The University Record, March 29, 1993

Low-income parents use same strategies as middle-class parents in raising teens: promote talents, prevent problems, keep busy

Most inner-city parents don’t adopt a hands-off, laissez-faire attitude about how their teen-age children spend their time, according to a study presented last week at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Low-income parents—much like middle-class parents—actively try to orchestrate their children’s lives, encouraging them to work hard and develop their talents, enrolling them in organized activities and classes, and trying to limit their exposure to crime, drugs and other urban dangers, the study reported.

About 90 percent of the 489 inner-city Philadelphia parents of children ages 11–15, surveyed by psychology Prof. Jacquelynne Eccles, University of Pennsylvania researcher Frank Furstenberg and colleagues, reported that they verbally encouraged their children, telling them, for example, that working hard now to develop skills and talents will help them in the future.

Just over 60 percent said they worked with their children at home to improve specific talents or interests, making sure their children practiced various skills, for example, or doing various activities with them.

About 65 percent said they had signed their children up for at least one organized activity, with 24 percent signing children up for more than two activities. Only 35 percent said they had not signed their children up for any activities.

More than 80 percent of the parents said they used preventive parenting strategies, sometimes warning their children about the dangers facing them outside the home, and pointing out how the lives of people they knew had been damaged or destroyed by drugs.

But only 9 percent said they went to the extreme of confining their children to their homes so they had minimal physical contact with the relatively high-risk environment in which they lived.

“Most people are aware of how middle-class, psychologically healthy parents attempt to engineer the outside world to their children’s advantage,” said Eccles, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research. “They sign them up for various activities and expose them to various social environments designed to promote their development.

“This family management task is much more difficult for parents with fewer financial and psychological resources. But it’s also likely to be more important, since the neighborhoods that low-income families inhabit also may expose adolescents to high levels of risk and negative role models.”

For the Philadelphia study, Eccles and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Colorado surveyed more than 400 families with at least one child between the ages of 11 and 15.

Sixty-eight percent of the families were Black, one-half were headed by single parents, and 46 percent had a total family income of less than $20,000. In each household, the research team interviewed the primary care-giver, usually the mother, and the target adolescent.

At one extreme of family management, Eccles reported, some parents resorted to a “lock-up” strategy, confining their children to the house unless they were under the direct supervision of an adult. But even in the riskiest neighborhoods, some parents were able to locate safe niches for their children and were also able to go outside their neighborhood to give their children safe, growth-promoting experiences.

Eccles found that Black parents were even more likely than white parents to engage in family management strategies promoting development both inside and outside their homes. Differences in the character of the neighborhoods of Black and white families, Eccles suggested, may be one of the main reasons for the more active strategies employed by Black parents.

“Black families live in poorer and more crime-ridden areas when compared with even the low-income white families,” she noted. “Also, more of the white families live in racially homogeneous areas that have developed ways of maintaining a high level of social control over residents and their children. Non-residents are made to feel unwelcome. Given these contrasts, efficacious parenting among Black families is not supported by strong neighborhood controls and thus requires extensive use of family management strategies.

“By comparison,” Eccles said, “white parents can feel relatively effective as parents simply by virtue of the neighborhood they live in. In more stable neighborhoods, parents are more likely to trust their neighbors to help monitor and socialize their children. Such neighborhoods are also more likely to have organized activities available for adolescents.”

Collaborating with Eccles and Furstenberg on the Philadelphia study are Lynne Geitze of the University of Pennsylvania, Karen McCarthy and Sarah Lord of the University of Colorado, Glen Elder and Monika Ardelt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Sarah Lord and Arnold Sameroff of the U-M.

Funding for the research was provided by the MacArthur Network on Successful Adolescent Development in High Risk Neighborhoods.