches on in How Professors Think, but it’s a point that extends across most of the professions. The job candidate or aspiring professional or competitor for funding who stands out is often the person who appears the most individually distinctive while also locking down all the visible or apparent baseline benchmarks of credentialing and competency. That’s the person who gets tagged as having “quality of mind”. That’s what applicants to selective colleges try to accomplish as well, to assure admissions officers that they have excelled at all the standard expectations and that they are unique and special individuals. The unique and special part often comes straight from the kinds of cultural capital that a particular household has worked to cultivate in all members of the family, and that work involves drawing closer together, sharing experiences while also controlling or directing them with some vaguely productivist, self-improving ethos in mind.