Conflicted cultivation: Parenting, privilege, and moral worth in wealthy New York families

  • Rachel ShermanEmail author
Original Article


Recent research on parenting and social class has identified cultivation strategies that focus on expanding children’s skills and advantages, but such work has not looked specifically at parenting among elites. Drawing on 50 in-depth interviews, this article investigates the childrearing strategies and discourses of wealthy and affluent parents living in and around New York City. Concerned about raising “entitled” children, elite parents employ strategies of constraint (on behavioral and material entitlements) and exposure (to less advantaged social others) to produce morally “good people.” However, these strategies stand in tension with another significant parental concern: the expansion of both children’s selfhood and their opportunities. Ultimately, though not quite intentionally, parents cultivate an appropriate habitus of privilege, rather than significantly limit their children’s material or experiential advantages. Parents’ discourses about constituting not-entitled subjects are important for two reasons. One, they illuminate the struggles of liberal elites to be morally worthy in an environment marked by extreme inequality, challenging assumptions about the instrumentality of their action. Two, they reveal the affective and behavioral bases of legitimate entitlement more generally: what matters is how people act and how they feel, not what they have.


entitlement habitus inequality morality parenting social class 



I want to thank Jeff Alexander and four anonymous reviewers for their comments, which much improved the paper. I am also grateful for feedback from Guillermina Altomonte, Carolina Bank Muñoz, Leslie Bell, Melissa Fisher, Teresa Gowan, Rachel Heiman, Cindi Katz, Penny Lewis, Laura Liu, Stephanie Luce, Julia Ott, Jussara Raxlen, and Miriam Ticktin, and for data provided by Lisa Keister.


