Posted: November 21st, 2022

Podcast Review

Help review a Podcast and explain how it is related to sociological research. Podcast name: “Nice White Parents.” by Chana Jofee Walt 

Podcast Review
SOC146: Sociology of Privilege
Dr. Tristan Bridges

scenario for the assignment
For this assignment, I want you to imagine that you are a sociologist who studies
educational inequalities in the U.S. After listening to the podcast, you decide that you
are going to write a series of essays summarizing the important sociological research
illustrated in the story told and analysis provided. I want you to imagine this essay is
the first in a series of essays you’ll write summarizing different elements of the podcast
sociologically. Your task is to review the podcast, explain how it relates to sociological
research on privilege we will be reading and learning about in this course, and draw on
course readings and lecture material to zoom in on the piece of the podcast you elect
to write about in greater depth to explain that piece sociologically.

formatting
This paper should be approximately 5-6 pages, double-spaced. Include a reference
section at the end of the paper using APA formatting, listing the references (including
readings and lectures) you cited.

organization and paper details
• Summarize the central question(s) asked and answered in the podcast. Think about

it this way: what questions is Chana Joffe-Walt is attempting to answer? (~1
paragraph)

• How does Joffe-Walt go about answering these questions? What does she do to
investigate the issues she is interested in learning more about? Consider here the
perspectives and specific types of data she utilized. (~1 paragraph)

• Pick a portion of the podcast that you have decided to focus on in depth in this
essay. Take a paragraph to summarize briefly what that specific focus is. (1
paragraph)

• This next portion of your paper can be done in one of two ways:

o First, Summarize and describe the main findings from the component of the

podcast you elect to focus on for the paper. Here, you’ll call upon specific

quotes from informants or specific information presented to summarize the
findings from the part of the podcast you are writing about (this portion should
take approximately 2 pages). Second, you’ll connect course materials with the
portion of the podcast you are writing about. In this section of the paper, you’ll
explicitly connect with course readings and lecture material to help make
sense of white parents’ choices as they relate to the specific part of the
podcast about which you are writing (this portion should also take
approximately 2 pages).

o While the above asks you to segregate your summary of the podcast from your
review of the podcast by situating it relative to sociological work on privilege,
the other option is that you pursue both summary and situated sociological
review at the same time. I still want to see the same amount of space
dedicated to summary and review. But you are welcome to integrate these
sections if you find this easier.

• At the end, offer a 1 paragraph conclusion summarizing the main argument(s) you
have sought to make in the paper about “Nice White Parents.” (1 paragraph)

• Optional: Briefly discuss your opinion on the podcast. Did you like the podcast? Did
you find it convincing? Why or why not? Do you have any criticisms? (~1
paragraph)

• Finally, include references to all of the reading and lecture material cited in the
paper in APA format. Your reference should not be a part of the 5-6 pages of the
body of the paper.

o Lectures can be cited by week. For example:

“Bridges (week 3) discusses the theoretical body of work presenting privilege
as ‘invisible,’ noting that existing scholarship…”

o And you can cite lecture material in your reference section, by week of lecture
as well. For example:

Bridges, Tristan. 2021. Week 3. “On the Relative (In)visibility of Privilege and
Zero-Sum Ideologies of (Dis)Advantage.”

American Sociological Review
2014, Vol. 79(5) 1015 –1037
© American Sociological
Association 2014
DOI: 10.1177/0003122414546931
http://asr.sagepub.com

Children are not passive players in the repro-
duction of social inequalities. We know that
children’s behaviors vary with social class
and generate stratified profits in school
(Calarco 2011; Farkas 1996; Streib 2011).
Less clear is how children learn to activate
class-based strategies and how those lessons
contribute to stratification. Scholars typically
treat cultural acquisition as an implicit pro-
cess in which class-based childrearing prac-
tices automatically shape children’s behavior
(Arnett 1995; Heath 1983; Lareau 2011).
Given parents’ active management of chil-
dren’s lives (Edwards 2004; Lareau 2000;
Nelson 2010) and children’s active resistance
to parents’ desires (Chin and Phillips 2004;
Pugh 2009), however, cultural transmission
may involve more agency than implicit
socialization models imply. Furthermore,
while scholars assume that parents’ cultural

coaching reproduces inequalities (e.g., Lar-
eau 2011), research has not linked these
efforts to their payoff for children in school.

To investigate these possibilities, this
study examines how parents actively transmit
culture to children, how children respond, and
how those responses generate stratified prof-
its. I base these analyses on a longitudinal
ethnographic study of middle- and working-
class families in one elementary school. I
conducted observations and in-depth
interviews with the children, their parents,

546931 ASRXXX10.1177/0003122414546931American Sociological ReviewCalarco
2014

aIndiana University

Corresponding Author:
Jessica McCrory Calarco, Indiana University,
Department of Sociology, 1020 East Kirkwood
Avenue, Ballantine Hall, 744 Bloomington, IN
47405-7103
E-mail: jcalarco@indiana.edu

Coached for the Classroom:
Parents’ Cultural Transmission
and Children’s Reproduction
of Educational Inequalities

Jessica McCrory Calarcoa

Abstract
Scholars typically view class socialization as an implicit process. This study instead shows
how parents actively transmit class-based cultures to children and how these lessons reproduce
inequalities. Through observations and interviews with children, parents, and teachers, I
found that middle- and working-class parents expressed contrasting beliefs about appropriate
classroom behavior, beliefs that shaped parents’ cultural coaching efforts. These efforts led
children to activate class-based problem-solving strategies, which generated stratified profits
at school. By showing how these processes vary along social class lines, this study reveals a
key source of children’s class-based behaviors and highlights the efforts by which parents and
children together reproduce inequalities.

Keywords
culture, inequality, education, family, children

http://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1177%2F0003122414546931&domain=pdf&date_stamp=2014-08-25

1016 American Sociological Review 79(5)

and their teachers. I found that parents con-
tributed to social reproduction by actively
equipping children with class-based strategies
that generated unequal outcomes when acti-
vated at school. Parents’ relationships with
the school varied by social class and shaped
their beliefs about teachers’ behavioral expec-
tations. Those beliefs led parents to adopt
contrasting strategies for managing problems
at school and to coach their children to do the
same. Specifically, working-class parents
stressed “no-excuses” problem-solving,
encouraging children to respect teachers’
authority by not seeking help. Middle-class
parents instead taught “by-any-means” problem-
solving, urging children to negotiate with
teachers for assistance. These ongoing and
often deliberate coaching efforts equipped
even reluctant children with the tools needed
to activate class-based strategies on their own
behalf. Such activation, in turn, prompted
stratified responses from teachers and thus
created unequal advantages in school.

This study has important implications.
First, it clarifies class-based socialization
models by showing that children’s acquisition
of class-based behaviors is neither implicit
nor automatic; rather, cultural transmission
involves active efforts by both parents and
children. Second, it helps explain class-stratified
childrearing patterns, suggesting that parents’
efforts reflect beliefs stemming from their
positions in the social hierarchy. Third, it
demonstrates that by examining how cultural
transmission varies along social class lines,
and by linking these processes to their payoff
in schools, we can better understand the
mechanisms of social reproduction.

ClAss, CulTuRE, And
REPRoduCTIon of
InEquAlITIEs

Scholars conceptualize culture in myriad ways
(Small, Harding, and Lamont 2010), but here I
view culture as a “tool kit” that includes both
“strategies of action” (Swidler 1986) and “log-
ics of action” (DiMaggio 1997). Strategies of
action are skills or behaviors used in social

situations (Bourdieu 1990; Lareau and
Weininger 2003). Logics of action are frames
for interpreting situations (Harding 2007;
Small 2004). This view of culture recognizes
that individuals might behave differently in the
same situation because they possess different
strategies for use in that situation, or because
they interpret the situation differently and thus
choose to activate different strategies.

While cultural tool kits have numerous
dimensions (e.g., gender, age, race, and eth-
nicity), research on tool kits generally focuses
on social class (Bourdieu 1990; Lareau 2000).
To identify social classes, tool-kit scholars
typically use educational and occupational
attainment (Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997;
Condron 2009).1 In doing so, they find that
middle- and working-class individuals per-
ceive themselves differently in relation to
dominant institutions and also possess differ-
ent strategies for navigating those settings
(Lamont 1992, 2009; Lubrano 2004; Stuber
2012). Compared to their working-class coun-
terparts, middle-class individuals experience a
stronger sense of belonging in schools and
other institutional arenas (Carter 2005; Khan
2010; Lareau 2000; Lubrano 2004). They also
see their status as equaling or surpassing that
of institutional professionals and are thus
more comfortable demanding accommoda-
tions from institutions (Brantlinger 2003;
Cucchiara and Horvat 2008; Lareau 2000).

Class-based cultural tool kits are closely
linked to inequalities (Bourdieu 1990; Lareau
and Weininger 2003). Within a social setting,
behaviors will generate profits if they con-
verge with the culture of that setting. Poorly
aligned behaviors, in contrast, will produce
few or no advantages, and may even result in
sanctions.

Research shows, for example, that chil-
dren’s activation of class-based tool kits can
generate unequal advantages. In school, chil-
dren tend to behave in class-patterned ways
that produce stratified consequences (Heath
1983; Nelson and Schutz 2007; Streib 2011).
Middle-class children more readily voice
their needs and, in doing so, attract more
immediate attention and more complete sup-
port from teachers (Calarco 2011). These

Calarco 1017

inequalities reflect teachers’ and administra-
tors’ expectations that students will behave in
“middle-class” ways (Carter 2005; Farkas
1996; Mehan 1980; Wren 1999). While
working-class students must play catch-up,
middle-class students come to school ready to
meet these expectations (Bernstein 1990;
Foley 1990; Lubienski 2000) and to reap the
benefits—including higher grades and higher
competence ratings from teachers (Farkas
1996; Jennings and DiPrete 2010; Tach and
Farkas 2006). What research on culture and
classroom interactions has not examined,
however, is how children learn these different
strategies or why they activate them in the
classroom.

fAMIlIEs And
REPRoduCTIon of
InEquAlITIEs

Socialization scholars imply that children’s
class-based behaviors emerge automatically in
response to class-based childrearing practices
(Arnett 1995). Middle- and working-class
parents typically adopt different childrearing
styles, and their children behave in different
ways (Chin and Phillips 2004; Edwards 2004;
Heath 1983). Lareau (2011:6), for example,
shows middle-class parents allowing children
to negotiate and assert themselves and their
children displaying an “emerging sense of
entitlement.” Working-class parents, in turn,
emphasize obedience and deference to author-
ity, and their children demonstrate an “emerg-
ing sense of constraint.” Lareau concludes that
children’s behaviors are likely an implicit and
automatic response to class-based childrearing
practices.

Such explanations, however, have two
important limitations. First, they ignore the
possibility of more active cultural transmis-
sion (Elder 1974; Pugh 2009; Thorne 1993).
Research shows that parents and children can
both be very strategic in their actions. Middle-
class parents, for example, intervene for their
children at school (Brantlinger 2003; Lareau
2000; Nelson 2010), and working-class par-
ents try to manage how their families are

perceived by others (Edwards 2004). Yet,
because scholars pay little attention to the log-
ics of action that guide childrearing decisions,
it is unclear whether or how parents deliber-
ately try to equip children to manage their
own challenges. Similarly, while scholars
have documented children’s rejection of par-
ents’ wishes (Chin and Phillips 2004; Pugh
2009; Zelizer 2002), they have not fully
explored how children come to accept and
utilize parents’ class-based lessons. Lareau
(2011), for example, observed children only in
interactions with parents and did not conduct
interviews with them. Thus, she cannot say
how children behave in their parents’ absence
or how children make sense of and internalize
what they learn.

Second, socialization research has done
little to link class-based cultural transmission
to social reproduction. Lareau (2011), for
example, assumes that class-based childrear-
ing patterns matter for inequalities. Yet, she
does not show how children’s entitlement or
constraint generates stratified profits. Overall,
while existing research highlights important
social class differences in childrearing, chil-
dren’s behaviors, and classroom advantages,
we know little about how the active efforts of
parents and children contribute to cultural
transmission or how this transmission repro-
duces inequalities.

This study examines these possibilities,
considering how parents prompt children to
activate class-based behaviors and how those
efforts contribute to social reproduction. I do
so by answering the following research
questions:

1. How do parents’ understandings of
appropriate classroom behavior vary
with social class?

2. How do parents actively teach children
class-based behaviors?

3. How do children come to activate par-
ents’ preferred behaviors?

4. How does this activation reproduce
social inequalities?

I answer these questions with data from a
longitudinal, ethnographic study of middle-

1018 American Sociological Review 79(5)

and working-class, white families whose chil-
dren attended the same elementary school.

REsEARCh METhods
Research Site and Sample

Maplewood (all names are pseudonyms) is a
public elementary school near a large, Eastern
city (see Figure 1). While most of Maple-
wood’s families are middle-class, many (~30
percent) are working-class. This allowed me
to compare how middle- and working-class
parents and children interact with each other
and with the same teachers. My connections

to the community (a close relative is a Maple-
wood employee) facilitated access to the site
and acceptance of the project.

At Maplewood, I chose one cohort (four
classrooms) of students to follow from 3rd to
5th grade. The minority population at Maple-
wood was small and stratified, including middle-
class Asian Americans and working-class
Latinos. Thus, to avoid conflating race and
class, I focused on white students. I also
excluded students who moved away. See
Table 1 for sample characteristics and recruit-
ment procedures.

