The four cultural camps of American parenting

A sociologist argues there are four cultural parenting camps in the United States:

The Faithful, who make up 20 percent of American parents and are largely white and middle class, believe strongly that “God’s timeless truths” about sex, marriage, and life remain as true today as they have always been. They seek to defend these truths in the broader culture and, failing that, aim to “buffer themselves from progressive currents enough that their families will remain faithful to their traditions.” Their most important parenting goal is “raising children to reflect God’s will and purpose.”…

The Engaged Progressives, who make up 21 percent of American parents and are whiter, better educated, and more affluent than the population as a whole, march to a very different beat than the Faithful, at least ideologically. They steer clear of organized religion, believe strongly in the virtues of personal freedom, choice, and tolerance, and seek to form their children into independent-minded adults. But these individualistic values are also tempered by a commitment among progressive parents to the “golden rule” and the values that go along with this rule: honesty, openness, empathy, and compassion for the vulnerable. Their cultural commitments point them in a Blue direction (82 percent reported they would not vote for the Republican presidential nominee).

Ironically, whatever their ideological differences with the Faithful, Engaged Progressives live lives that look surprisingly like their ideological opposites. Although they have fewer children (2.46) than the Faithful, they are almost as married (80 percent are married), about as likely to have stay-at-home-mothers when preschool children are in the home as are the Faithful (58 percent compared to 65 percent), and they also highly engaged parents, enjoying—for instance—more meals with their children than the average parent. So, in pursuit of progressive ideals, Engaged Progressives rely on largely neotraditional strategies: namely, marriage and an intensive parenting style.

The same cannot be said about the other two cultural camps of American parents detailed in the report: “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers”, who make up, respectively, 19 and 27 percent of American parents. Although a slight majority of the Detached are married (67 percent), this largely white, largely downscale group of parents feel incapable or unable to exert much of an influence on their children’s lives. They spend comparatively little time interacting with their children, do not eat daily with their parents, are disconnected from the religious and civic fabric of their communities, and instead allow the television and other outside influences to set the cultural agenda for their children. Indeed, Bowman contends that the Detached parents “lack the vision, vitality, certainty, and self-confidence required to embrace any agenda” for their children. Not surprisingly, this camp has little interest in or involvement with politics.

By contrast, the American Dreamers—who are disproportionately working class and minority—have high hopes for their children. Politically, they are divided, with black and Hispanic Dreamers tilting Democratic, and white Dreamers titling Republican. They believe strongly in education, their children are optimistic about their educational prospects, and they want their children to make good on the American Dream. But given that marriage is fragile in this camp (only 64 percent are married), they have less income and education than most parents, and they are more likely to hail from communities with anemic religious and civic institutions, it’s not clear that American Dreamers can make good on the big dreams they have for their children.

A few thoughts about this:

1. Read the PDF report here and see more about the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia here.

2. Sociologist Annette Lareau suggested in Unequal Childhoods that social class led to two parenting styles: concerted cultivation and accomplishment of natural growth. Are Lareau’s two styles spread across these four new categories or was Lareau missing something big?

3. There are some interesting implications here for the culture wars. The suggestion in this article is that both The Faithful and The Engaged Progressives follow similar patterns even if they hold to different ideologies and tend to fight among themselves. Is this because of social class? Education? Race? Current or lingering effects of religion? Living in suburbs and/or wealthier areas?

4. When I see typologies like this, I always wonder about how many categories can and should be created. Is four cultural family types enough or too many? A lower number seems better for having more coherent categories and it is easier to discuss the findings. However, if there are actually smaller clusters of families, then more types may be needed to be more precise and better describe reality.

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