The Privatization of Childhood

Childhood has become a period of high-stakes preparation for life in a stratified economy.

Today, nearly half of American children born to parents with low incomes grow into adults with low incomes, and 40 percent of children born to wealthy parents become high-income adults. In the United States, which has based much of its social safety net on educational mobility, the ability to do better than one’s parents by completing more years of schooling did indeed rise between 1947 and 1977, but it has decreased sharply since.

Correlation of educational attainment between parents and children is now higher in the United States than in European countries, particularly Nordic countries, where a tiny fraction of low-income children becomes low-income adults. As Richard Wilkinson, coauthor of The Spirit Level, has said, “If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”

Upward mobility has always been the exception to the rule — children born to families in the bottom income quintile have about a 6 percent chance of making it to the top income quintile in their lifetimes — but unfortunately it is a fantasy on which United States welfare programs are now based. Never has pulling oneself up by one ’s bootstraps been more plainly a cruel action than when prescribed as a policy regime for large swaths of the population.

Under Clinton, who delivered on his promise to “end welfare as we know it,” direct aid — itself hardly redistributive — has been replaced with punitive welfare-to-work programs emphasizing personal responsibility.

In 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) become temporary (TANF), and continuous access to government transfers became contingent on filing a tax return (Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC).

Using data from tax records, economist Thomas Piketty shows that both capital income and earned income have grown for the richest families to the extent that in the America of 2010, like the Gilded Age Europe of 1910, the top 1 percent owns the same share of income as the bottom 50 percent, and the top 10 percent own the same share as the bottom 90 percent.

Since the 1970s, real wages for workers have increased little or decreased, while wages for the top 1 percent have risen 165 percent. Seventy percent of the income of the top 0.01 percent is from capital income, not wages.

A similarly unprecedented survey of data from nearly all math and reading scores over the past forty years conducted by Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford has determined that during the same period of time (since the 1970s) “trends in the test scores of low- and high-income children parallel those of income itself, with income-based gaps in test scores now twice as large as test score gaps between African Americans and whites.”

Even as racial gaps in test scores decreased in the years since Brown v. Board of Education, the income-based gap in test scores has risen. More profoundly than ever, and in more ways than ever, class determines the life paths open to a child.

The difference between Dickensian England and the present-day United States is that few rich people recognize that they have won the birth lottery. Instead, as political scientist John Gerring has noted, “poverty” is ascertained as a national crisis, a disease.

In the language of philanthropy, capitalism is transformed from a cause to a solution. Conservatives punish; liberals forgive; neoliberals solve.

Framed this way, it makes sense that businessmen want to lift children out of the blight of “poverty,” rather than throw them down in it Oliver Twist–style.

Poverty pathologizes people who are losing in capitalism rather than concrete economic sources: “There are victims, but no victimizers.” The language of “poverty” keeps us from questioning and critiquing our economic system in a way that “wealth inequality” and “class disparity” — or class war — does not.

But it is a class war in which we find ourselves, involving not just men and not just women, but children. Researchers at the Russell Sage Foundation have documented a shift in the way American children are raised that parallels the political-economic context in which they grow up.

Over the period from 1972 to 1988, as society became more economically stratified and surges in GDP began to benefit an increasingly smaller percentage of high-income families, schools also became more economically segregated.

A study by labor economists Joseph G. Altonji and Richard Mansfield finds that the sorting of children into class-segregated schools intensified during the 1980s.

At the same time, spending on child-enrichment goods and services has soared for families in the top income quintiles. Introducing work by policy researchers Neeraj Kaushal, Katherine Magnuson, and Jane Waldfogel, Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane observe, “In the period from 1972 to 1973, high-income families spent about $2,700 more per year on child enrichment than did low-income families,” but by 2005 to 2006, “this gap had nearly tripled, to $7,500.”

Meredith Phillips estimates that from birth to age six, children from affluent families have spent 1,300 more hours in environments beside their home, school, or day care than children from low-income families.