I used surveys and school records to iden-
tify students’ social class backgrounds,

MAPLEWOOD
Public School
500 students
Grades K–5
82% White
9% Latino
6% Asian American
3% African American

Home Types: Apartments, mobile
homes, small single-family homes

Home Values: $150K to $250K

Jobs: Plumber; daycare provider;
sales clerk; waitress; truck driver; etc.

Home Types: Medium to large
single-family homes

Home Values: $250K to $2M

Jobs: Doctor/nurse; lawyer; teacher;
business manager; accountant; etc.

MIDDLE-CLASS NEIGHBORHOODS

WORKING-CLASS NEIGHBORHOODS

figure 1. Research Site

Calarco 1019

grouping them by parents’ educational and
occupational status (Aschaffenburg and Maas
1997; Condron 2009). Middle-class families
had at least one parent with a four-year college
degree and at least one parent in a professional
or managerial occupation. Working-class fam-
ilies did not meet these criteria; parents typi-
cally had high school diplomas and worked
in blue-collar or service jobs. These were
“settled-living” working-class families
(Edwards 2004; Rubin 1976) with steady jobs,
stable relationships, and neat, clean homes.
There were, however, a few single-parents in
both class groups. While these parents some-
times felt overwhelmed with responsibilities,
their efforts to teach their children closely
paralleled those of two-parent families from
similar class backgrounds.

Data Collection

The longitudinal study included in-school
observations; in-depth interviews with chil-
dren, parents, and teachers; parent surveys;
and analyses of students’ school records.
Table 2 provides details. I observed during
the students’ 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade school
years, visiting Maplewood at least twice

weekly, with each observation lasting approx-
imately three hours. I divided time equally
between the four classrooms in each grade
and rotated the days and times I observed
each class. During observations, I used ethno-
graphic jottings to document interactions I
observed and to record pieces of dialog from
informal conversations with teachers and stu-
dents. After each observation, I expanded
these jottings into detailed fieldnotes.

Ethnographers must make hard choices. In
this study, I focused my three years of obser-
vations in classrooms so as to see the payoff
of parents’ efforts. As a result, the study does
not include systematic home observations.
Still, I was able to observe parent-child inter-
actions during school events and during inter-
views in family homes. These observations
corroborated the numerous reports of parent-
child coaching that I gathered from inter-
views with children, parents, and teachers.

All interviews were audio-recorded and
transcribed. I used these interviews to under-
stand children’s home lives, school experi-
ences, and interactions with parents, teachers,
and classmates. When speaking with parents
and students, I concluded each interview by
asking interviewees to respond to four

Table 1. Participants by Role and Type of Participation

Classroom
Observationsa In-Home Interviewsbc

Parent
Surveys

Students
White, Working-Class 14 9
White, Middle-Class 42 12
Parents
White, Working-Class 9 14
White, Middle-Class 15 42
Teachers 17 12

aI solicited parents’ consent for observation of all students in the target cohort at Maplewood, receiving
permission for all but 19 children. For this analysis, I excluded minority students (n = 10) and children
who moved away during the study (n = 12).
bI interviewed parents and children from the same families, selecting families from those who were
already participating in the observation portion of the study. I contacted all 14 working-class families
and a randomly selected group of 15 middle-class families to participate in interviews. Although 27
families agreed to participate, scheduling conflicts prevented some interviews from taking place.
cMost parents interviewed were mothers (I asked to speak with children’s primary caregivers). The
sample includes two single fathers (both working-class) and three married fathers (all middle-class) who
participated in interviews with their wives. Most participants were in married, two-parent families; six
parents were divorced (three working-class, three middle-class).

1020 American Sociological Review 79(5)

vignettes. These vignettes described typical
classroom challenges (e.g., “Jason is strug-
gling to understand the directions on a test”)
and were based on situations I had observed
or learned about through conversations with
teachers. With each vignette, I asked inter-
viewees to describe how the characters should
respond to the situation (e.g., “What do you
think Jason should do?”). I also asked partici-
pants to discuss similar experiences in their
own lives. I then coded these open-ended
responses and used them to compare respond-
ents’ attitudes across social class and genera-
tional lines. I present some of these
comparisons to highlight patterns documented
in the larger ethnographic study.

Data Analysis

I conducted an ongoing process of data analy-
sis, regularly reviewing fieldnotes and

interview transcripts and writing analytic
memos (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 1995). I
used the memos to identify emerging themes
in the data, discuss connections to existing
research, and pose additional questions. After
creating a preliminary coding scheme from
themes in the memos, I used ATLAS.ti to
code sections of fieldnotes, interview tran-
scripts, documents, and seating charts. While
coding, I also developed data matrices (Miles
and Huberman 1994) to clarify comparisons
and identify disconfirming evidence.

PAREnTs’ undERsTAndIngs
of APPRoPRIATE BEhAvIoR
Before examining parents’ coaching of class-
based strategies, it is important to understand
how social class shaped these efforts.
Research highlights social class differences in
parents’ interactions with their children (Chin

Table 2. Study Overview and Timeline

Grade 3 Grade 4 Grade 5

Period of Study March 2008 to
June 2008

August 2008 to
June 2009

August 2009 to
June 2010

Observationsa 4 Classrooms 4 Classrooms 4 Classrooms
(~20 students each) (~20 students each) (~20 students each)
Twice weekly Twice weekly Twice weekly
3 Hours per visit 3 Hours per visit 3 Hours per visit

Interviews 4 Teachersb 4 Teachers 4 Teachers
21 Studentsc

24 Parentsd

Parent Surveyse 56 Families

School Recordsf 52 Students 52 Students 52 Students

aI observed students in their regular classes and ability-grouped math classes; during enrichment
activities (art, gym, library, music, and Spanish); during lunch and recess; and during assemblies and
other school activities.
bTeacher interviews were conducted mid-way through each school year. Interviews took place in
teachers’ classrooms and lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes.
cStudent interviews were conducted during the summer after 5th grade, when students were 10 or 11
years old. Interviews took place in children’s homes and lasted about 60 to 90 minutes.
dParent interviews were conducted during the summer after 5th grade. Interviews took place in parents’
homes (except one, which took place in a parent’s office) and lasted approximately 90 to 120 minutes.
eParent surveys collected information on students’ family backgrounds, school achievement,
friendships, and after-school activities.
fStudents’ school records included grades, standardized test scores, and teacher comments, as well as
records of e-mail, phone, and written contact between parents and teachers. Four families closed access
to their children’s school records.

Calarco 1021

and Phillips 2004; Lareau 2011) and with
their children’s schools (Cucchiara and Hor-
vat 2008; Lareau 2000; Nelson 2010). Yet,
scholars say little about the origins of such
patterns. At Maplewood, I found that middle-
and working-class parents had different strat-
egies for managing problems at school. Those
differences reflected parents’ positions in the
status hierarchy, which influenced their com-
fort interacting with the school and led them
to adopt different class-based logics of action
for interpreting the “appropriate” form of
behavior in those settings.

Middle-Class Parents: Modeling
By-Any-Means Problem-Solving

Middle-class parents adopted a by-any-means
approach to solving problems with their chil-
dren’s schooling. They actively intervened to
request support and accommodations, lobby-
ing to have children tested for gifted or spe-
cial needs programs and often writing notes
excusing their children from homework and
other activities. Ms. Bell sent this note to her
son’s 3rd-grade teacher, Ms. Nelson, when he
left his homework at school:

Dear Paula,
Aidan forgot his homework folder yester-
day. As a result, he was not able to do his
homework last night. I will have him com-
plete it this evening. I apologize for the
inconvenience. Last night I had him read
and do math problems from a workbook to
replace homework time. Again, sorry he
won’t be prepared today.
Susan

Middle-class parents seemed to expect their
interventions to generate benefits, and they
were usually correct in that assumption. Ms.
Nelson, for example, generally required stu-
dents to stay in for recess if they forgot their
homework. Given Ms. Bell’s note, however,
Ms. Nelson allowed Aidan to submit the
homework the next day with no penalty.

Middle-class parents adopted this by-any-
means approach to problem-solving because

they interpreted classroom interactions through
a logic of entitlement. Given their educational
and occupational attainment, middle-class par-
ents appeared to perceive themselves as equal
or greater in status relative to children’s teach-
ers. As a result, they were very comfortable
intervening and questioning teachers’ judg-
ments regarding classroom assignments, abil-
ity group placements, testing procedures, and
homework policies. One interview vignette
described a student, “Brian,” who came home
complaining about being “bored” in math
class. As Table 3 shows, parents’ responses to
this vignette divided sharply by social class.
While all the middle-class parents saw the situ-
ation as requiring immediate requests for
accommodations, working-class parents
tended to view deference to teachers’ judg-
ments as the appropriate response.

When asked open-ended questions about
how Brian’s parent should respond in this
situation, all the middle-class parents said
they would talk to the teacher or encourage
Brian to talk to the teacher. Ms. Matthews’s
response was typical of middle-class parents:

I would ask for a higher math class. I think
that would be the obvious first step. And if
that’s not a possibility, then I think asking
for additional work, or asking if Brian could
mentor one of the other children. That way
he could use the knowledge that he has to
help another child learn. I think that would
be a good lesson for him.

Although the teachers worked hard to deter-
mine the appropriate math level for each stu-
dent, Ms. Matthews, like many middle-class
parents, perceived herself as a better judge of
her child’s needs. These parents also believed
they were entitled to negotiate with teachers,
seeing such requests as an “obvious first
step.” At Maplewood, teachers were reluctant
to change students’ placement. Yet, many
middle-class students (but no working-class
students) were moved up due to their parents’
persistent requests.

This entitlement to intervene prompted
middle-class parents to be highly involved at

1022 American Sociological Review 79(5)

school and granted them insider status at
Maplewood. Many middle-class mothers at
Maplewood were full-time parents, but even
employed mothers helped run volunteer pro-
grams, bake sales, and evening events that
raised more than $50,000 annually for the
parent-teacher organization (PTO). In light of
their involvement, middle-class parents were
often deeply familiar with school expectations,
procedures, and personnel. They also readily
exchanged this information with other (typi-
cally middle-class) parents during play-dates,
soccer games, school events, and phone con-
versations. As a result, middle-class parents
knew the sequence and timing of state assess-
ments, the weekly school schedule, and the
procedures for requesting accommodations.

That insider status shaped middle-class
parents’ beliefs about teachers’ behavioral
expectations. They understood that—unlike
when they were in school—teachers valued
questions and requests from both parents and
students. As Ms. Shore, who works full-time
but contacts her children’s teachers regularly
by e-mail, explained:

It’s become more than just a gentle encour-
agement. It’s official. You’re a high-quality
learner if you’re willing to ask questions
when you have one, and [the teachers] actu-
ally reward the asking.

Middle-class parents recognized that although
their own teachers might have balked at such
requests, school expectations had changed.
They assumed that teachers would reward
proactive help-seeking, and thus they adopted
a logic of entitlement in managing problems
at school.

Working-Class Parents: Modeling
No-Excuses Problem-Solving

Unlike their middle-class counterparts, working-
class parents adopted a no-excuses approach
to educational challenges. In light of their
limited educational and occupational attain-
ment, working-class parents generally trusted
the school to decide what was best for their
children. Even when working-class parents
were frustrated with teachers’ decisions, they

Table 3. Summary of Open-Ended Responses to Vignette 1 by Social Class

vignette 1: Brian, a 5th grader, usually gets good grades in math and does well on tests.
Brian comes home from school one day and tells his mom that he is often bored during
math class.
Prompt: What do you think should happen with Brian?

Middle-Class Working-Class

Response by descriptive category Parents Children Parents Children

Brian’s mother should ask the teacher to move
him up or give him extra work

9 5 2 0

Brian should ask the teacher to give him extra
work

3 4 0 0

Brian’s parent should ask for the teacher’s
advice at conferences

0 0 2 0

If it’s really an issue, the teacher would notice
and help Brian

0 0 3 1

Brian just needs to be more focused 0 2 2 5
Brian just does not like the material 0 1 0 3

Total 12 12 9 9

Note: Responses to vignettes were open-ended. I coded responses into categories to highlight patterns.
Coded responses are presented here for ease of comparison.

Calarco 1023

tended not to intervene. Ms. Campitello’s son
Zach, for example, often went to school with
incomplete assignments. In our interview, Ms.
Campitello explained that while she tried to
help Zach with his homework, both she and
Zach struggled with the material. Tears brim-
ming in her eyes, she recalled:

Zach gets so frustrated that he just won’t do
it. And I tried, but it was really, really hard. It
got to the point, honestly, where I just gave
up. . . . I wish the teachers would just help
him at school. Cuz they get this stuff. They
know what the kids are supposed to be doing.

Ms. Campitello believed the school could do
more to help Zach with homework and with
his understanding of the material. Yet, like
other working-class parents, she did not
inform Zach’s teachers or ask for additional
support.

Working-class parents adopted this no-
excuses approach to problem-solving because
they interpreted classroom interactions through
a logic of constraint. Given their educational
and occupational attainment, they perceived
themselves as less knowledgeable than “expert”
educators and thus avoided questioning teach-
ers’ judgments. Responding to the Brian
vignette, for example, none of the working-
class parents said they would ask the teacher to
move Brian to a higher math level (see Table
3). Similarly, in 2nd grade, Ms. Trumble noticed
that her son, Jeremy, was not reading as well as
his older siblings had at that age. Ms. Trumble
worried, but she did not intervene:

I thought maybe there was something
wrong, but I didn’t wanna say anything. I
think the teachers are pretty good. If there’s
any kind of problem, I think they’d jump on
it right then and there to help. Like [in kin-
dergarten] they figured out that Jeremy had
some speech problems and they got him into
speech therapy.

