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

Because the way we talk is deeply enmeshed with how we think, feel and act in the world, our critiques of how others speak are frequently a smoke-screen for our critiques about other aspects of their lives.
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Written by Susan D. Blum, Lizzie Fagen, Kathleen C. Riley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How dare we?!

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