Wealthy parents have the luxury of time to impart knowledge essential to understanding science and social studies to their children beginning in early childhood through exposure to travel, museums, and even simple excursions like going to the supermarket or the post office.

Given this data, it ’s not surprising that the first known use of the word “helicopter parent” is in 1989. The fear felt by parents of all classes that their children’s class status is more precarious is real, even among the middle and upper classes.

“Family” continues to be a sentimental concept imagined as a refuge from the wild and awful world of autocratic workplaces, but its project has become protecting and preparing offspring for the cutthroat global economy.

The contemporary family has become a competitive economic unit not only distinct from, but actively in conflict with the larger society. The idea of “finding yourself,” “getting a job,” and “getting a therapist” (to use Kramer vs. Kramer’s neat summary) has been increasingly important in American society since the rise of psychology and consumer culture — now the cultivation of a personal identity for one ’s children is also essential to ensuring adult success (and the transmission of privilege across the generations).

After all, childhood is expensive, so it must be an investment. Since 1960, the US Department of Agriculture has prepared an annual estimate of the cost of raising a child. Parents are expected to spend $245,340 to raise a child born in 2013.

A flyer/PSA released by the department depicts an imaginary online shopping website modeled on, with the image of a baby priced at “US $245,340” and a mouse arrow hovering ominously over the phrase “Add to family?” Under a “Details” section, the breakdown of costs shows percentages allocated to housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care and education, and miscellaneous. College is “Not included.”

The USDA has also helpfully provided a Cost of Raising a Child Calculator, which allows parents to create their own individualized estimate based on the household income, marital status, number of children, region, and budget. Parents are thus encouraged to think of the act of reproduction as above all a personal economic choice.

There’s an array of tools that promise to help mom and dad raise an intellectual, worldly child in the most efficient way possible. An American-based range of BPA-free toys created with the input of child development experts and sold in over seventy countries called Sassy Baby includes a “developmental insight” and “interaction ideas,” with every product.

For example, the sensory gym “inspires baby to learn and grow” by incorporating a variety of textures and colors. Interaction ideas include allowing your baby to play with the hanging toys, pointing out the different toys at the end of the arches, and clapping when she reaches for them. As an added bonus, the company asserts, “our passion for fashion assures today’s mom that her baby will be just like her: fun, savvy, smart . . . SASSY!”

Strollers, one of the first items to become a status symbol of the new parenthood when Sex and the City writers committed to making one of the characters a Brooklyn mom five seasons in, are sold in premium versions by “Dutch mobility company” Bugaboo, with lots of marketing materials about exploring the world and no mention of what is presumably being carried (or concealed?).

South Africa–based Bumbo sells baby seats that encourage practice of postural head and trunk control and a crawl ball advertised as stimulating hand-eye coordination and motor skills, all in the name of protecting your most valuable asset.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t stimulate the curiosity or inspire the development of hand- eye coordination of “your most valuable asset.”

For a few dollars, a nursery can be equipped with plastic blocks in different colors and textures, homemade or store- bought rattles, crayons, chalk, cookie cutters, play-doh, markers, sand and string.

Tearing construction paper is a challenging task for a two-year-old, which helps develop fine motor skills, as is gathering leaves or cutting with scissors, which builds hand-eye coordination.

Babies do not need to be inspired to grow; they grow. What baby humans need more than anything is as simple as what any mammal needs: comfort.

Through the consciousness-raising of second-wave feminism, the joys and struggles of parenting have been brought from the privacy of the home into the fore of public life with eager irreverence.

The young children of the wealthy are increasingly diverse portfolios of applications to private schools, enrichment classes, play dates, and nanny shares. These little Einsteins go on to attend prestigious high schools and Ivy League colleges. But it starts in preschool.

A whole culture has risen around the cultivation of the child into a successful adult, equipped for the global economy. Its language is English plus Spanish or Mandarin; its literature is the mommy blog.

