Note: Using ‘middle-class’ is not my choice of word here. I use it as conceptualized by Annette Lareau in her explanation of the term, ‘Concerted Cultivation’.
If popular media, public commentary, and recent articles on parenting are to be believed, middle-class parents are actively engaged in the lives of their children and nowhere is this more evident in my opinion, than in how we choose to insert ourselves into our kids’ educational experiences.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to non-economic resources that we as individuals possess that make us culturally competent in society by way of say dress, style, following proper etiquette, language use, and observing implicit norms and rules, among others. Sociologist Annette Lareau built on this idea to introduce the ideology of concerted cultivation in her book Unequal Childhoods.
I believe I first heard this term on an NPR podcast and have been intrigued ever since. My understanding of the term is that as middle/upper class parents, we consciously work to empower our kids with the resources they need to raise their scholastic lot in life. Of course, these resources don’t necessarily have to be limited to scholastic achievement although that is a huge part of the whole cultivation process. By making concerted efforts in nudging our kids toward cultivating certain skills, us parents transmit cultural advantages and make our kids again, culturally competent. In other words, we as parents profoundly influence our kids’ cultural capital. Our child-rearing/parenting practices that effortfully and purposefully include cultural knowledge and skills imparted through concerted cultivation prepare our kids for their futures, academic or otherwise.
This concept and what it really does is articulated by Redford, Johnson, and Honnold (2009) thus:
Parents who “concertedly cultivate” their children take an active role in assessing and building their children’s skills, talents and opinions as well as actively volunteering, intervening an participating in their children’s educational activities. They reason and negotiate with their children and involve themselves and their children in multiple leisure and extra-curricular activities. Children’s lives are highly structured by this steady diet of organized activities, leaving them little time for leisure or free play. (pp. 27-28)
I have to admit that I do my fair share of concerted cultivation while carefully and consciously choosing to be wary of its negative consequences as observed in the last line. Here are some ways in which I have actively worked to cultivate TJ’s mind:
Encouraged his creativity by introducing him to the world of crafts: The first month that I got the car after Aaron chose to take the VTA to work, I drove TJ to a local Michael’s store and bought a bunch of crafty things we could do together. Granted this was more so we have things to do together than for his individual cultivation per se but he is the beneficiary of the activities I choose for him so it counts. I bought little pompoms, little wooden sticks, foam stickers, construction paper, child-friendly scissors with design cuts, glue, googly eyes, and fuzzy pipe cleaners among others.With these we have made flowers, Elmo, snakes, tunnels, and combined them with the art supplies I also bought him (see next).
Nurtured his artistic potential by providing the necessary tools: Saw a pack of 150 crayons for a very good deal online. Snagged it. Bought him two sets of different kinds of washable markers, colorful glitter pens, washable paints, art apron, white painting paper, the kind of markers that only appear on certain kinds of paper, white drawing/painting paper, brushes, and so on. We have made many a different kinds of artwork which were always fun. I even got to teach him how to hold a (color) pencil. Unfortunately, more recently he has taken to using a lot of his craft and art supplies as props (or dirt) for his dump truck so he never has the patience to sit through an activity. Hopefully, I have sown the seeds of interest which is the best I can do anyway and he’ll just pick up on them at a later date.
Together with the entire family, opened his mind to the wonderful world of books:
When he got into Dr. Seuss’s books, that’s what I borrowed or bought; when he got into trains and trucks, those are the books I got for him to read and keep the reading flame ignited; when he got into the Llama Llama books, that’s what I borrowed…you get the drift. Of course, I was the one who introduced him to all these books so there’s that part of the cultivation too. Reading to him since he was about 1 month old, starting with a few times a week to now reading multiple books throughout the day, seeing a passion for reading in him at this age of 2 where he picks books from the library, browses through them and hands them over to me to borrow, to watching him fall asleep while flipping the pages of the latest book that has caught his attention or watching him stand by the coffee table with pages of a book wide open intently looking at the pictures, turning the pages, and making sense of the content, seeing him recognize characters in contexts other than books…all of this has been extremely, deeply fulfilling.
Furthering his love for books by mindful direction in related activities: The San Jose Public Library launched the 1000 books before Kindergarten program recently. He has already completed over 2000 books since signing up in November last year and got their prize twice at two different libraries (we decided not to keep track for prizes anymore). While his grandfather enrolled him in the program during one of our storytime visits, all of us regularly read to him and still do.
This is in addition to the libraries’ storytime I take him to twice a week at the libraries. I did this every week before Baby E was born even up until the 39th week of pregnancy. Then, he started part-time daycare and now with early preschool, he can only go to one of them so that is what we do. I have currently enrolled him in the library’s summer reading program.
Fostering a love for music by enrolling him in Music Together:
I have previously written about my ambivalence toward this program which I felt after the first day of classes but I proactively enrolled TJ for Music Together so he can learn to appreciate music, engage a different side of his brain, enjoy the fun of socializing or at least being around other kids (he didn’t go to daycare or preschool then), and in general know what holding and playing different instruments feels like.
In addition, we have toured preschools, bought him toys to further specific interests, taken him to events like Breakfast with Santa, lighting of the Christmas Tree, museums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, play spaces, and many many others. The wonderful thing is that most of you reading this also do the same or similar things for your kids. Most of us do. There is nothing unique about what my husband and I do. We are one couple in millions who want the best for our kids and would do anything we can to give our children the early cultivation they need and that we can afford. As I write this, I understand the privilege that comes with being able to provide these opportunities for one’s kids. There are more intervening and cultivating activities that a parent can do for their kid and that I will invariably do too as they grow up. For example, if a study abroad opportunity comes up, TJ and E will both be encouraged to take it. How we raise our kids is related to our own upbringing, irrespective of whether we choose to repeat our own parents’ parenting approaches toward us or do something diametrically opposite of that.
As for now, knowing that I am a middle-class stereotype as identified in the discussion above, I can find comfort that despite meeting most of the prescriptions for Lareau’s concerted cultivation, my version of the same remains opposed to incorporating too many structured activities. I wish my children a bountiful of self-directed, crafted, produced, and envisioned creativity and play that they can freely engage in and if that means stuffing pompoms, crayons, and foam stickers into a dump truck instead of using them as intended and pretending they are dirt to be dumped on our coffee table (wish I had a picture of this!), so be it. I am sure there is a lesson in that somewhere.