Even when their children were struggling,
working-class parents “didn’t wanna say any-
thing.” They assumed that teachers had a

better understanding of children’s academic
needs, and that they as non-professionals
were not equipped to influence decisions
about children’s schooling.

This reluctance to intervene prompted
working-class parents to be less involved at
school and relegated them largely to outsider
status at Maplewood. Working-class parents
occasionally attended conferences or con-
certs, but they spent relatively little time vol-
unteering. Even the few working-class parents
who did not work full-time were not a regular
presence at school. As a result, working-class
parents tended not to be very familiar with
school expectations, procedures, and person-
nel. This lack of familiarity was compounded
by the fact that working-class parents gener-
ally had few social connections with teachers
or other Maplewood parents.

That outsider status shaped working-class
parents’ beliefs about teachers’ behavioral
expectations. Without inside information,
working-class parents tended to rely on their
own experiences in school as a guide. During
an interview, Mr. Graham remembered a
formative incident from 5th grade:

The teacher gave us a test and none of us
understood. We were like, “What are you
talking about?” I mean, it was like she
thought she explained it clear as day. And
we read it, but it just didn’t jive.2

When I asked Mr. Graham what happened
next, he continued, shaking his head:

Well, she was upset because we asked her
about it. She yelled at us, cuz she just didn’t
understand why we didn’t get it! That was a
rough little time in school. I mean, a number
of us were upset about it, crying upset about
it. I think I probably took the brunt of it, cuz
I was the one that challenged her.

While the teachers at Maplewood did repri-
mand students for offenses like being off-
task, name-calling, and running in the
hallways, I never saw a teacher punish a stu-
dent for seeking help. Middle-class parents,

1024 American Sociological Review 79(5)

by virtue of their insider involvement, recog-
nized that school expectations around question-
asking had changed over time. Working-class
parents, drawing only on their own school
experiences, assumed that teachers would
perceive requests as disrespectful, and thus
they adopted a logic of constraint in manag-
ing problems at school.

PAREnTs TEACh ClAss-
BAsEd BEhAvIoRs
Parents’ class-based logics shaped not only
their comfort interacting with teachers, but
also their beliefs about how to manage chal-
lenges appropriately at school. Such beliefs
prompted parents to coach their children to
activate similar strategies when interacting
with teachers. Although parent-child coach-
ing exchanges were generally serendipitous
rather than planned, their messages were
more deliberate and their intended conse-
quences were more explicit than research on
social class and childrearing typically implies
(Arnett 1995; Heath 1983; Lareau 2011).

Middle-Class Parents: Coaching By-
Any-Means Problem-Solving

Middle-class parents actively coached their
children to adopt a by-any-means approach to
dealing with classroom challenges. In 1st
grade, Danny Rissolo was being bullied by a
classmate. As Ms. Rissolo explained:

The kid he was sitting next to was a bully,
and was making fun of him. Danny wanted
me to fix it for him, but I said to him, “You
know what Danny, I’ll do that for you, but I
want you to do something first. I want you
to go to Ms. Girard, and say something like
‘Ms. Girard, can I talk to you for a min-
ute?’” I said, “Ask her what she thinks you
should do.” At first [Danny] was like: “You
want me to do all that?” And I said: “You
can do it! You’re a smart guy. You’re very
articulate. You can do this. And if it’s still a
problem, I’ll call her also, but you need to
do this first.”

Smiling, Ms. Rissolo went on to describe
proudly how Danny—barely 7 years old at
the time—successfully convinced Ms. Girard
to change his seat and move him away from
the bully:

Well, he did it. He talked to Ms. Girard and
asked her what she could do. And she was
able to say: “You know what, I’m gonna be
changing where you’re all sitting next week.
Why don’t we change tomorrow instead?
And no one has to know why.” And his
problem went away. And so he saw, he
learned, early on, how to advocate for
himself.

Ms. Rissolo could have just contacted
Ms. Girard on Danny’s behalf. Instead, and like
other middle-class parents at Maplewood, she
coached her son to seek assistance for himself.

Middle-class parents’ coaching efforts
reflected their belief that children should
draw on all available resources when manag-
ing problems at school. In interviews, these
parents stressed that children should be com-
fortable approaching teachers with questions
and requests for individualized support. These
beliefs were particularly apparent in middle-
class parents’ responses to an interview
vignette describing “Jason’s” struggles to
understand a science test question. As Table 4
shows, parents’ responses to this vignette
divided sharply along social class lines. Middle-
class parents all stressed that Jason should
solve the problem by-any-means, whereas
working-class parents all emphasized a no-
excuses approach.

When asked “What should Jason do?”
middle-class parents all said that Jason should
“go to the teacher” for help. Ms. Long, for
example, expressed sentiments commonly
echoed by middle-class parents:

Jason should ask the teacher to clarify for
him. Cuz if Jason was having the problem
then everybody else is probably having the
same problem. You want a kid to be able to
answer the question, to make sure that he
understands, rather than just not doing

Calarco 1025

anything. So I think Jason should ask the
teacher and the teacher should tell the whole
class.

The middle-class parents at Maplewood
expressed that children should readily seek
assistance, and that teachers are obligated to
provide such support.

As with Danny and the bully, the coaching
efforts that stemmed from these beliefs
equipped middle-class children to activate
by-any-means problem-solving strategies.
Similarly, when Gina Giordano began getting
Bs and Cs on tests in 4th grade, Gina’s par-
ents coached her to go to her teacher for help:

We always tell her, “You go up and you talk
to the teacher. You find out—you don’t use
your friends. You go to the teacher and find
out.” Like, Gina was [struggling] . . . and I
told her, “Well, go ask your teacher what
that means. That’s your resource.”

Parents’ active coaching efforts inspired
middle-class children to “use their resources”
when confronting problems in school. As
Gina explained:

Like, I was having trouble staying orga-
nized, and I kinda talked to my parents
about it. They told me to go talk to my
teacher, Ms. Hudson. . . . [So] I asked her if
she could help me with my organization and
stuff, [and] . . . she just brought me to the
back of the class and showed me a few
things.

Gina recognized that her parents taught her
valuable strategies for managing problems,
and she regularly enacted those strategies at
school. During a 5th-grade math class, Gina
was working with her (middle-class) partner
Beth. Following instructions, Gina and Beth
found a recipe (for six servings), and using
what they had learned about multiplying frac-
tions, tried to determine how much of each
ingredient they would need to feed 25 people.
These complex calculations soon had the
girls arguing. Frustrated, they sought out
Ms. Dunham:

As they approach, Gina calls out loudly,
“Ms. Dunham!” Ms. Dunham turns, and
Gina begins to explain: “We don’t really get
how to do this. We don’t know what we

Table 4. Summary of Open-Ended Responses to Vignette 2 by Social Class

vignette 2: Mr. Patrick’s 5th-grade class is working on a science test. Mr. Patrick is at his
desk, grading papers. Jason, one of the students, gets to the third question and reads it
silently to himself. It says: “Make a chart comparing the atmospheres on the earth and on
the moon.” Jason is confused—he isn’t sure how to answer the question, or what to include
in the chart.
Prompt: What do you think Jason should do?

Middle-Class Working-Class

Response by descriptive category Parents Children Parents Children

Jason should go to the teacher for help 12 10 0 2
Jason should try his best 0 0 5 4
It depends on the teacher’s rules 0 2 2 2
Jason should wait; the teacher will likely

notice him struggling and offer help
0 0 2 1

Total 12 12 9 9

Note: Responses to vignettes were open-ended. I coded responses into categories to highlight patterns.
Coded responses are presented here for ease of comparison.

1026 American Sociological Review 79(5)

need to multiply by to get to 25 servings.”
Ms. Dunham walks them through the pro-
cess of multiplying the amount of each
ingredient by 25/6, and then reducing each
fraction to its simplest form.

Gina could have continued working or asked
a classmate for help. Instead, she went straight
to the teacher. In doing so, Gina drew on the
by-any-means problem-solving strategies she
learned at home. As with most of the middle-
class students, I also observed Gina become
more confident in deploying those strategies
over time.

Working-Class Parents: Coaching
No-Excuses Problem-Solving

Unlike their middle-class counterparts,
working-class parents coached their children
to adopt a no-excuses approach to problem-
solving. Ms. Trumble, for example, noted that
her son Jeremy sometimes “will forget stuff.”
She went on to describe how she uses these
situations to teach Jeremy to be more
responsible:

And I’ll say, “You have to tell your teacher
that you forgot it, and stay in for recess and
get it done then.” And that’s what he ends
up doing. Because I tell him, “There’s noth-
ing I can do. You forgot your homework. I
don’t know what it was.”

These explicit messages seemed to lead Jer-
emy to activate a no-excuses approach when
managing problems at school. In 5th grade,
the day his book report was due, Jeremy
arrived without it:

Slumping into his seat between Riley and
Alan (both middle-class students), Jeremy
laments, “I finally finished my book report
last night, and then I left it at home . . . ”
Riley, head cocked, looks at Jeremy. She
asks, puzzled, “Can’t your mom bring it for
you?” Jeremy drops his chin down and
shakes his head. “She has to work, so if I
forget things, she says it’s my responsibility.”

Riley blinks, bewildered. Later, when Ms.
Dunham checks his homework, Jeremy apol-
ogizes and admits that he does not have his
project. Ms. Dunham says disappointedly:
“You’ll have to stay in for recess.”

In similar situations, middle-class students
generally adopted a by-any-means approach,
asking to call a parent to bring in the assign-
ment or to receive an extension on the dead-
line. Like other working-class students,
however, Jeremy followed his mother’s
instructions and accepted his punishment
without excuse.

Working-class parents’ coaching efforts
reflected their belief that children should
draw only on their own resources and avoid
inconveniencing teachers by seeking help.
These beliefs were particularly apparent in
working-class parents’ responses to the inter-
view vignette describing Jason’s struggles
with the science test. After reading this
vignette, working-class parents typically
responded by saying that Jason should work
hard and try his best (see Table 4). As Ms. Marrone
explained:

Jason should just try his best. I tell my kids
to work hard. And they all learned how to
do it. Like with Shawn, he reads better now.
So he doesn’t ask me for help as much.
Like, he can do his homework by himself
now.

Some working-class parents believed that help-
seeking would undermine their children’s will-
ingness to work hard. Others noted that children
might “get in trouble” for seeking help, and
thus they encouraged their children to “skip it
and come back” or wait for the teacher to offer
assistance. Although they varied somewhat in
their reasoning, working-class parents consis-
tently emphasized that children should avoid
proactively making requests.

As with Jeremy and the forgotten project,
the coaching efforts that stemmed from these
beliefs prepared working-class children to
activate no-excuses problem-solving strate-
gies. This can also be seen with an example

Calarco 1027

from the Graham family. In an interview,
Mr. Graham recounted a problem with his
daughter Amelia’s 3rd-grade report card. He
described how they read the report card
together, and how Amelia noted that one of
the teacher comments “didn’t seem to make
sense.” As Mr. Graham recalled: “I told Ame-
lia not to ask about it, cuz the teacher proba-
bly wouldn’t be too happy.” Explaining this
approach, Mr. Graham noted:

I just want my kids to be respectful and
responsible. . . . My kids, I always told ’em:
“Look, if you’ve gotta give somebody a
hard time, give it to me. Don’t give it to
your teachers. Don’t give it to other par-
ents.” And I’ve never had a teacher com-
plain. Or, if my kids go and play at somebody
else’s house, I’ve never had a parent say:
“Your child can’t come back.” You know?
My kids are good for the teachers and for
other parents.

These active coaching efforts taught working-
class children to work hard and avoid “com-
plaining” when confronting problems in
school. In my conversations with teachers,
they would often bemoan middle-class stu-
dents’ “lack of problem-solving skills” and
their reluctance to tackle difficult challenges.
In these same conversations, teachers would
often praise working-class students like
Shawn and Amelia for their “work-ethic.”

This willingness to work hard and avoid
excuses was readily apparent in working-
class students’ management of challenges at
school. Near the end of the year, the 5th grad-
ers invited their parents to attend an outdoor
rocket-day event marking the culmination of
their study of space exploration. The students
had spent class time assembling and decorat-
ing plastic model rockets, readying them for
launch at the event. On the big day, the stu-
dents, giddy with excitement, waited in four
lines on the field behind the school. Teachers
and parent volunteers helped them load tubes
of explosives into their rockets. The children
launched the models using a remote device.
After watching their rockets fly about 100

yards across the playground, they retrieved
them and rejoined the line to try again:

Although there are many parents milling
around, Amelia’s parents are at work. After
her launch, Amelia retrieves her rocket and
jogs slowly back toward the line, a crest-
fallen look on her face. Amelia is holding
her rocket in one hand and the rocket’s
parachute in the other. The string attaching
the parachute to the rocket broke during the
flight. Rather than rejoin the line, Amelia
sits down in the grass by herself. Her face
set tight with concentration, Amelia tries to
fix the rocket, carefully tying and retying
the broken string.