  1. Aries, E. (2008) Race and Class Matters at an Elite College. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University PressGoogle Scholar
  2. Ball S.J., Vincent C., Kemp, S. and Pietikainen S. (2004) Middle class fractions, childcare and the ‘relational’ and ‘normative’ aspects of class practices. The Sociological Review 52(4): 478–502CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity PressGoogle Scholar
  4. Calarco, J.M. (2011) ‘I Need Help!’ Social class and children’s help-seeking in elementary school. American Sociological Review 76(6): 862–882CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Carlyle, E. (2012) Father’s Day advice from billionaires: How to not raise spoiled kids. Forbes, 15 June,
  6. Cookson Jr., P.W. and Persell, C.H. (1985) Preparing for Power. New York: Basic BooksGoogle Scholar
  7. Cooper, M. (2014) Cut Adrift. Berkeley, CA: University of California PressGoogle Scholar
  8. Cucchiara, M. (2013) Are we doing damage? Choosing an urban public school in an era of parental anxiety. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 44(1): 75–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. D’Amico, J. (2010) Affluenza Antidote: How Wealthy Families Can Raise Grounded Children in an Age of Apathy and Entitlement. CreateSpace Independent Publishing PlatformGoogle Scholar
  10. Devine, F. (2004) Class Practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Elkins, K. (2015) Here’s what you need to earn to be in the top 1% in 13 major US cities. Business Insider, 27 August, Accessed September 1, 2016
  12. Gallo, E. and Gallo, J. (2001) Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children. New York: McGraw-HillGoogle Scholar
  13. Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2009) The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School. Cambridge: Harvard University PressGoogle Scholar
  14. Gaztambide-Fernández, R. and Howard, A. (2013) Social justice, deferred complicity, and the moral plight of the wealthy. Democracy and Education 21(1): 1–4Google Scholar
  15. Gillies, V. (2005) Raising the ‘Meritocracy’: Parenting and the individualization of social class. Sociology 39(5): 835–853CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hausner, L. (1990) Children of Paradise: Successful Parenting for Prosperous Families. New York: St. Martin’s PressGoogle Scholar
  17. Heiman, R. (2015) Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Berkeley, CA: University of California PressGoogle Scholar
  18. Hitlin, S. and Vaisey, S. (2013) The new sociology of morality. Sociology 39(1): 51–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ho, K. (2009) Liquidated. Durham, NC: Duke University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Howard, A. (2010) Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling. New York: RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Illouz, E. (1997) Consuming the Romantic Utopia. Berkeley, CA: University of California PressGoogle Scholar
  22. Irwin, S. and Elley, S. (2011) Concerted cultivation? Parenting values, education and class diversity. Sociology 45(3): 480–495CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jerolmack, C., and Khan, S. (2014) ‘Talk Is Cheap’: Ethnography and the attitudinal fallacy. Sociological Methods and Research 43(2): 178–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Johnson, H.B. (2006) The American Dream and the Power of Wealth. New York: RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  25. Katz, C. (2001) The state goes home: Local hyper-vigilance of children and the global retreat from social reproduction. Social Justice 28(3): 47–56Google Scholar
  26. Katz, C. (2008) Childhood as spectacle: Relays of anxiety and the reconfiguration of the child. Cultural Geographies 15(1): 5–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Katz, C. (2012) Just managing: American middle-class parenthood in insecure times. In: R. Heiman, C. Freeman and M. Liechty (eds.) The Global Middle Classes. Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp. 169–188Google Scholar
  28. Keister, L. (2014) The one percent. Annual Review of Sociology 40: 347–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kendall, D. (2002) The Power of Good Deeds: Privileged Women and the Social Reproduction of the Upper Class. New York: Rowman and LittlefieldGoogle Scholar
  30. Khan, S. (2011) Privilege. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University PressGoogle Scholar
  31. Khan, S. and Jerolmack, C. (2013) Saying meritocracy, doing privilege. The Sociological Quarterly 54(1): 9–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lamont, M. (1992) Money, Morals and Manners. Chicago: University of Chicago PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lamont, M. (2000) The Dignity of Working Men. Cambridge: Harvard University PressGoogle Scholar
  34. Lamont, M. and Swidler, A. (2014) Methodological pluralism and the possibilities and limits of interviewing. Qualitative Sociology 37(2): 153–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lareau, A. (2002) Invisible inequality: Social class and child rearing in Black and White families. American Sociological Review 67(5): 747–776CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lareau, A. (2003) Unequal Childhoods. Berkeley, CA: University of California PressGoogle Scholar
  37. Lareau, A. and Weininger, E. (2008) Class and the transition to adulthood. In: D. Conley and A. Lareau (eds.) Social Class: How Does It Work? New York: Russell Sage, pp. 118–151Google Scholar
  38. Lieber, R. (2015) Growing up on easy street has its own dangers. New York Times, 9 January,, accessed 4 August 2016
  39. Mikecz, R. (2012). Interviewing elites: Addressing methodological issues. Qualitative Inquiry 18(6): 482–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Nelson, M. (2010) Parenting Out of Control. New York: NYU PressGoogle Scholar
  41. Ostrander, S. (1984) Women of the Upper Class. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University PressGoogle Scholar
  42. Ostrander, S. (1995) Money for Change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University PressGoogle Scholar
  43. Ostrower, F. (1995) Why the Wealthy Give. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University PressGoogle Scholar
  44. Page, B., Bartels, L. and Seawright, J. (2013) Democracy and the policy preferences of wealthy Americans. Perspectives on Politics 11(1): 51–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Perrier, M. (2012) Middle-class mothers’ moralities and ‘Concerted Cultivation’: Class others, ambivalence and excess. Sociology 47(4): 655–670CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pugh, A. (2009) Longing and Belonging. Berkeley, CA: University of California PressGoogle Scholar
  47. Pugh, A. (2013) What good are interviews for thinking about culture? Demystifying interpretive analysis. American Journal of Cultural Sociology 1(1): 42–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Reay, D. (1998) Class Work: Mothers’ Involvement in their Children’s Primary Schooling. London: UCL PressGoogle Scholar
  49. Reay, D. (2005) Doing the dirty work of social class? Mothers’ work in support of their children’s schooling. Sociological Review 53(2): 104–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Reay, D., Hollingworth, S., Williams, K., Crozier, G., Jamieson, F., James, D. and Beedell, P. (2007) A darker shade of pale? Whiteness, the middle classes and multi-ethnic schooling. Sociology 41(6): 1041–1059CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rivera, L. (2014) The have-nots versus the have-a-lots: Who is economically elite in America? Paper Presented at the American Sociological Association, August, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  52. Rivera, L. (2015) Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Saez, E. (2015) Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2013 Preliminary Estimates). Berkeley, CA: University of California, 25 January,
  54. Sayer, A. (2005) The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sherman, R. (n.d.) Uneasy Street (under contract). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University PressGoogle Scholar
  56. Sherwood, J.H. (2013) Wealth, Whiteness, and the Matrix of Privilege: The View from the Country Club. Lanham, MD: Lexington BooksGoogle Scholar
  57. Skeggs, B. (2004) Class, Self, Culture. London: RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  58. Small, M. (2009) How many cases do I need? Ethnography 10(1): 5–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Streib, J. (2013) Class origin and college graduates’ parenting beliefs. The Sociological Quarterly 54(4): 670–693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Vaisey, S. (2009) Motivation and justification: A dual-process model of culture in action. American Journal of Sociology 114(6): 1675–1715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Vaisey, S. (2014) Is interviewing compatible with the dual-process model of culture? American Journal of Cultural Sociology 2(1): 150–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Vincent, C. and Ball, S. (2007) ‘Making Up’ the middle-class child: Families, activities and class dispositions. Sociology 41(6): 1061–1077CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Weis, L., Cipollone, K. and Jenkins, H. (2014) Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyNew School for Social ResearchNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations