Friday, September 05, 2014

Tweaking Parenting Style to Reduce Poverty

Keeping a promise made at the end of the essay posted yesterday, this follow-up reveals two fleeting encounters with stereotypes of my own, as well as a couple of studies brought to mind by a surprise stop along the way.

No matter who we are or the color of our skin or where we grew up or how tolerant and accepting we have become or think we are, we’re all bigoted in some way.  The trick is to catch ourselves.

For me, one of two fleeting glimpses occurred along U.S. Route 36 as Mugs and I crossed the Wind River Reservation last month on the stretch of slightly rolling hills in Wyoming that finger up between the Middle and Southern Rockies.

By the way, if you’re not into Walt Longmire novels, or the acclaimed TV series, a good non-fiction about the struggles between cultures there over the past hundred years is Geoffrey O’Gara’s lyrical and even-handed account in his book entitled, What You See In Clear Water.

Another of his books is one I’ve re-read on other cross-country trips since I retired from a four decade career in destination marketing.  I first read it in 1989 as I relocated from the Far West to Durham, North Carolina, and the author wrote while he was relocating from the east to Wyoming.

Entitled A Long Road Home: Journeys through America’s Present in search of America’s Past, it intersperses memoir and history with excerpts from the back roads travel guidebooks written during the Great Depression of the 1930s by writers employed by the WPA Federal Writers’ Project called the American Guide Series.

While I was tooling along at the maximum speed permitted on that stretch of the Reservation, a Native American rancher slowly pulled out in front of me without accelerating so while maintaining speed I simply signaled into the other lane to pass.

Suddenly the pickup feinted into my lane to block me and the driver laid on his horn while flipping me the bird.  My mind flashed a stereotype of Native American drivers (as well as farmers in Idaho) commonly held by ranchers where I grew up.

Then I could see in my rear view mirror that the rancher had pulled on the highway for only fifty feet or so to then turn back into his ranch via another road.

By the time Mugs and I settled into Casper for the night I was ready for a tall cool one at a steak place where another encounter reminded me that I, too, am subject to stereotypes.

Surrounding me suddenly in the bar area where I was eating, were members of a motorcycle gang called the Silent Sinners, many of whom were apparently returning from a big bike rally up in Sturgis, South Dakota, in that nook pointing into Montana and Wyoming.

The group is an offshoot of a branch of the Sons of Silence in Colorado and one of eight clubs linked by the Justice Department as conduits for criminal enterprises.  Turf for this group included Wyoming and northern Utah, but the overall reach of the Sons of Silence is across 12 states.

But the members around me that evening were congenial, kidding me about having grilled chicken and veggies in a steak place and for drinking red spirits rather than brown.  Later they acknowledged that they suspected I road motorcycles by the Harley emblem on my trailer hitch.

A friend of mine who lives on the west coast of Florida assumes that any neighborhood with a couple of motorcycle owners must be sketchy, stereotyping the 9% of Americans who do by lumping them with the 5%of riders who belong to outlaw gangs.

That night I caught a glimpse of both my own prejudice and being prejudiced against by others.

Early the next morning, Mugs and I set off across the roller coaster hills and dales of Wyoming rangeland that run along the Southern Rockies as they jut up from Laramie, while imagining hired guns for the cattlemen’s association riding north during the late 1880’s Wyoming Range War to attack immigrant settlers.

Soon we dropped down onto the flatter plains that run north through Denver and up past Cheyenne where we turned east down across the high plains of Nebraska, then across its Great Plains where my ancestors began their trek out to the Rockies in the 1840s.

At Lincoln on the western edge of the corn belt plains, we stopped for the night.  Running through my mind that day as things turned violent in Ferguson were two studies.

Pundits had been excusing the violence centered around the looting of 56 stores as an outgrowth of frustration over poverty but poor people are no more violent than other Americans, and maybe even less.

To the frustration of legitimate protestors, their activity had provided cover for criminals, just as research sociologists have long warned that petty crime and blight does, making poor neighborhoods victims of crime.

As I noted yesterday, nearly 4,000 African-American slaves had toiled in the county around the city of St. Louis, including what became Ferguson, in 1860 just before the Civil War.

I don’t know that any descendants of those slaves live there today.  It was predominately white until 1980.  But a 2010 study by researchers at the Institute for the Study of Labor found that even today in parts of counties such as this, the legacy of slavery is still manifest by economic inequality, especially the gap in education.

