Me, Myself, and I: My Natural Growth
While reading Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, one starts to speculate whether our individual personas result from concerted cultivation or natural growth. For Lareau, life chances, or opportunities to succeed in life vary by socioeconomic status and institutional advantages, or compensations one acquires through child-rearing which are useful in an academic setting. The terms natural growth and concerted cultivation, both coined by Lareau, refer to types of child rearing resulting from these differing socioeconomic statuses. The “accomplishment of natural growth” is the name given to nurture resulting from the economic strain endured by the working-class and poor families (Lareau 3). This child-rearing strategy produces children with a sense of “constraint,” or limitation in their own social lives (83). On the other side of the spectrum, “concerted cultivation” refers to child rearing by parents in a middle-class setting (2). The outcome of this child-rearing strategy presents itself in the child’s social life as well. As opposed to constraint, these children gain a sense of “entitlement” in which they feel worthy of adult attention and praise (82). Children in both categories grow up in different social settings and are therefore dealt different sets of cultural capital. As they mature, they use this cultural capital to construct their own social trajectory, or path in society. “Cultural capital” refers to the set of skills or benefits that a child gains during his/her upbringing (5). These benefits, though not tangible, vary greatly across the two categories. Nevertheless, both groups encompass families that struggle to satisfy their needs and/or who hope to attain or maintain social mobility.
My Parents’ Upbringings
Being one of eight children living in the countryside of Dominican Republic, social mobility seemed impossible for my mother. In order to obtain food, her parents turned to agricultural labor and developed their land into their own Garden of Eden. Fortunately, mother graduated high school and when she turned nineteen, she immigrated to the United States with a few of her siblings. They moved in with a distant uncle until they could afford their own apartment. Mom worked in a factory full-time and attended English classes in a nearby public school. She struggled a great deal because of the language barrier. “It’s hard to live without your parents. At that time, there weren’t a lot of people like now, Spanish people” (Hernandez). Soon she decided to attend LaGuardia Community College. “That was the hardest thing in my life,” she says, “the teacher would talk and out of the ten words she spoke maybe I could catch one” (Hernandez). Both my parents resulted from natural growth, but my father never graduated high school back in Dominican Republic, and unlike Mom, he never went to college. She managed to get her associates degree before I came into the picture. Once I arrived, she and I moved into the public housing projects in Brooklyn. A couple of years later when my father returned she began working for the post office: the first stable job she had that paid well. Then she and dad had my sister. Soon after, my parents divorced, mom remarried to my stepfather and we moved into our own home. We had finally achieved social mobility.
My Childhood: The Emerging Signs of Natural Growth
I finally comprehend that my parents’ backgrounds greatly affected my upbringing, especially in terms of education. Since my father never achieved a high level of learning, he didn’t understand its value. He never stressed the importance of school to me. For the most part, I figured it out on my own in elementary school. I realized that all the smart kids got pizza and ice cream parties and that the teachers treated them better. My sister however, emerged as the product of concerted cultivation. Since we moved to a new home, she grew up in a completely different environment, a safer one with more potential. Now that we had the money and my caregivers had extra time, my sister became the “project to be developed” (Lareau 67). “I learned that it’s good to have a conversation,” my mother states, “[…] to talk to my kids about my experiences and what is bad from what is good” (Hernandez). Professionals and friends who practiced concerted cultivation greatly influenced the way my mother thought. As a result of my mother’s gradual change in parenting style, negotiation as a form of discipline in our home emerged. In addition, my sister’s schedule grew to resemble that of Garrett Tallinger’s. My step dad would pick me up from school and I’d watch my mom rush in with my sister’s tap dancing shoes telling her to hurry up. For years I’ve watched my sister go to countless martial arts classes and dancing auditions. Till this day my mom has her taking acting courses in the city. Many times my sister gets exhausted, but I don’t think she could live without the organized activity in her life. I, in contrast, dread having to deal with any type of organized activity outside of school. Finally comprehending my entity as a product of natural growth, I have become aware of the similarities between my life and many of the experiences mentioned in chapter four, “A Child’s Pace: Tyrec Taylor.” According to Lareau:
the commitment among working-class and poor families to provide comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support requires ongoing effort, given economic challenges and the formidable demands of child rearing (5).