As Amelia worked, Ted Peters, a middle-class
student, ran toward the line. Instead of joining
his classmates, Ted veered off, approaching
his mother, who was chatting with other
parents:

Ms. Peters turns, smiles broadly, and praises
Ted for a “great flight.” Ted, frowning,
holds out his rocket and explains that the
string attaching the rocket’s parachute has
broken. After inspecting the broken string,
Ms. Peters says encouragingly, “Go ask
Mr. Fischer for a new string. I’m sure he’ll
be able to help.” Ted’s grim expression
brightens. He turns and dashes toward his
teacher. When Mr. Fischer sees the broken
string, he retrieves an extra string from a
supply bin and helps Ted reattach the para-
chute. Ted then immediately rejoins the line
to launch his rocket again.

While Amelia eventually succeeded in tying
the two broken ends of string, it took her
much longer. Ted immediately rejoined the
line, stepping in behind the friend who had
gone before him in the first round. As a result,
Ted got to launch his rocket four times, while
Amelia only got to launch her rocket twice.
Despite this setback, however, Amelia did not
complain or ask to move ahead in line. In
doing so, and like other working-class stu-
dents, Amelia drew on the no-excuses

1028 American Sociological Review 79(5)

problem-solving strategies that she learned
from her parents’ instruction at home.

PAREnTs TEACh ClAss-
BAsEd InTERPRETATIons
Given the possibility of children’s resistance
to parents’ intentions (Chin and Phillips 2004;
Pugh 2009), parents engaged in deliberate
and ongoing efforts to teach children not only
different strategies of action for managing
challenges, but also different logics of action
to use in deciphering the “appropriate” strat-
egy for a given situation. Effectively, parents
taught children to see the world—or at least
the classroom—through their eyes. These
coaching exchanges were rarely planned;
instead, they tended to occur as a natural
response to situations as they arose. Yet, par-
ents did convey their messages deliberately,
not only by passively modeling different ori-
entations, but also by actively shaping how
children viewed themselves and their teach-
ers. Through repeated exposure to such mes-
sages, even reluctant children tended to
gradually adopt their parents’ logics and to
use them as a guide in activating “appropri-
ate” strategies of action.

Middle-Class Parents: Teaching
Entitlement

Middle-class parents actively encouraged
their children to adopt a logic of entitlement
in their interactions at school. They did so by
teaching their children first, to feel deserving
of support, and second, to recognize the ben-
efits of entitlement and its by-any-means
approach to problem-solving. Ms. Matthews
described this approach:

I really feel like [my kids] need to have
those skills . . . to be able to talk to [the]
teacher to understand and to work through
those problems. When you get into a boss
situation, your mom doesn’t call and say,
“Sorry my daughter doesn’t understand
what she’s supposed to come and do today
at work.” You know, you need to learn how

to do that! And if you don’t start at this
stage, it makes it more difficult and then you
get fired! So I tell my kids, “It’s okay to ask
those questions in that setting. This is a
place where you go every day. You talk to
this teacher every day. He’s invested in your
interests.” And once they learn to overcome
that hurdle, it becomes easier to then deal
with asking for [other things].

Like other middle-class parents, Ms. Mat-
thews stressed to her children both the bene-
fits of help-seeking (e.g., you might get fired
if you do not seek help) and their deserving-
ness of support (e.g., the teacher is invested in
your interests). In doing so, she worked to
develop her children’s sense of entitlement to
assistance at school.

These entitlement-oriented messages
helped middle-class children—especially shy
children—overcome reluctance around help-
seeking. Keri Long’s mother, for example,
realized early on that Keri was hesitant to
seek assistance from teachers. She recounted
this incident:

Keri was doing well in 3rd grade. She had
straight As until this one math test [on
which Keri got a C]. She came down [from
studying in her room] and said, “I’m con-
fused about this.” And I said, “Go talk to
your teacher about it! You need to tell your
teacher this is what you need help with.”

Despite her mother’s strategy-based coach-
ing, Keri did not ask for help. Ms. Long,
shaking her head in exasperation, continued:

She didn’t have the power in her to do it. To
say: “I need help.” . . . And that brought her
grade down! She got a C on the test and it
brought her down. . . . Which, to me, was
very upsetting, because I told her, “Go! Get
help!” And she just . . . I dunno. Keri’s very
timid, very shy. I’m trying to teach her to
look up and shake hands. That adults aren’t
scary and that the teachers are there to help
her. It’s getting better, but it’s taken her a
really long time.

Calarco 1029

Although Keri was reluctant to follow her
mother’s instruction, Ms. Long was not
deterred. Like other middle-class parents,
Ms. Long continued to work with Keri, repeat-
edly stressing that Keri deserved assistance
and that the “teachers are there to help her.”

Over time, and in light of such persistent
encouragement, even very shy middle-class
children became more comfortable negotiat-
ing with teachers. From 3rd to 5th grade, for
example, I watched Keri grow more confident
in these interactions. One day, Ms. Dunham’s
5th graders were working on a social studies
test, using their books to complete short-
answer essay questions about the Civil War.
One question asked students to identify a
main event and describe its significance:

Before setting the students to work,
Ms. Dunham calls out: “Use your resources.
But it’s open book, not open neighbor!”
After working for a few minutes, Keri picks
up her textbook and carries it with her as she
approaches Ms. Dunham’s desk. Pointing at
a passage in the book, she asks quietly,
“Does this count as a main event?” After
glancing at the book, Ms. Dunham explains,
“This is a good event, but you probably
want to look for something larger.” Ms.
Dunham then helps Keri recall some signifi-
cant events they discussed in class.

In an interview, Keri linked her increasing
comfort with help-seeking to her mother’s
encouragement, explaining: “My mom tells
me that I should do it [ask for help]. And so I
usually go and ask Ms. Dunham.” With time
and intensive coaching from their parents,
even very shy middle-class children gradually
adopted a sense of entitlement to support. In
doing so, they also developed the confidence
needed to activate a by-any-means approach
to problem-solving.

Messages about the benefits of by-any-
means problem-solving also helped alleviate
reluctance among middle-class children who
worried that help-seeking might cause others
to perceive them as “dumb.” With a worried
frown, Ms. Dobrin described how she and her

husband regularly remind their son Ethan of
the importance of help-seeking:

Ethan’s teacher evaluations always said,
“He’s a joy. He’s bright. He’s making great
grades, but he needs to ask for help some-
times.” Now, I don’t think asking for help is
comfortable for Ethan, but what we try to
impress on him is, “Think about how impor-
tant it is that you get that information. If you
need that information to do the job cor-
rectly, then you need to ask the teacher.”

Initially, Ethan did not like seeking help: as a
high-achieving student, he worried that help-
seeking would prompt others to question his
abilities. Given Ethan’s reluctance, his par-
ents worked with him repeatedly. They would
stress the importance of help-seeking and
“coach him to flag a teacher down, or get up
and go talk to the teacher during a test.”

These messages, in turn, helped middle-
class children to adopt a logic of entitlement
and to view help-seeking primarily through
its benefits. By 5th grade, for example, Ethan
seemed very comfortable voicing his needs. I
regularly watched him ask teachers to extend
deadlines, clarify directions, and even pro-
vide assistance during tests. During the spring
of 5th grade, Mr. Fischer’s class was taking a
math test. Mr. Fischer circled, glancing at
students’ work and answering questions about
the test:

Ethan taps his pencil eraser lightly against
his cheek, frowning. As Mr. Fischer circles
past, Ethan calls out quietly but hopefully,
“Mr. Fischer?” Mr. Fischer immediately
stops and turns toward Ethan, asking with
genuine concern, “You okay?” Ethan shrugs
and admits that he is not sure if he is inter-
preting a question correctly. Squatting
down, Mr. Fischer does not give Ethan the
answer, but helps him recognize his mis-
take. Ethan nods, quickly finishing the
problem correctly.

Ethan’s logic of entitlement seemed to prompt
him to activate this by-any-means approach

1030 American Sociological Review 79(5)

to problem-solving. Responding to my ques-
tion about why he asked for help on occasions
like that one, Ethan explained:

I didn’t want to guess and risk getting it
wrong. I don’t want to get it wrong, because
then I won’t get as high a grade as I should
have gotten. So it’s just better to go up and
ask the teacher. And then normally I would
get it right.

Like other middle-class students, Ethan was
initially reluctant to seek help. Through his
parents’ repeated, active encouragement,
however, Ethan eventually came to recognize
the benefits of help-seeking. In doing so,
Ethan was able to draw on a logic of entitle-
ment to overcome his fears and to feel com-
fortable voicing his needs.

Working-Class Parents: Teaching
Constraint

Working-class parents actively encouraged
their children to adopt a logic of constraint in
interactions at school. They did so by teach-
ing their children, first, to perceive their own
needs as secondary to those of others, and
second, to recognize the importance of hard
work.

Working-class parents equated help-seeking
with selfishness and sought to discourage
such behaviors by actively downplaying their
children’s individual needs. Ms. Webb, for
example, did this with her daughter Sadie.
While I was interviewing Ms. Webb in the
kitchen of the Webb’s mobile home, Sadie
entered the room to ask (politely) for the
powdered iced tea mix:

Ms. Webb gives Sadie a skeptical look and
laughs, “Get it yourself! What’re you asking
me for?” Sadie nods and pulls a chair out
from the kitchen table, using it to climb up
and retrieve the can of iced tea mix from the
cabinet over the refrigerator. As Sadie does
this, Ms. Webb, turning to me, says play-
fully, “She’s a spoiled brat. Not gonna make
it in the real world.”

Although Sadie tried to ask for help, her
mother quickly denied this request. Like other
working-class parents, Ms. Webb stressed
that assistance would “spoil” her daughter.

Over time, and in light of such messages,
working-class children appeared to perceive
help-seeking as selfish and disrespectful of
others. Sadie, for example, was loud and out-
going with her friends, but very polite and
deferent to her teachers. As Sadie explained
in an interview, she rarely asked for help:

If you have a question about homework,
you should just skip it. You don’t wanna go
up and bug the teacher. And then, if she [the
teacher] says: “Did anybody have any prob-
lems with the homework?” Then you can
raise your hand.

With time and coaching from their parents,
working-class children gradually came to
view classroom challenges through a logic of
constraint. Doing so prompted working-class
children to adopt a no-excuses approach to
problem-solving and to avoid seeking help.

Working-class parents also equated help-
seeking with laziness. To discourage such
behaviors, they emphasized the importance of
hard work. Ms. Compton, for example, strug-
gled to help her son Jesse with homework. She
described, close to tears, how overwhelmed
she felt by frequent, complex assignments and
by her own work schedule, which prevented
her from being home in the afternoons. Given
those challenges, Ms. Compton tried to moti-
vate Jesse to do his homework on his own. As
Ms. Compton explained:

Jesse can be lazy. He’s very, “I can’t do it. I
don’t know what I’m doing.” But he just
needs a push to do it on his own. I just tell
him, “You can do it. I know you can do it.
I’ve seen you do this. I want you to try.”
Then he gets his confidence up and he snaps
out of that low moment.

Jesse hated homework, but, like most working-
class parents, his mother repeatedly encour-
aged him to just keep trying.

Calarco 1031

Such messages helped Jesse and other
working-class children adopt a logic of con-
straint and view help-seeking primarily
through its drawbacks. Jesse, for example,
worked very hard but still struggled with
schoolwork. Despite these struggles, how-
ever, Jesse believed he should not seek help:

Some of the stuff Ms. Dunham told me, it
didn’t really make sense, but I just had to
say: “Okay, I’ll try.” Like, sometimes I feel
like I can’t do it, but my mom says I can’t
say that. And I don’t wanna get in trouble.

In interviews, other working-class students
also stressed the importance of hard work and
the potential drawbacks of help-seeking, say-
ing things like:

You need to work hard and learn things.
Like, teachers give you homework to learn
things. And then if you get help from your
mom and dad, you’re not learning that stuff.
And if you get it from a calculator, you still
don’t learn it.

In light of parents’ active encouragement,
working-class students came to view class-
room interactions through a logic of con-
straint. They recognized the benefits of hard
work and the possible negative consequences
(social and academic) of actively voicing
their needs.

This recognition tended to prompt working-
class students not to ask for help at school. In
the classroom, for example, I rarely saw
either Sadie or Jesse seek assistance. As I
learned from a conversation with Ms. Dun-
ham, she took her 5th graders to the school
library one Monday to take out books on
African American historical figures. She gave
her students until Thursday to find 10 facts
for a biography project. Jesse was absent on
Monday, so Ms. Dunham left the assignment
on his desk. On Tuesday, however, Jesse did
not ask for permission to go to the library.
Instead, he asked his mother to take him to
the public library. Ms. Compton did not have
time; she said he would “just have to figure it

out.” On Wednesday, however, Jesse did not
explain the situation to Ms. Dunham or ask to
go to the school library. Instead, he came to
school on Thursday without his facts:

Jesse is slumped low in his seat, his shoul-
ders sagging. When Ms. Dunham [who is
checking students’ homework] approaches,
she asks, “Do you have your facts?” Jesse
shakes his head but does not look up. Sens-
ing that something is wrong, Ms. Dunham
squats down next to Jesse, asking softly,
“You okay?” Jesse waits for a long moment,
and then whispers, “I tried to do them, but
my mom got mad, cuz I said we needed to
go to the library.” Ms. Dunham’s eyes
widen, as if recalling that Jesse was absent
when the class went to the library. She reas-
sures Jesse, promising to “give mom a call”
to explain the mix-up and giving him a
library pass and an extension on the assign-
ment. Jesse thanks Ms. Dunham earnestly,
giving her a tentative smile.

