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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Lareau (2002) defines the “middle class” by education and occupation. Nelson (2010), using education as the defining feature, theorizes a professional middle class as distinct from a middle-class one.

  2. Indeed, this is impossible if education is the central indicator (rather than income and/or wealth).

  3. The elite are often defined as the top 1 per cent or even 0.1 per cent. This may make sense for studies of political influence, for example; but those in the top 5 per cent or even 10 per cent, despite garnering lower returns in recent years than the top 0.1 per cent, remain extremely privileged relative to the rest of the population. Rivera (2014) advocates defining elites as the top 20 per cent.

  4. Estimates of the top percentages vary significantly depending on how and when they are calculated. Lisa Keister uses Survey of Consumer Finances data to place the top 5 per cent cutoff nationally at $205,335 household income in 2010 (personal communication). Emmanuel Saez claims that, in 2012, $394,000 was the bottom of the top 1 per cent nationally; $161,000 was the bottom of the top 5 per cent (Saez, 2015). According to Business Insider, in 2015, to be in the top 1 per cent in New York City required $608,584, while being in the top 5 per cent required $246,596 (Elkins, 2015). The top strata of wealth are also hard to define; Keister (2014) draws on SCF data to set the top 1 per cent at $6.8 million in 2010, when she also calculated that the cutoff for the top 5 per cent was $1,863,800 (personal communication).

  5. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/3651000.

  6. Seven respondents were contacted via one of two non-profit organizations that work with wealthy liberals and progressives. I initiated the snowball sample by consulting primarily with colleagues and friends who attended elite colleges or live in elite areas about their friends or acquaintances who were making significant lifestyle decisions, especially about home renovation. Some of the inheritors in the sample could easily be in my own social and professional circles; those earners working in finance and business were less likely to be. It is hard to know whether people might change their way of speaking because of assumptions they would make about me, and if so how. For more discussion of these issues, see Sherman (n.d.).

  7. I have estimated net worth based on what respondents told me about their income, assets, and debt, and on public records of property values. I believe these are conservative estimates (see Sherman, n.d.).

  8. I conducted one interview with a male respondent over the phone because he did not have time to meet with me in person.

  9. I do not identify named respondents by race in order to preserve anonymity.

  10. Elizabeth Kolbert, “Spoiled Rotten: Why do Kids Rule the Roost?”, New Yorker, 2 July 2012.

  11. Of course there is a difference between feeling these conflicts and being willing to talk about them, and it is difficult to adjudicate how these propensities may be patterned. See Sherman (n.d.).

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Rachel Sherman.

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Sherman, R. Conflicted cultivation: Parenting, privilege, and moral worth in wealthy New York families. Am J Cult Sociol 5, 1–33 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-016-0012-8

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Keywords

  • entitlement
  • habitus
  • inequality
  • morality
  • parenting
  • social class