Lareau’s words parallel my mother’s experience of natural growth as a child. “Before it was like, make sure you go to school, that you have a notebook and a pencil […] and make sure there was food on the table” (Hernandez). The obligation to provide for a child’s basic needs develops into a challenge for parents who practiced natural growth. The economic struggle my parents went through, in addition to being grueling work, helped shape me into the person I am today. Parents who raise their children by natural growth keep their children informed of these financial challenges, a factor that sets them apart from parents who practice concerted cultivation. “[…] children […] were aware of their families’ often precarious financial position and of the constraints that lack of money imposes” (79). Ever since I could remember, my mom would constantly remind me of our lack of money, of her hopes to achieve social mobility. When my mom had me, we lived in the havens for criminal activity, or in what others would call “unfortunate” circumstances. We became a part the working-class and poor families living in public housing projects in East New York, the only place she could afford to live in as a single mother. On rare occasions, usually birthdays, I had the privilege of receiving toys and gifts. Being well aware of our situation I knew not to ask, or even mention, my desire to have the latest Barbie doll broadcasted on TV. I didn’t want my mother to feel incompetent for not being able to afford something. After a while I learned to appreciate everything I received, even something as tiny as a piece of candy. I remember a particular instance, Christmas Eve 1996. My mother spent almost all of her paycheck to buy me this cowgirl-like outfit, elated that she could dress me up for the holidays. Both the pair of pants and the vest, made of a brown suede-like material covered in fringe, made a big impression at our family party. I remember the constant compliments of my aunts on my newest outfit. All my cousins envied me, but they settled with playing with the fringe, twirling it in all directions. When I look at my photo album now, I’m embarrassed to show anyone the hideous outfit, but I recall that at that particular time joy overtook me for being the center of attention, something that hardly ever happened. The adults rarely paid so much attention to any one of us children.
Natural Growth: The Advantages and Disadvantages
The financial challenges my mom faced allowed for a different type of child rearing than that of concerted cultivation, one that included more autonomy. As a result I gained a different kind of cultural capital than that of a child living in a middle-class family. I didn’t learn how to look an adult in the eye when shaking their hands. In fact I clearly remember learning to shake hands in elementary school. I did, however, learn to come up with creative ways in which to entertain myself. In addition, I learned how to manage my own time. Time management, a vital characteristic employers seek in future employees, happens to be a rare form of cultural capital that children reared by natural growth attain. The cultural capital that we do manage to grasp, comes from experiences integral to natural growth, such as “long stretches of leisure time, child-initiated play, clear boundaries between adults and children, and daily interactions with kin” (3). Organized activity rarely emerged in my childhood. Instead these long periods of leisure time took over, in which I had the flexibility to do practically anything. The opportunity existed for me “to choose activities and playmates and to decide how active or inactive to be […] in these activities” (67). A regular day for me consisted of school and then outside play with my neighborhood friends or my cousins. My mom did set boundaries for me. Just like any other mother she had “[…] an assortment of rules to guide her children’s behavior in and out of home” (71). My mother’s number one rule: Don’t stray too far from home, the farthest being somewhere around three blocks. As I read about Tyrec Taylor’s life, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between our childhoods. The comparisons include mothers who stressed homework before play. I used to know children like Tyrec. I used to play ‘Red light, Green light, one two three!’ with children like Tyrec. We didn’t need nor expect adult involvement in our games, a practice which encouraged our creativity and independence. Even if we wanted adult involvement it would have been hard to find it. Consequently, emphasis on performance and degree of competition, matters that take place in the lives of concerted cultivated children, decrease.
Leisure time also has its disadvantages. As a group of boisterous children roaming the streets, we got into trouble every so often for disturbing the peace. I recall an instance when my neighbors and I, a group of five kids, found a damaged football by a trash can. We started throwing it around, screaming after each other to pass the ball. At one point one of my friends threw the ball so far that we had to dash into private property to catch it. We accidentally ruined a neighbor’s garden by trampling over it. The flowers she had so meticulously planted crumbled onto the ground. When the neighbor found out that our leisure pursuits were responsible for the annihilation of hers, she had a word with all of our parents. After being grounded for a week, I learned of other activities I could partake in indoors. Evidently, natural growth produces this “open-ended agenda” (68).