Like other working-class students, Jesse often
concealed his challenges and tried to manage
them privately. This was a risky strategy. Had
Ms. Dunham not intervened, Jesse would
have received a lower grade on his project,
and he might not have turned it in at all. Ironi-
cally, while Jesse likely wanted to avoid
appearing lazy or disrespectful by asking for
help, his failure to explain the situation could
have led Ms. Dunham to see him as lazy and
disrespectful for not completing his work.

how ACTIvATIon
REPRoduCEs InEquAlITIEs
As such examples suggest, the active transfer
of class-based culture from parents to chil-
dren helped reproduce social inequalities. We
know from prior research that children’s acti-
vation of class-based strategies can generate
stratified profits in the classroom (Calarco
2011; Farkas 1996; Streib 2011), and those
profits result from teachers’ responses to par-
ticular behaviors (Mehan 1980; Tach and
Farkas 2006; Wren 1999).

1032 American Sociological Review 79(5)

This study provides further evidence of
such patterns, showing that teachers reacted
differently to by-any-means and no-excuses
problem-solving, and those reactions had sig-
nificant consequences. During art class one
morning, the students were taking an assess-
ment that would determine part of their grade.
For the assessment, students had 15 minutes
to choose a print of a famous painting and
answer a series of questions about its mood,
tone, and style. During the assessment, Ted,
Melanie, Kelly, and Kal, all middle-class stu-
dents, raised their hands, and Ms. Cantore
circled around, answering their questions:

Melanie thrusts her hand high in the air,
twisting around in her seat to look for
Ms. Cantore. Spotting her, Melanie calls out
in a loud whisper: “Ms. Cantore!” Ms. Can-
tore, who was across the room, strides
quickly toward Melanie. As Ms. Cantore
approaches, Melanie explains: “I’m not sure
what to write for the mood part. Like, I
know the tone is light, but I’m not sure how
to describe the mood.” Ms. Cantore smiles,
asking: “Well what do you feel when you
look at all of those pastel colors?” Melanie
thinks for a moment, scrunching her fore-
head before asking: “Um . . . happy?” Ms.
Cantore nods vigorously, adding: “Now you
just need to think about other ways you can
tell this is a happy painting.” Melanie nods
confidently, saying: “Okay, got it!”

Meanwhile, Zach Campitello, a working-
class student, appeared to be struggling with
the assessment, but never asked for help:

Zach is sitting hunched over his paper, a
deep-set frown on his face. Zach glares at
the print for a long time before eventually
starting to write. When Ms. Cantore cir-
cles past, she notices that Zach has only
brief answers for each question. Ms. Can-
tore reaches down and taps Zach’s paper.
She explains quietly but firmly: “You
need to write more than one sentence for
each answer.” Zach nods, but does not
look up.

Ms. Cantore hesitated, as though she might
ask Zach if he needed help. Simultaneously,
however, Colin, a middle-class student, called
out for help, and Ms. Cantore went to assist
him:

Zach lets out a harsh sigh. His face red with
frustration, Zach begins furiously erasing
everything he has written. With forceful
swipes of his hand, Zach then begins to
scatter eraser dust all over the table. As
Zach finishes erasing, Ms. Cantore calls out
to inform the class that they have five min-
utes left to work. Zach groans and begins
writing a longer answer to the first question.
When time is up, however, Zach has not
finished the other questions. Rather than
explain, he simply drops his assessment in
the box, submitting it incomplete.

As with Melanie, by-any-means problem-
solving prompted teachers to quickly recog-
nize students’ struggles and to respond with
immediate assistance. No-excuses approaches,
on the other hand, were harder for teachers to
diagnose, and thus prompted less frequent,
less immediate, and less complete support.
Those differences in teacher support, in turn,
generated stratified profits in the classroom.
Middle-class students like Melanie were able
to use the help they received to finish assign-
ments more quickly and more accurately.
Working-class students, on the other hand,
often took longer to finish assignments, did
them incorrectly, or, like Zach, never com-
pleted them at all.

Working-class students did sometimes over-
come challenges on their own (as with Amelia
in the rocket example), and they often took
pride in their do-it-yourself attitudes. In
Mr. Potter’s math class, for example, students
were working on a set of tricky word problems:

As Mr. Potter circles around, many of the
middle-class students call out to ask for help
with number 29. Mr. Potter eventually
decides to give a hint to the whole class
rather than help each student individually.
He announces: “If you’re stuck on 29, you

Calarco 1033

need to think about . . . ” Before Mr. Potter
can finish, Jared, an outgoing working-class
student, interrupts, calling out: “Wait! I
wanna try it first!” Mr. Potter smiles broadly
at Jared, nodding approvingly, and then
explains to the class: “If you get stuck on
29, skip it, and we’ll go over it together.”

Although it took him much longer than class-
mates who got help, Jared smiled proudly
when he eventually completed the assignment
on his own.

Other times, however, working-class stu-
dents failed to overcome problems on their
own, and those setbacks often left them dis-
couraged. Zach, for example, was clearly
struggling with the art assignment, but he did
not voice his needs. Instead, Zach tried to
work hard on his own. Eventually, though, the
frustration became too much to bear. In the
face of such setbacks, Zach chose to submit
his assessment incomplete. As a result, Zach
was one of only three students to receive an
“unsatisfactory” in art for the marking period.
Such patterns, in turn, provide further evi-
dence of the stratified profits that can result—
at least in the short-term—from students’
activation of class-based strategies of action.

dIsCussIon
While we know that social class differences
in children’s classroom behaviors contribute
to inequalities (Calarco 2011; Farkas 1996;
Streib 2011), existing research says little
about how children learn to activate class-
based strategies. Instead, and despite evi-
dence that parents actively manage children’s
lives (Edwards 2004; Lareau 2000; Nelson
2010) and that children actively resist par-
ents’ wishes (Chin and Phillips 2004; Pugh
2009), scholars tend to imply that children’s
habits are an implicit response to parents’
class-based childrearing styles (Heath 1983;
Lareau 2011). Thus, it is unclear how or why
parents coach class-based strategies, or how
children respond to those efforts. Existing
research often neglects to link class-based
cultural transmission to inequalities in chil-
dren’s lives, focusing on the advantages

parents generate for children (Brantlinger
2003; Cucchiara and Horvat 2008; Lareau
2011) and not on how parents teach children
to secure advantages for themselves.

Exploring these possibilities, I found that
middle- and working-class parents adopted
different approaches to interacting with edu-
cators and taught their children to do the
same. Specifically, middle-class parents
coached children to problem-solve “by-any-
means,” including seeking assistance from
teachers. Working-class parents instead
stressed a “no-excuses” approach to problem-
solving, teaching their children to manage
challenges on their own and to avoid pester-
ing teachers with requests. These lessons, in
turn, had important consequences for stu-
dents. While many children were initially
reluctant to heed parents’ instructions, their
reluctance prompted more active and ongoing
coaching from parents. Such efforts eventu-
ally led children to adopt class-based logics
of action and to use them in activating class-
based problem-solving strategies.

These findings are important in that they
highlight the agency in cultural transmission
processes. Scholars of cultural transmission
typically rely on top-down socialization mod-
els to explain similarities between parents and
children (Kohn 1969; Lareau 2011). Child-
hood scholars critique these models for being
overly deterministic (Corsaro 1994; Pugh
2009; Thorne 1993) but focus on children’s
peer groups and thus offer little evidence of
intergenerational exchange. By examining
how children acquire and activate class-based
strategies of action, I find that both children
and parents have more agency in cultural
transmission than class socialization models
imply. Parents, for example, worked to equip
their children with the skills and orientations
they believed were most appropriate. Further-
more, while children generally came to accept
their parents’ lessons, that process was far
from automatic. Rather, it took an ongoing
process of coaching, reluctance, and rein-
forcement to help children gradually acquire
the skills and orientations needed to manage
challenges in the “appropriate” (i.e., class-
based) way.

1034 American Sociological Review 79(5)

Such findings also suggest that cultural
transmission plays a critical role in reproduc-
ing social inequalities. Research on cultural
transmission (e.g., Chin and Phillips 2004;
Edwards 2004; Lareau 2011) rarely shows the
payoff of parents’ class-based socialization.
Similarly, studies of classroom behavior show
that children’s activation of class-based strate-
gies of action generates unequal outcomes
(Calarco 2011; Farkas 1996; Streib 2011), but
say little about how children acquire or learn
to activate those strategies. This study bridges
these gaps by linking parents’ lessons to their
stratified profits in school. In doing so, I found
that middle-class children’s by-any-means
approach to problem-solving generated more
advantages than did working-class children’s
no-excuses approach. Specifically, teachers
tended to recognize middle-class students’
needs more quickly. They also provided
middle-class students with more attention and
assistance in overcoming challenges they
faced. As a result, middle-class students typi-
cally completed their assignments more
quickly and more accurately than did their
working-class peers (see also Calarco 2011).

Additional research is needed to under-
stand how the payoff of parents’ lessons
might vary across contexts and over time. In
college or in the workplace, for example,
individuals who use no-excuses problem-
solving might do better than those who are
used to having parents or teachers solve prob-
lems for them. In the short-term, however,
there are clear benefits to by-any-means problem-
solving. As research shows, help-seeking and
other non-cognitive skills are closely linked
to school achievement (Farkas 1996). Fur-
thermore, by attracting attention and support
from teachers, these strategies may also bol-
ster students’ sense of academic competence
and their attachment to school (Karabenick
1998; Stanton-Salazar 1997). By tracing these
profits to their origins, this study illuminates
the mechanisms of social reproduction, show-
ing how parents’ lessons contribute to aca-
demic inequalities.

In doing so, this research may also clarify
how social class influences childrearing. Cer-
tainly, there are many possible explanations

for parents’ class-stratified lessons. They may
stem, for example, from the values and beliefs
about success that parents acquire in their
work roles (Kohn 1969), or from parents’
familiarity with dominant institutions
(Bourdieu 1990; Lareau 2011). While more
research is needed to investigate these possi-
bilities, my observations and interviews sug-
gest that parents’ coaching efforts stem, at
least in part, from their positions in the status
hierarchy.

Parents’ status positions shaped their rela-
tionships with the school and their comfort
interacting in those settings. Because of their
educational and occupational attainment,
middle-class parents saw themselves as
equally or more qualified than teachers to
make decisions about their children’s educa-
tion. That sense of expertise also compelled
middle-class parents to ensure their children’s
needs were met, leading them to be highly
involved at school and to demand accommo-
dations on their children’s behalf (Brantlinger
2003; Cucchiara and Horvat 2008; Lareau
2000). That involvement, in turn, gave
middle-class parents insider knowledge of
school procedures and personnel. They saw
first-hand (or learned through their networks)
that schooling had changed over time, and
they recognized that teachers were generally
willing to help and even “reward the asking.”
Middle-class parents used that knowledge in
teaching their children to solve problems “by-
any-means.” Working-class parents, on the
other hand, generally saw teachers as experts
who could be trusted to make decisions about
their children’s educational needs (Cucchiara
and Horvat 2008; Lareau 2000). That sense of
deference led working-class parents to be less
involved at school and to avoid speaking up,
even when they questioned teachers’ judg-
ments. That outsider status left working-class
parents less familiar with the contemporary
structure of schooling and led them to rely on
their own school experiences as a guide (e.g.,
recalling being reprimanded by teachers for
seeking help) when teaching their children a
no-excuses approach to problem-solving.
Taken together, these patterns suggest that
positions in the status hierarchy may

Calarco 1035

influence the logics of action that parents use
in determining what counts as “appropriate”
or beneficial behavior in school settings.

Tracing cultural transmission to its conse-
quences required years of observations cou-
pled with lengthy interviews triangulating key
patterns. Those in-depth methods, in turn, nec-
essarily involved tradeoffs (Hammersley and
Atkinson 1995). It would have been interest-
ing, for example, to examine how race and
ethnicity contribute to within-class variations
in cultural transmission and their consequences
for inequalities. Maplewood, however, had
few African American students, and the other
minority groups (Asian American and Latino)
were divided along social class lines. Thus,
with reluctance, I focused only on whites.
Given these limitations, I can only speculate
about similar cultural transmission processes
in minority families. While some scholars
show that class-based parenting patterns per-
sist across racial and ethnic lines (Lareau
2011), others find important cultural differ-
ences between African American and white
parents from similar class backgrounds (Dia-
mond 1999). Given evidence of broader cul-
tural differences in help-seeking (Mojaverian
and Kim 2013), parents’ lessons about manag-
ing problems at school might vary with fami-
lies’ race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. Thus,
future research should explore how class-based
cultures are transmitted in other settings.

ConClusIons
Social class differences in children’s behav-
iors have real consequences for their opportu-
nities and outcomes (Calarco 2011; Farkas
1996; Streib 2011). Yet, because scholars
typically treat class-based socialization as an
automatic process (Arnett 1995; Heath 1983;
Lareau 2011), it is less clear how children
learn to behave in class-based ways or how
lessons learned at home reproduce inequali-
ties. Through observations and interviews
with middle- and working-class children,
their parents, and their teachers, I describe the
active processes by which class-based cul-
tures are transmitted across generations, and I

show how these processes contribute to social
reproduction. First, I link parents’ beliefs
about schooling to their cultural coaching
efforts, describing how parents’ beliefs reflect
their status in relationship to the school. Sec-
ond, I link parents’ coaching efforts to chil-
dren’s activation of class-based behaviors,
demonstrating that children use what they
learn at home to manage problems in school.
Finally, I link this activation process to its
payoff in school, explaining how teachers’
responses to children’s problem-solving strat-
egies affect their opportunities for support
and success. By showing how each mecha-
nism varies along social class lines, this study
clarifies the origins of children’s class-based
behaviors and highlights the active processes
by which parents and children together repro-
duce inequalities.