But the paper “Being Black Is Not A Risk Factor: A Strengths-Based Look At The State Of The Black Child” points to findings that support the idea that it is “being poor in general that is the real risk factor.”

Nearly half of “black children in families living below the poverty threshold live in areas where at least 30% of the residents have incomes below the poverty threshold.”

The ratio is 1-in-4 in Ferguson, MO, but more like 1-in-2 among African-Americans there and in similar places compared to 35% of blacks, 33% of Hispanics and 13% of whites nationwide. 

A number of white progressives as well as some African-Americans get very upset at references to poverty as cultural, perhaps because many assume that implies it is brought on by race.  But in my reading this is far too narrow a use of the term cultural.

When in his remarkable essay entitled, “Inconvenient Truths About Poverty,” conservative critic and columnist Joe Queenan, who himself grew up in poverty, references poverty as “rooted in interlocking self-fulfilling prophecies, he isn’t writing about race.

The next morning Mugs and I headed south to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then to avoid traffic and road construction in Kansas City and St Louise as well as the corridor between, we took a new route along much more scenic U.S. Route 36 to cross the Mississippi at Hannibal with plans to cut south to Nashville.

We stopped for gas at Chillicothe where in 1855, Reverend David White, a minister in the Christian church was run out of town on threat of lynching for preaching against slavery.  This was also the route Mormons had taken back to Illinois in 1839 when threatened with an extermination order by the governor.

Across the bridge we looked for a “Blue Highway” south to Paducha but turning too soon, the GPS took us back southwest through incredible Illinois countryside, back across the bridge at Louisiana, Mo and down scenic State Route 79.

At I-70 I headed west past St. Charles, taking the I-270 beltline to get around traffic and stopping for gas to get my bearings and find the best way back across the river and back on track.

Two elderly black gentlemen on each side of the pump in front of me were talking in loud voices although they were both agreeing with the rhetorical question, “why were those boys walking down the middle of the street anyway?”

Out of curiosity, I asked “Where is Ferguson anyway?” I was on my way in the store to get water and received a resounding chorus of, “Son, you just crossed over it.”

There is always a lot of finger-pointing in news reports about poverty, much of it inferring that police and teachers aren’t doing enough.  But rarely does the role of parenting get any play.  According to many studies, perhaps like me, none of us feel we are very good at it.

I remember reading a typology of parenting once that across all groups 32% of parents are “authoritative,” the ideal mix of demanding and responsive, 31% are negligent, 22% are permissive and 15% are authoritarian.

Again, it is not about race, but in a book I read about a decade ago entitled Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Dr. Annette Lareau reviewed research that studied the differences in parenting styles across races and socio-economics such as middle or working class and poor.

Lareau found that working class parents and those in poverty practiced what she called “natural growth parenting,” with children free to roam around unstructured. They seemed to feel that kids will soon have it tough enough.  They give orders but avoid too much interference.

Middle-class parents practice a style she calls “concerted cultivation” focused on coaching, teaching self-control, negotiation, understanding how to challenge authority and time management.

Both approaches have drawbacks.  As the saying goes, its also takes a village to raise a child.  The late Dr. John Hope Franklin, a friend and incredible African-American scholar, told stories about how neighbors would discipline him on his way home from school.

Franklin’s research was used in court desegregation classes.  He felt that black parents of his generation felt their children needed to excel, but many in the generation after desegregation mistakenly spent too much time trying to cushion life’s bumps.

He wouldn’t be surprised that a new study in Michigan found that minority parents were far less likely today to follow child restraint laws and guidelines when they drive, but might be to know that this was regardless of socio-economic status.

Dr. Lareau found that the different parenting styles of middle class and poor or working class parents may reinforce class-based inequality by reproducing it from one generation to the next.

She argued in her book that this distinction “arbitrates opportunity in America more powerfully than any other demographic characteristic including race.”

A recent study that correlates to self-regulation in childhood found its strongest link to parenting style, especially among low income children and males regardless of minority status, household composition and parental education.

A newly published study by Canadian researchers entitled, “In Praise of Demanding Parenting: The Effects of Parenting Style and Poverty on Obesity” finds parenting style significant regardless of age, sex, parental education, immigration status, family functioning score, birth order or maternal age.

Authoritarian parents risk self-esteem; permissive parenting risks regulator deficits.  Each parenting style has advantages and disadvantages but it is worth considering the role parents, families and neighborhoods can play in overcoming poverty.

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