Working-class children, on the other hand, are objects of suspicion defined by what is perceived, within the economic superstructure, as a lack — of high-enough test scores, of self-confidence, or the inclination and facility to self-regulate behavior.

Childhood is now a curated experience for the rich, and a desperate challenge full of lotteries and high stakes for the middle-class and working-class families who aspire toward upward mobility. But it is not a particularly pleasurable one anymore.

All the anxious messaging around children as fun, smart, savvy, adventurous assets is a response to the intensifying economic stratification that leaves parents desperate to give their children an edge. Parents’ energies are absorbed by their children’s needs and schedules with a totality that is monolithic and exhausting.

It’s not a choice. It’s a financial imperative: middle-class families recognize, implicitly if not explicitly, that their children are born with economic advantages, and as socioeconomic stratification intensifies, there is less room for mistakes than ever.

Brian Jones, a former public school teacher for almost a decade as well as a parent activist who recently ran for lieutenant governor of New York, told me in an interview:

Parents’ willingness to embrace these uber-strict test regimes for their very small children even though we know that it makes those children anxious and upset is connected to the fact that the parents feel and know that the labor market is tightening and shows that their children’s [prospects] are tightening.

If they knew that the kid was going to be OK; if $15 was the minimum wage and you could go to college for free, everybody has health care, there ’s plenty of affordable housing — if they just knew that the kid was going to be OK, there would be way less hysterical pressure of making your five-year-old jump through that standardized test hoop.

Childhood has been reconceived, not as a time to compensate for the alienated labor of adult life, but a time to prepare for adult life. The rapidly intensifying stratification not just among the rich and poor in America, but even among those within the top 1 percent (the top 0.01 percent have gained more than the rest of the top 1 percent, which has concrete consequences in rich and middle-class parents’ perceptions and behavior toward their children), means that rich and middle-class families accurately perceive the cultivation of their children, the constant search for the competitive edge, as essential to ensuring their children access as adults to the knowledge professions rather than offshored and devalued vocational work.

“I see both sides of the choice thing,” Jones said.

Having choice is empowering in a sense. I get the allure that wealthy people always have choices. The problem is that with that you lose rights, sometimes, with more choices. You become a customer instead of a citizen. I feel both dimensions of it.

As a New York City parent applying to schools for his kindergarten-age daughter (as is required of all families now),

I have choices, but I don’t have any guarantees. I don’t have much redress if I don’t get my choice. And the schools, especially the charter schools, also have choice in a sense for them even more so because they can un-choose you.

Now the deal we have with Kindergarten Connect system [New York City’s automated system for matching applicants with schools], after you do your research and you make your choices, it kicks out a single school and then it’s take it or leave it, so that’s pretty frustrating.

The system again leads to individual responses: parents appeal to the government to have their children’s placement changed. Naturally, the stronger your network and the more time you have, the more likely this is to happen. But crucially, parents no longer respond to the state collectively — they are atomized as consumers.

Compare this to the way that babies are welcomed in Finland, a country that ranks near the very top in both test scores and wealth equality. Instead of a calculator tool to “help you plan better for overall expenses including food, or to purchase adequate life insurance” in preparation for baby, the Finnish state has since 1938 offered expectant parents the choice between a box of clothes, sheets, and toys or a cash grant worth $190 by the government for supplies.

Ninety-five percent of Finnish people choose the box, which is filled with diapers and ointment; clothes including onesies, a snowsuit and hat, a light hooded suit and knit hat, mittens, booties, leggings in various colors and patterns, booties, overalls, socks, and a balaclava; bath needs including a hooded bath towel, nail scissors, hairbrush, toothbrush, and washcloths; and various other essentials including a thermometer, a teething toy, a picture book, bra pads, and condoms.

The box comes filled with a mattress, sleeping bag, and bedding, and can be reused for sleeping. It is a symbolic demonstration of the country’s commitment to giving all children an equal start, but it was implemented for entirely practical reasons. A Finnish parent reflected on the experience receiving his child’s box to BBC News:

This felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life. And now when I visit friends with young children it’s nice to see we share some common things.