Acknowledgments
A previous version of this manuscript was presented at
the 2012 meeting of the American Sociological Associa-
tion. I am deeply grateful to Annette Lareau, Brian Pow-
ell, Melissa Wilde, Elizabeth Lee, Laura Napolitano,
Weihua An, Steve Benard, Youngjoo Cha, Jennifer C.
Lee, and Cate Taylor for their feedback on various drafts,
as well as to the editors and anonymous reviewers for
their thoughtful recommendations.

funding
The research reported here was supported by the Depart-
ment of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, by the
Gertrude and Otto Pollack Fellowship, and by the Institute
of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education,
through Grant R305C050041-05 to the University of Penn-
sylvania. The opinions expressed are those of the author
and do not represent views of any supporting agencies.

notes
1. For a discussion of alternative definitions of social

class, see Lareau and Conley (2008).
2. Italics in quoted passages reflect speakers’ emphases.

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Jessica McCrory Calarco is an Assistant Professor of
sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her inter-
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Her research is primarily ethnographic and explores how
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in children’s experiences and outcomes.

White families and race: colour-blind and colour-
conscious approaches to white racial socialization

Margaret Ann Hagerman

(Received 24 February 2013; accepted 16 September 2013)

This paper examines the role that social context plays in mediating racial socialization in
upper-middle-class white families. Outcomes of white racial socialization, as well as the
process itself, depend in large part on the distinctive racial contexts designed by parents in
which white children live and interact. I examine variation in white middle-school-aged
children’s common-sense racial knowledge and discuss the importance of exploring the
social reproduction and reworking of racial ideologies and privilege in childhood.

Keywords: racial socialization; children; whiteness; ideology; privilege; social context

  • Introduction
  • How do white children come to understand race? And how does the context in which
    they are embedded shape that understanding? While psychologists have long
    recognized the content and impact of racial prejudices, little research has investigated
    how whites form ideas about race in the first place. Specifically, the role that social
    context plays in the process of white racial socialization remains unexplored. Because
    whites occupy dominant positions within social institutions and because racial
    ideologies ‘justify or challenge the racial status quo’ (Bonilla-Silva 2006, 11–12),
    understanding how young whites develop racial common sense is important in terms
    of transforming or cultivating these ideas in ways that lead to actions that promote
    racial equity. Bringing a sociological perspective to bear in a field otherwise
    dominated by psychologists, this ethnographic study of white families offers new
    insights into the central role that social context plays in mediating white racial
    socialization.

    While some research documents how white children form ideas about race at
    school and with peers (Bettie 2000; Kenny 2000; van Ausdale and Feagin 2001; Perry
    2002; Lewis 2003), less research has explored the role that family plays in white
    racial socialization. This is ironic given that research on racial socialization focuses
    primarily on the strategies parents use to ‘prepare children to negotiate experiences
    associated with social position’ as well as to ‘foster an understanding and awareness
    of race, racism and racial privilege’ (Rollins and Hunter 2013, 141). Within the field,
    scholars frame familial ‘race-related communications’ to be ‘important determinants
    of children’s race-related attitudes and beliefs’ (Hughes 2003, 981).

    Further, although numerous studies have examined racial socialization in families,
    they have focused primarily on families of colour and thus important questions remain

    © 2013 Taylor & Francis

    Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014
    Vol. 37, No. 14, 2598–2614, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2013.848289

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2013.848289

    about how white children develop ideas about race. Understanding how white youth
    today make sense of racial dynamics is of particular interest given the current
    sociopolitical moment in which we are experiencing many demographic and
    ideological transformations. These transformations include a growing ‘minority’
    majority (Feagin and O’Brien 2003; Krysan and Lewis 2004); contested notions in
    popular culture about how or when race matters (Bonilla-Silva 2006); and widely
    divergent ideas among adults about whether racial inequality is even a problem in the
    USA anymore (Bobo 2001). For example, recent research on adults has found a
    growing predominance of colour-blind racial ideology, a racial common sense that
    ‘explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics’
    (Bonilla-Silva 2006, 2; see also Frankenburg 1993; Bonilla-Silva and Forman 2000;
    Gallagher 1997; Forman and Lewis 2006; McDermott 2006). This work tends to
    include a number of assertions about how white children develop racial ideas (Kinder
    and Sanders 1996; Sears and Henry 2003) but such assertions remain largely untested.

    Further, although self-retrospective research with white adults and college students
    offers theoretical suggestions about how racial socialization works in childhood
    (Feagin and O’Brien 2003; McKinney 2005; Bonilla-Silva 2006), limited ethno-
    graphic research has examined the experiences of families who are in the midst of this
    process. The literature that has studied white youth focuses on kids in preschool (van
    Ausdale and Feagin 2001), elementary school (Lewis 2003) or high school (Bettie
    2003; Kenny 2000; Perry 2002). Developmentally, ages ten to twelve, or middle
    childhood, is a period when children ‘acquir[e] a social perspective of ethnicity’ and
    begin to form an increased sense of social justice and the ability to think ideologically
    (Hughes 2002; Meece 2002, 443). While ideas about race undeniably form
    throughout the life course, middle childhood is an important developmental period
    to explore, one that has heretofore not received the attention that it deserves.

    To fill these gaps in existing research, I present findings from an original
    ethnographic study of the racial contexts in which white, upper-middle-class parents
    and their white children live and interact. Focusing on the choices that parents make
    about schools and neighbourhoods as well as the everyday ways that they talk to their
    kids about race, I demonstrate that white parents approach racial socialization through
    the construction of different racial contexts of childhood. I show empirically that the
    outcomes of white racial socialization, as well as the process itself, depend in large
    part on the distinctive racial contexts in which white children live. I then draw
    connections between these racial contexts of childhood and the ideas about race that
    children form within them.

    Racial socialization

    Historically, racial socialization has focused on how black parents prepare children for
    experiences of racial discrimination (Bowman and Howard 1985; Peters 2002; Rollins
    and Hunter 2013). Studies of racial socialization have broadened in scope over the
    last two decades, documenting racial socialization as an ‘important component of
    childrearing’ (Hughes 2003, 982) among black, Latino, Japanese American and
    biracial families (Phinney and Chavira 1995; Brega and Coleman 1999; Rollins and
    Hunter 2013). Given the nature of racism, families of colour teach their children

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2599

    lessons about race with the goal of helping their children develop strategies for
    countering racism and to build resilience and empowerment (Knight et al. 1993;
    Phinney and Chavira 1995; Brega and Coleman 1999).

    Although much is known about the content and mechanisms of racial socialization
    for children of colour (Bowman and Howard 1985; Knight et al. 1993; Brega and
    Coleman 1999; Hughes and Chen 1999; Hughes 2002; 2003), less research has
    focused on this process in white families. Recent research on the racial socialization
    of biracial children views the process as part of an ecological system, a model that is
    useful in developing a more concrete theoretical understanding of white racial
    socialization. In a cultural ecological model, the focus of socialization is ‘the racial
    context to which individuals are embedded, and it includes social position variables
    that influence experiences of racism, prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and
    privilege’ (Rollins and Hunter 2013, 141).

    As this paper demonstrates, white upper-middle-class parents with access to nearly
    unlimited resources construct different racial contexts for their children, which are
    often informed by their own racial logic and parenting priorities. Children interact
    within these contexts, interpreting the social world around them and producing ideas
    about race as a result. This process is based on Corsaro’s (2011) theory of interpretive
    reproduction and emphasizes the agency of children in socialization processes.

  • Methods
  • Studying processes of racial socialization involves both identifying and interpreting
    the meanings that white children attach to race as well as understanding how these
    meanings are produced and employed. Given that scholars studying white racial
    subjects in recent years have often found them to experience and discuss race in ways
    that are often contradictory and elusive, ethnography is particularly useful method for
    exploring how race is discussed and lived. As Lewis (2004, 637) argues:

    Ethnographic work remains a potentially fruitful strategy in that it allows us not only to
    examine what people say in more depth but to examine what they actually do in their
    daily lives…. Especially today when racial thinking and behavior remains pervasive but
    operates in much more covert ways, ethnographic work in white settings, on the
    ‘everydayness’ of whiteness is essential.

    Thus in order to access the ‘distinctive interpretations of reality’ of white children and
    the adults in their lives (Emerson 2001, 30), I conducted ethnographic research in a US
    Midwestern metropolitan community. Between January 2011 and October 2012, I used a
    triangulated approach to collecting ethnographic data through conducting semi-structured
    in-depth interviews with thirty white families including forty white parents and thirty-
    five middle-school-aged children, systematic observations of families and the commu-
    nities in which they were embedded, and a content analysis of a range of sources of
    information about local dynamics including local newspapers, websites and blog posts
    (For a similar methodological approach, see Hughey 2012). My role in the field included
    offering childcare duties, coaching a sports team and simply being a member of the local
    community.

    2600 M.A. Hagerman

    Families were recruited through a snowball-sampling method. Emails were sent
    to parents introducing the study as ‘research on how white kids learn about race’. In
    each of the thirty families, I interviewed at least one parent along with their child.
    Given still persistent gendered divisions in household labour, and similar to other
    studies, most of the parents who participated in interviews were mothers (Lewis
    2003; Lareau 2011). I interviewed ten fathers. In seven families, I interviewed both
    parents. Here, parents generally shared similar views, which helped allay fears that
    interviewing only mothers would distort findings. I conducted observations of the
    families in everyday public spaces such as parks, community events and restaurants,
    and in private spaces such as within homes and country clubs, while driving
    children places and at birthday parties. I spent approximately four hours observing
    most families in their homes, although I spent significantly longer periods of time
    with some families. I also immersed myself in the community by working as an
    athletic coach. However, given my focus on families, I did not collect data in
    schools, but I did interview a few teachers as informants to explore emerging
    themes.

    This paper analyses data from families living in two distinct communities within
    the larger Petersfield metro area (Table 1). (Names are changed.) The first community
    I study, Evergreen, is a neighbourhood located within Petersfield; the second,
    Sheridan, is in a nearby affluent, white suburb. Property values in both neighbour-
    hoods range from $400,000 to $3,700,000 and less than 1% of the residents are non-
    white.

    Although Evergreen and Sheridan are predominantly white, the public schools in
    Evergreen are racially integrated. Sheridan schools are almost exclusively white
    (Table 2).

    After an inductive process of learning how communities within the area were
    symbolically and literally distinct, I built relationships that led to multiple nodes for
    snowball sampling. I recruited potential families by sending an informational email.
    Families in my study identify as white and possess economic privilege, or what I call
    ‘upper-class status’, defined as families in which at least one parent: (1) holds a
    graduate/professional degree; (2) has a professional-managerial career; and (3) owns a
    home. Families in Sheridan and Evergreen, from my assessment, have access to the
    same general array of upper-class choices and resources.

    Table 1. Petersfield County race demographics.

    Race %

    White 84
    Black 6
    Latino 5
    Asian 4
    Native American <1

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2601

  • Findings and discussion
  • Colour-blind approach: the Sheridan context

    Neighbourhood and school choices: the Schultz family

    The Schultz’s Tudor-style home is part of a new, sprawling housing development in
    Sheridan, a small suburb with a new public high school, a historic downtown and a
    strong sense of community. Ninety-nine per cent of residents are white. The median
    annual household income is $90,000. While median property values in Sheridan are
    $350,000, the families in my study live in homes that well exceed this average.

    The Schultz’s home has seven bedrooms, a large yard and an equestrian trail at
    the back perimeter of the lot, weaving throughout the neighbourhood. Mrs Schultz,
    a petite blonde, has stylishly designed the interior of the family home. She is
    currently a stay-at-home mum, although previously involved in state politics. Mr
    Schultz is rarely home, as he is a well-renowned and busy surgeon. The four
    Schultz kids, Joelle (fifteen), Erica (thirteen), Natalie (eleven) and Danny (eight),
    are blonde, outgoing, athletic children.

    Like most parents interviewed, Mrs Schultz moved to Sheridan for the sake of her
    children’s education:

    We initially chose Apple Hills [an affluent, white neighbourhood in Petersfield]… we
    wanted to be in a community where you had sidewalks…, where it was a small close-
    knit community… we were very, very happy there… it came time for our oldest to start
    high school, … so we looked for the best high school we could and decided that’s where
    we would move. That was the only decision… We moved to benefit our children’s
    education. We didn’t need to leave… it was the high school that drove us… to Sheridan.

    Apple Hills is an exclusive, predominantly white neighbourhood in the city of
    Petersfield. This community is ‘close-knit’ and has its own country club. Most of the

    Table 2. School profile comparisons.

    Evergreen Middle Sheridan Middle Evergreen High Sheridan High

    % white 57 93 42.7 96
    % black 25 1.9 26.8 1.2
    % Latino 13.7 1.6 14.5 2
    % Asian 14.2 3 10.5 1.3
    % low
    income 49.2 3.5 56.5 4

    Average
    scores

    81% math-proficient
    eighth graders; 90%
    reading-proficient
    eighth graders

    93% math-
    proficient eighth
    graders; 95%
    reading-proficient
    eighth graders

    ACT: 22.6;
    SAT CR: 631,
    SAT Math: 628

    ACT: 23.3;
    SAT CR: 629,
    SAT Math: 625

    Note: The ACT and SAT are standardized tests taken by high school students. Scores on these tests are often an
    important component to the college admissions process. CR stands for the Critical Reading portion of the test,
    which is different than the Math portion.

