Middle Class Parents Teaching Kids to be Squeaky Wheels?


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Working Class Parents Teaching Problem Avoidance?

Working class families try to avoid problems. (Photo by ECohen)

Working class families try to avoid problems. Photo by ECohen

In contrast to middle class parents, the researcher found that working class parents focused on helping their children avoid problems instead of becoming a self-advocate.

Rather than encouraging the child to ask the teacher for help, working class parents were more likely to encourage their children to ask classmates.

Calarco told Decoded Science that, “Working-class children, for example, believe that they should try their best to work independently, and that they should be respectful of authority figures, which means avoiding bothering teachers or making trouble in the classroom (relying on peers for help if they need it).

They also expect teachers will come to them and offer help if they are really struggling.”

According to the research, working class parents emphasized avoiding “drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, and abusive relationships” and encouraged kids to generally work hard in school.  The author writes, “[r]ather than advocate for themselves in the classroom, and in light of their parents’ emphasis on respect and self-reliance, working-class students generally hang back… often expressed concern about making teachers mad.”

Implications for Social Reproduction

Social reproduction, or “the persistence of inequalities across generations”  has been presented as a one-way interaction, with parents teaching children how to respond to situations. Calarco suggests that the model is more complex.  In addition to parents approaching situations in a particular way, the parent modulates their message for the particular child, and in turn, the child chooses how to respond. This means that those interested in social equality may have more opportunity to intervene in the formation of social class than previously believed.

Decoded Science asked the author what advice she would have for schools, given the results of her research. Calarco replied, “schools could engage in more outreach with working-class parents and children, being sensitive to their cultural orientations, and approaching them in ways that respond to their needs (e.g., by offering assistance rather than waiting for parents or students to approach). Some schools, like those in the KIPP  (Knowledge is Power Program) have tried a more explicit approach of teaching middle-class “soft skills” to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  KIPP is an open-enrollment, college preperatory public charter school network.

Social Mobility and the Classroom

Calarco states, “The skills that working-class parents teach to their children are not  inherently less useful than the skills that middle-class children learn at home. And yet, because  schools tend to be subconsciously more responsive to  middle-class interactional styles, working-class approaches may yield more  limited benefits in the classroom.”  Encouraging working class parents to teach their children to ask for help, and encouraging teachers to approach working class kids proactively, might grease the wheels of both learning and social mobility.


Calarco, J. M. Training Squeaky Wheels: Social Class and Parents’ Development of Children’s Self-Advocacy Skills. (2012). Presented at the 2012  American Sociological Association Annual Meeting.

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