Working-class: The Role of Kin
Family plays an immense role in my life. As a matter of fact, to me family is life. This emphasis on kinship results from natural growth. As in most cases of natural growth, family members, usually cousins, take over the role of friend. My cousins and I grew up together, we even learned English together, and as a result we have a strong bond like that of siblings. “The greater emphasis on kinship in working-class and poor families means that children spend much more time interacting with family members” (Lareau 67). Aunts and older cousins took on the role of babysitter whenever needed, probably due to the economic strain we encountered. Family visits occur on a daily basis. I stay in touch with many of my distant cousins through social networking sites, primarily MySpace. It’s an easier way to communicate without having to travel for hours in a crowded car to visit them. As a family, we make sure we visit family members who live far way at least twice a year. These mandatory road trips have taken us south to places like Maryland and Florida. A protest on one’s part will almost always be reprimanded. Why wouldn’t one want to go see a loved one? I also believe that family helps one attain social mobility, always willing to help one financially. Apart from offering loans and gifts, they also offer good credit if one ever has trouble acquiring the first two. In addition, they can provide a place to live in if one gets evicted. “Of course they didn’t have enough money to buy clothes for everybody…” my mother recalls about her parents, “but if we ever needed something, we would just get close and say ‘mom, you know, I need this’” (Hernandez). Family serves a vital function for those who practice the child-rearing strategy of natural growth.
In natural growth, “[…] working class and poor children are regularly instructed to defer to adults” (Lareau 67). Middle-class and working-class parents use different methods to talk to their children, perceptibly. I have personally observed how some of my aunts would talk ‘down’ to their children, and how others would negotiate with them. As a consequence, working-class children tend to be passive, and don’t question authority, whereas middle-class children challenge adults, whom they see as their equals. In my training, I learned that one must treat all adults in the same fashion that one treats one’s own parents. This influenced my school life more than anything else. In the classroom I became the quiet kid, barely raising my hand to ask a question or give a response. A sense of constraint didn’t allow me to question my teachers like some of my classmates would. I would simply take my teachers’ word as the supreme law, and did as they asked. This passive attitude has both positive and negative consequences. In the long run, my submission to adult command has made me a disciplined child, less prone to cause trouble. Moreover, it has made me into a responsible and good-mannered student. I noticed that I tend to do all my work in school just so I don’t get in trouble for not following an adult’s directions. This same attitude, however, has made me more reluctant to speak for myself, a challenge I must learn to overcome.
Final Outlook of Natural Growth
Overall, I perceive my natural growth in a positive way. All parents, regardless of their child-rearing strategy struggle in life to guarantee that their child will be better off in the future. In most cases, their work pays off and the next generation surpasses the last, by maintaining, if not achieving a higher, social status. Lareau shows us that social class enters our lives and shapes it in ways we never thought possible. Although my parents could not offer me the class-based advantages of a middle-class family, their child-rearing methods were in no way incorrect. The applications of both natural growth and concerted cultivation have advantages and disadvantages.However, anyone can observe how our society privileges and rewards the skills acquired by concerted cultivation more than the skills attained by the accomplishment of natural growth. Those who judge solely by social value underestimate the practical application of natural growth. In my opinion, the limits set for those who result from this child-rearing strategy can be met and overridden. I have come to recognize that our world’s social structure defines how one raises their child and that there exists a correlation between socioeconomic status and academic success. I am reluctant to think, however, that these child-rearing practices entirely determine our futures. Concluding the application of Lareau’s research to my own life, I have a growing awareness of how the world works and I am truly grateful for this understanding.
Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Hernandez, Ogilda. Personal interview. 20 April. 2009.
“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of , sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, , . Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the -ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.
Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?
Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.
Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.
He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult , with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”
“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.
THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.
“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”
Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in lay beyond them.Continue reading the main story