    2602 M.A. Hagerman

    kids who live there attend private elementary and middle schools in Petersfield.
    However, high school presents different challenges as the private schools in town do
    not offer as many sports, advanced placement (AP) courses, or activities as the public
    schools. Mrs Schultz describes Evergreen High, the public high school that Joelle
    would have attended if they had remained in Apple Hills, in negative terms:

    We had some concerns about the school because we had heard negative things, but we
    wanted to go check it out… But there was no one who would make any arrangements
    for us to come and tour…. Finally one day, I just called the principal, and said… ‘We’re
    just going to come’… and we just forced our way in. It wasn’t a welcome mat.

    Mrs Schultz specifically points to an African American student:

    We were out in a hallway talking to a… teacher. And an African American student came
    up to her and starts talking… We just mentioned that, ‘We’re going to this Mr Donald’s
    class’… And this African American student says, ‘You’re going to that asshole’s
    classroom? I can’t stand that bastard.’ Well, the teacher’s mortified, right? I can see the
    look of shock on her face… And she’s trying to shut this girl up, who’s just talking and
    talking, really inappropriately, really loudly, to parents! Prospective parents!

    When describing this experience, Mrs Schultz sits on the edge of her chair, clearly
    impassioned and astounded at the perceived lack of adult control in the school:

    What stunned us was that… the teacher did not have control of the situation. And that
    frightened us a little bit… Who’s in charge? Who’s running the ship here? So then we go
    to Biology, and we’re sitting through [the] class, which we enjoyed thoroughly… after
    class, [the teacher] took us aside… he said, ‘What other schools are you looking at?’
    And I said, ‘…I‘ll be touring Sheridan tomorrow.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been a summer
    school teacher in Sheridan for the past 17 years. … I know those families, I know that
    community, I know those students, and I will tell you right now… if she were my
    granddaughter, she’d be going to Sheridan in a minute. That is an excellent school with
    excellent students and an excellent, excellent community. Get her out of Evergreen.’
    This is their number one teacher telling me this! I’m like, okay then.

    Paradoxically, despite the schools’ reputations, both have similar ACT (ACT is a
    standardized test used as a college readiness assessment measure) scores and AP
    offerings, and in fact, EvergreenHigh has higher average SATscores than SheridanHigh
    (see Table 2). However, the reputation of Evergreen High, especially in white, affluent
    circles, is that it is not a good school but rather a dangerous and unsafe environment:

    Maggie, there were policemen on every single floor… We were walking down halls and
    kids would physically hit our bodies, …at Sheridan… kids moved out of our way. One
    boy even held the door for us. They’d say, ‘excuse me,’ It was a much more respectful
    environment… I just felt like at any moment, things could explode at Evergreen… and
    become an unsafe situation. I don’t want my kids to worry about safety. I want them to
    concentrate, focus, and direct their energies at school, nothing else. So I went to
    Sheridan the next day and thought, ‘This school would fit for all of our kids because all
    our kids are very mature, focused, children.’

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2603

    Mrs Schultz’s concerns about Evergreen High centre on safety, the behaviour of the
    children who attend the school and her perception that the teachers and administrators are
    unable to maintain control. While none of this discussion is overtly about race, Evergreen
    High’s racial demographics are undeniably different to those of Sheridan: many more
    students of colour attend Evergreen. Prioritizing a particular type of school and community
    experience for their children, the Schultz family, like many others, moved to Sheridan.
    Erica, Natalie andDannymoved from their private elementary/middle school to the public
    Sheridan Middle School, which is 96% white, while Joelle attends Sheridan High. I ask
    Mrs Schultz if she thinks about the lack of racial diversity in her children’s lives:

    [Sheridan] is lily-white… [but] no, we don’t talk about it. It’s, you know, it’s a non-issue
    for us. I would welcome more people of color, but I just want everyone who’s here to be
    on the same page as all the parents like me. I want to be in a community that all feels the
    same as we do, which is, we value education. And that is what this community is –
    we’ve found a community that really supports education.

    While the Schultz’s choice reflects priorities of safety and quality education, the
    choice is also connected to racialized local understandings about who values
    education, what kinds of communities support education, and how different groups
    of children behave. The biology teacher’s comments about the ‘excellent community’
    and ‘those families’ in Sheridan in contrast to the African American girl’s words in
    the hallway, while subtle, reflect the local racial common sense shared by many
    members of the white community in the Petersfield area, as do Mrs Schultz’s
    comments above about who values education. As a result of these choices, informed
    in part by local, shared, white racial common sense, the Schultz kids, like many of
    their peers, live and interact in a segregated, white context. They live in
    predominantly white neighbourhoods, attend predominantly white schools, and have
    exclusively white friends. Living and interacting within this context of childhood,
    constructed by white parents through choices around schools and neighbourhoods,
    shapes the ideas that their children form about race.

    (Not) talking about race: the Avery family

    When asked how they talk to their children about race, most Sheridan parents tell me
    that ‘the conversation has never really come up’ or ‘we don’t really talk about it
    because it isn’t part of our life’. As Mrs Bentley, a mother of three, puts it: ‘It’s really
    cool that kids don’t think race is a big deal… we as parents try not to say much of
    anything about it.’ Similarly, Mrs Preston, an outgoing mother of two boys, explains to
    me: ‘I tell [my kids], it doesn’t matter what color you are, it’s really just what your goals
    are and how hard you work.’ Mrs Avery, a nurse, tells me: ‘If you asked my daughter
    about Obama, she doesn’t even see the big deal of it! Race just doesn’t matter to her. I
    think that’s really wonderful.’ Like the Schultzs, the Averys moved to Sheridan for the
    schools: to ‘escape the problems of Petersfield’ and for ‘the best education possible’. I
    ask Mrs Avery, while sitting in her large, modern kitchen, if she thinks about the
    diversity in her children’s lives: ‘They get very little racial diversity in Sheridan… we
    try to take different opportunities to expose them to different things. I look for those
    examples to teach them because they are not living it every single day.’

    2604 M.A. Hagerman

    I encourage Mrs Avery to describe some of the opportunities that she has taken to
    engage with her children in discussions about human difference:

    I tell the kids stories about [how] depend[ing] on the color of your skin, well The Help,
    Alicia and I read the book… I have probably more of a knowledge base about that stuff
    than Alicia does, but both of us were reading the book, …and you’re just horrified.
    You’re like, ‘Oh my god! Seriously? That is what they dealt with?’… We all went to see
    the movie… there are parts of it where your mouth is just hanging open because you just
    can’t quite believe what you are seeing…, and [Alicia] will say, ‘Oh my gosh, thank god
    I didn’t live then! Thank god we live now where it doesn’t really matter what the color
    of your skin is.’

    Mrs Avery acknowledges that her children do not have exposure to much diversity in
    their daily lives, and she believes that racism has largely ended. I ask Mrs Avery if she
    ever thinks about being white. She tells me:

    I just think it’s a box that I check on a form… I think that’s what we have taught our kids
    too – it doesn’t matter whether you are a girl or a boy, it doesn’t matter if you are brown,
    black, blue, purple, um, it’s what’s inside that counts.

    Mrs Avery talks to her kids about race, drawing on dominant colour-blind rhetoric.
    Parents’ decisions with respect to neighbourhoods, schools and what conversations

    to have (or not have) with their children reflect their approach to white racial
    socialization. While Sheridan parents, like Mrs Schultz or Mrs Avery, may not appear
    on the surface to be engaging in racial socialization with their white kids, the context
    that they have created shapes the racial common sense that their kids develop. In
    short, these parents construct a colour-blind racial context of childhood in which race
    is a ‘non-issue’ once the context is constructed. Ironically however, racial common
    sense has played a central role in how that context was initially designed.

    Colour-conscious approach: the Evergreen context

    Neighbourhood and school choices: the Norton-Smith family

    Homes in Evergreen are expensive, eclectic and built very close to one another.
    Popular public parks are found every few blocks. A few family-run restaurants are
    within walking distance of these homes, as are yoga studios and a cooperative
    supermarket. Evergreen is located in close proximity to a neighbourhood that has four
    times the poverty rate than the rest of the city and is 17% black, in comparison
    with the 4% city-wide black population. Evergreen parents report that they
    value the existence of human difference and want their children to grow up in a
    diverse space.

    The Norton-Smiths live in a large purple Victorian house surrounded by wild
    flowers; a compost pile and picnic table are in the backyard. Mrs Norton-Smith works
    as a civil rights attorney and her husband works as an immigration attorney and law
    professor. Mrs Norton-Smith explains why they chose to live in Evergreen:

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2605

    People are here because they want to be in a more open situation where there is an
    awareness that exposure to people who are not well-off and who come from very
    different racial backgrounds and who may make you uncomfortable is really important. I
    like to think that my son is in some kind of position to better negotiate that discomfort…
    I think that is a really useful sort of skill…

    While they joke that they feel like outcasts wearing business suits in their ‘earthy-
    crunchy’ neighbourhood, these parents explain that they try to diversify and
    complicate the racial context in which their children live. Mrs Norton-Smith, like
    other Evergreen parents, wants her children to feel social discomfort at times,
    prioritizing diversity over reputation or status:

    I’m not really focused on someone being top of their class, or getting into the best
    college, or making the most money, or being the most famous, which I feel there is more
    of that [in Sheridan] and it makes me happy to be here… It is more important that my
    child knows how to interact with all kinds of people around him.

    Similarly, Mr Norton-Smith tells me about the flourishing social activism of
    Evergreen:

    We liked the idea of what the neighborhood was and the people who lived here…
    there are a lot of people here who live what they believe. It’s totally impressive. They
    live it in the community, they live it in their own families, they live it individually…
    that’s what this neighborhood means. There is more racial diversity and sexual
    preference diversity too.

    Mrs Norton-Smith describes how ‘fortunate’ she feels that Evergreen is located in
    close proximity to a more diverse neighbourhood as this leads to racially and
    economically integrated public schools – ‘a rare occurrence in America’, she tells me
    while we cook dinner together one evening.

    While some worry about the cost of living in Evergreen and the relatively few
    people of colour living there, respondents still view this community as diverse. Janet
    McMillan, mother of one daughter and an environmentalist, tells me:

    I like that my daughter sees black people in our house and on our street. We have friends
    who are black, and we have friends who have adopted from Ethiopia and another
    neighbor from Guatemala. And you know, in this area, there’s a fair number of gay and
    lesbian couples so she’s used to seeing that. It’s just integrated into her life.

    Almost all of the Evergreen families tell me that they choose to live here and to send their
    children to the affiliated public schools deliberately because they want more opportunities
    for their kids’ to engage with human diversity for purposes of social activism.

    Talking about race: the Norton-Smith family

    Mr and Mrs Norton-Smith explain their everyday approach to talking about race with
    their kids:

    2606 M.A. Hagerman

    I think recognizing people’s differences and backgrounds is really important… I want
    [our son] to be an empathetic human being as he goes through the world, and in order to
    do that, you have to appreciate what someone else’s experience might be vis-à-vis yours.
    Conor is a white male from a privileged household and he needs to be very cognizant of
    that so we talk about race and gender a lot.

    Conor, a superb trombone player, goes to an integrated, well-funded public middle
    school in Petersfield, has ‘equal-status’ friends who are black and Latino (Feagin and
    O’Brien 2003, 90), and participates in interracial social activities and extracurriculars
    regularly. The Norton-Smiths also participate in the programme Big Brothers Big
    Sisters, through which they have been paired with a black child for over five years:

    Mrs Norton-Smith: It’s not always easy to talk about race… one of the things we did
    was… participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. We have a partner in that and
    she is a part of our family. This brings up a lot of questions of inequality and race… we
    talk about that a lot with the kids.

    Mrs Norton-Smith continues to describe how she talks about race with her son:

    He’s aware when certain arenas are dominated by certain people. That’s not lost on him.
    So why try to be subtle? … We will get questions from him like, ‘Why are basketball
    teams predominantly black?’ or ‘Why are there so many black homeless guys on Main
    Street?’ They are asking because they notice… you can’t just be like, ‘Huh, isn’t that
    funny.’ No. It’s serious. So we talk about it.

    Beyond talking openly about injustice, these parents push their kids towards social
    action. As Mr Norton-Smith tells me: ‘You can’t really be content until other people
    have the same opportunities you have and you gotta be somebody in that space. You
    can’t just feel bad. You gotta do something.’

    Other Evergreen parents ‘call out’ their children when they think the kids are
    ‘dissing someone or a group of people’. As Celia Marshall, artist and mother of two,
    tells me: ‘Of course my kid is racist! And I’m going to try to call him out when he
    needs it! Even if that makes him uncomfortable.’

    These families also travel internationally to experience different cultures. They talk
    frequently about politics and ‘help the kids understand the world’. As parents, their
    goal is to expose their children to human diversity as a means of encouraging their
    kids’ critical thinking about and recognition of privilege. This colour-conscious racial
    context that they work to create also offers the potential for, but does not guarantee,
    implicit racial socialization, including lessons on how to operate in diverse spaces and
    what it feels like to experience social discomfort.

