Question and Answers:
Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
University of California Press
What made you decide to write this book?
I found myself exasperated with many of the portraits of family life in the culture --- in
academic books as well as on television. Many of the portraits are idealized. I wanted to
produce a realistic picture of the day-to-day rhythms of family with elementary school-
aged children. I also sought to study different kinds of families: Black families, white
families, middle-class, working-class, and poor ones.
Didn’t you visit the families inside of their home?
We did. My research assistants and I started by doing interviews with parents in 88
families with children in third and fourth grade, most of whom were from elementary
schools we visited in a large northeastern city and its suburb. Then we selected twelve
children for more intensive study. We visited the twelve families, usually everyday for 21
times --- in other words everyday for three weeks --- for a few hours. We went to baseball
games, church services, family reunions, grocery store, beauty parlors and barbershops,
and generally participated in the normal routines of family life. We saw siblings fuss with
each other and parents yell at kids. We also sat around and watched TV as well as played
outside in the street. In most families there was one overnight visit. One-half of the
families were Black and one-half were white; they were middle-class, working-class, and
poor families. The families were paid $350. As social science research goes, it was
Didn’t your presence have an impact?
It did, especially the first day or two. But we noticed that yelling and cursing went up,
especially on the third day. It is hard for young children who are nine and ten years of age
to sustain “company manners” for long stretches of time. When we finished the visits, we
did interviews and we asked family members how things had been different while we
were there. Some children told us very specific things: “my Mom talked more” or “the
house was cleaner.” Mostly, however, they said that things had been as they usually were.
The children generally liked being in the study. They said that it made them feel “special”
to be in a book, even though their real names wouldn’t be used.
What did you learn?