It strengthens that feeling that we are all in this together.

What is at stake when some American children go to school hungry and others go to school in $1,000 Bugaboo strollers? Under the “do what you love” ethos of neoliberal capitalism, life paths prescribed by class but framed as parental choices — Public or private? Gifted and talented, general, or special education? — segregate American children from birth through adolescence and into adulthood as never before, reformulating their upbringings into private family projects and education as a competitive “hunger games” for the material resources and social connections required to secure economic success.

In an important study of eighty poor, working-class, and middle-class black and white American families with elementary-school-aged children, sociologist Annette Lareau observed and discussed child-rearing practices with kids, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousins, etc.

Since pop culture is essentially bourgeois culture, Lareau’s study is, by contrast, an unprecedented and attentive record of the values of American working-class and poor families in the 1990s. This is particularly significant given the violent, disapproving caricatures of working-class and poor people by domestic policy “reformers” during that period.

Lareau found that — contrary to the welfare queen stereotype — middle-class, working-class, and poor mothers were all involved in “intensive mothering” and expressed beliefs in the importance of showing love and warmth to their children.

“There were episodes of laughter, emotional connection, and happiness as well as quiet comfort in every family” that appeared “deeply meaningful to both children and parents in all social classes,” she writes.

There were, however, a few fundamental differences among poor and working-class families and middle-class families. Some rituals and perspectives cohered strongly by class:

The role of race was less powerful than I had expected. In terms of the areas this book has focused on — how children spend their time, the way parents use language and discipline in the home, the nature of the families’ social connections, and the strategies used for intervening in institutions — white and black parents engaged in very similar, often identical practices with their children.

As the children age, the relative importance of race in their daily lives is likely to increase . . . In fourth grade, however, in very central ways, race mattered less in children’s daily lives than did their social class.

Black and white middle- class children were given enormous amounts of individualized attention, with their parents organizing their own time around their children’s leisure activities. This prioritizing profoundly affected parents’ leisure time.

In these situations, race made little to no difference . . . It was the middle-class children, black and white, who squabbled and fought with their siblings and talked back to their parents.

These behaviors were simply not tolerated in working-class and poor families, black or white.

White and black middle-class parents most often engaged in what Lareau calls “concerted cultivation,” adult-facilitated recognition and development of a child’s individual talents with classes and lessons, while working-class and poor parents tended to nurture, support, and reflect on the “accomplishment of natural growth.” In these families, parent-initiated hobbies were rare, and the preferred mode of speaking to children is directives.

A sense of entitlement — being encouraged to question and negotiate with adults, for example — distinctive to middle-class children (and important in securing financial success in American “meritocracy”) is trained from birth.

Working-class children had strong ties to siblings and extended family and took ownership of their own play, but were actively encouraged to distrust authority figures such as teachers and doctors. This has profound implications for the children’s functioning in middle-class institutions, and the rewards they receive.

It’s no accident that while the United States offered minimal to nonexistent support for families in comparison to European social democracies, it was the first to implement (according to Stansell) “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.”

Indeed, Justice Harry Blackmun, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade case, observed that, “maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.”

If maternity is the “natural” role of a woman, how is it that it could cause her a distressful life?

The issue is not whether the woman in question would or would not like to carry the child to term, but whether she can afford to — what would happen to her financial prospects if she did.

There is a fundamental contradiction in what are termed family values and the social supports that are provided for American women and children as a whole, which Toni Morrison confronts in an interview quoted at length in Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman, which I will excerpt here briefly.

When a reporter asked Morrison about the fate of unwed teenage mothers, insisting that they had not had time to “find out if they had special abilities and talents,” Morrison replied:

The child’s not going to hurt them . . . They’re not babies. . . They can [go on] to be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons.

That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘‘Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me—I will take care of your baby.’’

That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

In fact, Americans pay very dearly for children, but only for those children they regard as theirs — children who belong to them.