    Part of constructing a colour-conscious racial context also includes continuous
    intervention. Mr Norton-Smith, on the sidelines of his son’s football game, worries
    about the messages that his son is interpreting:

    I remember him articulating confusion and asking questions like, ‘Why is it that it’s
    always the black kids that are getting in trouble?’ And we had to talk through that. So I
    have an awareness that this is what he is learning. That black equals getting in trouble.

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2607

    He goes on to tell me that he prompts open conversations with his son because ‘it’s
    better to have real conversations about difficult subjects than to avoid them altogether.
    That’s how ignorance forms.’ Other parents echo these concerns, worrying about the
    lack of black teachers and administrators as well as what associations between black
    families and poor families their children are forming at school. Overall, Evergreen
    parents construct a colour-conscious context through school and neighbourhood
    choices, although they also intervene on a daily basis when their children articulate
    ideas about race that parents perceive to be problematic.

    Despite their commitment to equality, white Evergreen families continue to
    maintain an incredibly privileged status within their community as the result of
    individual behaviours as well as structural conditions. While some parents intention-
    ally supplement gaps in public schooling, they all send their kids to integrated schools
    with students who have unequal lives, and kids likely play an active role in enacting
    privilege at school (Calarco 2011). Further, all of these parents participate in
    concerted cultivation, which as Lareau (2011) demonstrates, reproduces inequality
    in everyday life. Given that most of the students of colour are impoverished in the
    Evergreen schools while most of the white students are affluent, Lareau’s class-based
    argument maps onto this racial division. These Evergreen observations parallel other
    school-based research findings that many white parents who are committed to
    integrated, urban public schools tend to ‘rule the school’, pushing their own agendas
    while ignoring the voices of minority parents (Lewis 2003; Noguera 2008; Posey
    2012), as well as research on how private businesses and policymakers seek to retain
    middle-class families in urban schools, valuing them more highly than their working-
    class or poor peers (Cucchiara 2013).

    The colour-conscious context that parents in Evergreen construct is thus distinct
    from, and in some ways more complex than, the colour-blind context constructed by
    parents in Sheridan. On the one hand, colour-conscious parents construct contexts that
    are more diverse, they speak openly to their children about privilege, they intervene
    constantly, and they are socially active. On the other hand, many of these parents are
    faced with a structural conundrum of privilege – even when they want to teach their
    kids to recognize and fight against injustice, how much commitment is enough,
    especially when this commitment implicates their own children’s futures or includes
    elements perceived to be beyond their control?

    Parents living in Evergreen use a colour-conscious approach to white racial
    socialization, and they acknowledge that they do so. Evergreen parents have chosen to
    live in Evergreen and to send their kids to the local racially diverse public school,
    although they contemplate the politics of these choices regularly. They believe that it
    is important to teach their privileged kids about the existence of social hierarchies so
    these parents talk openly to their children about inequality.

    Choices that parents make about neighbourhoods and schools influence not only
    the reproduction of various forms of inequality as Johnson (2006) and Lacy (2007)
    document, but also the process of childhood racial socialization. My data show that
    living and interacting within these two different contexts leads white children to talk
    about and make sense of race differently. This is not to suggest that parents directly
    dictate the racial views of their children; rather, parents use their resources to
    construct different racial contexts of white childhood, and children ultimately form

    2608 M.A. Hagerman

    their own ideas based on their interpretations of these contexts and the experiences
    that they have within them. Thus, the social reproduction of ideas about race is an
    active, bidirectional socialization process (Hughes 2003). Still, growing up in these
    two different contexts produces differences in white children’s ideas about race.

    Kids’ voices

    ‘Is racism a problem?’
    Existing research demonstrates that white children who spend time in segregated,
    white spaces do not notice their whiteness (Lewis 2001; Perry 2001; Lewis 2003). I
    found the same for Sheridan children. For instance, this common experience occurred
    while interviewing an otherwise enthusiastic twelve-year-old:

    Maggie: Do you think racism is a problem in your school?
    Charlotte: No. Not at all.
    Maggie: Do you think that racism is a problem in America?
    Charlotte: Nope.

    When I ask eleven-year-old Jacob Avery the same question, his response is: ‘Well, I
    don’t really know because, [it’s] not where I live, but… I mean, isn’t the KKK still
    around?’ While Jacob does not entirely agree that the USA is racism-free, he
    identifies racism as existing only within certain communities, and certainly not his
    own. Charlotte, Jacob and many of their Sheridan peers do not see racism in their
    lives and have no reason to believe that racism exists. This is what they learn through
    subtle and implicit interactions within the racial context that their parents have
    constructed. Exceptions to this are found in the data, especially when Sheridan kids
    insist that they have observed acts of racism; however, this important discussion is
    beyond the scope of this paper.

    When I ask the same question to kids in Evergreen, I receive a much different
    response:

    Conor: I think [racism] is a way bigger problem than people realize. It’s nowhere near
    what it used to be… it’s just different and white people don’t realize it… I think it’s still
    there. It’s just not as present and people want to hide it. Because they are scared to talk
    about it.

    Conor not only speaks to the invisibility of racism to white people but he recognizes
    that his peers are scared to talk about race for fear that they might ‘mess up’. The
    complexity of his response is largely a result of the context of childhood that his
    parents have constructed. He attends a middle school that is racially and economically
    diverse, he speaks openly with his parents about inequality, and he has meaningful
    relationships with people of colour.

    Children growing up in colour-conscious contexts are better able to identify and
    discuss what they perceive to be acts of racism in their daily lives. Lindsay, for
    example, a football star and pianist, tells me a story about her teacher and her black
    friend Ronnie:

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2609

    My third grade teacher was racist… she kept making fun of this one kid who was my
    friend Ronnie. He’s my buddy… he didn’t really do well in school… she would hold up
    his work and then make fun of it in front of the whole class… And she would yell at
    him… she only did that kind of thing to that race! … One time, he was late to school. It
    was in the middle of winter, and so him and his brother were getting yelled at. … I
    overheard… them say that the bus never came, so they had to walk to school… they
    didn’t have any boots, so their shoes were all wet, and they didn’t really have coats.

    When Lindsay told her parents about what she was observing at school, her parents
    talked openly about what Lindsay perceived as ‘racist’ and took subsequent action.

    Children growing up with colour-conscious racial socialization more frequently
    think about their own behaviour in racialized terms. Ten-year-old Sam, who loves
    debating current events, tells me:

    [We] were at the beach and… there were a bunch of people who looked like they were
    Hispanic… they were wearing gangster-kind-of-looking clothes, they were drinking
    alcohol… [My friend] Brian was going, ‘Sam, we have to leave now’ and so we biked
    for while… eventually we were able to get away… afterwards we were saying, ‘Oh my
    god, that was the scariest thing ever’ and we were going into all these different things
    like [if they would] attack us…. Brian was like, ‘Maybe they’re just trying to see how
    racist we are.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘If you think about it, you’re not going to be
    as threatened by people who are white wearing gangster outfits, drinking alcohol’ … and
    I thought about that for awhile and I guess it kind of made sense but it just didn’t really
    feel right to think that that made sense because it doesn’t really make sense. But at the
    same time it does.

    The conversation between the two white boys leads to Sam’s recognition of what he
    believed to be racism within himself. He tells me that he discussed this incident with
    both his parents. Clearly, in Sam’s world, talking openly about race with other
    white people and being aware of his own racial biases is part of his socialization
    experience.

    Finally, I observed a marked difference in the way that children from these two
    contexts of childhood use immigration and the police as evidence for the non-
    existence or continued existence of racism, which reflects differences in how these
    children think about race. Eleven-year-old Ryan, who lives in Sheridan and loves
    snowboarding, explains:

    I think we have moved beyond [racism]. But like, uh, but like down on the Mexican and
    American border, I think it is wrong to let illegal immigrants come in without having a
    green card and steal our money. We work hard in America. They can’t just come here
    and be lazy and take it. But for racism, yes, I think as a country we have moved
    beyond it.

    Ryan uses anti-immigration rhetoric in order to displace any possibility of continued
    racial conflict onto non-whites. When I ask Conor the same question, he also brings
    up immigration, but he attributes responsibility for racial conflict to policies drafted
    and enforced by whites:

    2610 M.A. Hagerman

    In Arizona, I know they passed a law that you have to… carry around your photo ID or
    something and police, they’re always stopping Latinos because they don’t believe that
    they’re Americans. They believe that they’re illegal immigrants but really they’re just
    picking on people that are a different race… I think it’s really wrong and racist.

    These statements come from two boys who are very similar but have been exposed to
    different racial contexts of childhood. And while these boys are both recipients of
    structural white privilege, they are constructing distinct ideological understandings of
    race and privilege. Similarly, other Evergreen children tell me that ‘police are more
    aggressive toward black people’ and that ‘white kids… have more power… so
    disciplinary actions aren’t brought down as hard upon them’, while Sheridan children
    comment that ‘people of all races get in trouble equally’.

    ‘Does being white give you any advantages in society?’
    Unlike colour-blind ideology that makes whiteness invisible and normalized, colour-
    conscious racial logic urges children to recognize their white privilege and connect it
    to other forms of privilege. For example, twelve-year-old Ben, who lives in Evergreen
    and is a member of a debate team, compares white privilege to male privilege: ‘[Being
    white] gives you an advantage! Just like gender, you’ll get an advantage just by being
    a white male rather than a black female.’ Eleven-year-old Chris, while playing chess
    with me, explains: ‘I think [white people] just kind of have the upside… much of
    society is run by white people… like, you know, if you look at the CEOs of oil
    companies, they’re all white men.’

    These boys recognize that systems of privilege intersect with one another, a
    strikingly distinct finding compared to responses from Sheridan children, whose
    answers to this question are uniform and straightforward: ‘No.’

    While many of the kids in Sheridan articulate the core beliefs of the American
    dream, associating hard work with upward social mobility, many kids in Evergreen
    are sceptical of the rags to riches story. As Sarah tells me: ‘If you’re black and your
    ancestors were slaves back then, you never really got a chance to like sit upon a large
    sum of money…. I would easily say 99.9999% of the upper class are probably white.’
    Chris also discusses the challenges to social mobility: ‘Look at the oil tycoons, they
    don’t even like do anything! They just sit there and be a face. So I don’t think it’s
    hard work as much as luck almost and just kind of… where you start out.’ When I ask
    Chris what race he thinks most ‘oil tycoons’ are, he says, without hesitation, ‘white’.

  • Implications and future directions
  • Given the differences found in the racial logic of child participants, this study
    suggests that the reproduction of white privilege at the ideological level is connected
    to the racial context in which kids live and interact, especially in middle childhood.
    Parents design contexts that are racialized differently; kids produce multifarious ideas
    about race as a result of interacting within these contexts. While this study makes no
    claims about generalizability of findings, given the documented predominance of
    colour-blind ideology, as well as patterns of severe racial segregation in the USA, it
    would follow that the way that children in Sheridan are learning about race is more

    Ethnic and Racial Studies 2611

    common than that of the Evergreen kids. Future studies ought to examine the
    prevalence of these approaches to racial socialization.

    Findings from this research also challenge assertions made by the white racism
    literature that suggest that all white children, like sponges, adopt hegemonic
    ideological racial views. This study illustrates the variation in white children’s racial
    common sense, demonstrating that kids participate in their own socialization through
    interactions within a racial context, a view on the social reproduction of ideology that
    includes children’s agency (Hughes 2003; Corsaro 2011). This agency is important
    when considering how ideological positions on race can be reworked rather than
    reproduced, which has significant implications for launching challenges against the
    racial status quo. Future research ought to evaluate the extent to which white children
    who adopt these counter-hegemonic ideological positions in middle childhood retain
    them as they grow throughout the life course.

    While none of the Evergreen children are literally dismantling racism, their ideas
    suggest that a link can be found between how white children construct racial ideas
    and the racial context in which they interact. Racial ideologies are one ‘mechanis[m]
    responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in a society’ (Bonilla-Silva 2006,
    9). Thus, children with colour-conscious racial views possess the rhetorical tools and
    agency necessary to challenge and rework dominant racial ideology, demonstrating
    the participatory role that children play in social change and hopeful possibilities for
    future racial justice.

  • Acknowledgements
  • The author thanks Amanda Lewis, Eric Vivier, Michelle Manno and two anonymous reviewers
    for valuable comments on earlier versions of this article.

  • Funding
  • This research was supported by the Race and Difference Initiative Graduate Student Research
    Grant program along with the Laney Graduate School Competitive Professional Development
    Funds Grant program at Emory University.

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    MARGARET HAGERMAN is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at
    Emory University.
    ADDRESS: Department of Sociology, Emory University, 208 Tarbutton Hall, 1555
    Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. Email: mhagerm@emory.edu

    2614 M.A. Hagerman

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00237.x

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00237.x

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    http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00748.x

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.2.259

    mailto:mhagerm@emory.edu

    • Abstract
    • Introduction

      Racial socialization

      Methods

      Findings and discussion

      Colour-blind approach: the Sheridan context

      Neighbourhood and school choices: the Schultz family

      (Not) talking about race: the Avery family

      Colour-conscious approach: the Evergreen context

      Neighbourhood and school choices: the Norton-Smith family

      Talking about race: the Norton-Smith family

      Kids’ voices

      ‘Is racism a problem?’

      ‘Does being white give you any advantages in society?’

      Implications and future directions

      Acknowledgements

      Funding

      References

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