Language Socialization in Working Families

  • Amy L. PaughEmail author
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Part of the Encyclopedia of Language and Education book series (ELE)


In recent decades, there has been a rise in dual-career families as women have increasingly entered the paid workforce in the USA, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. Accompanying these trends is a growing body of cross-disciplinary research that examines the relations between work and family, or what are commonly called “working families.” Though broad enough to describe any family in which one or more adults work, this term has been used to refer to dual-earner or employed single-parent families with children, in contrast to families where only one of two cohabiting parents is the wage earner. Much of this literature has analyzed survey data and self-reports, such as questionnaires and interviews. It is in this context that the language socialization paradigm has offered new ways of analyzing working families through careful attention to their everyday social interaction across settings within and outside the home. This research takes a distinctly ethnographic approach, revealing what working families do during their daily lives and illuminating how language socialization occurs through family activities, routines, and talk. This chapter reviews language socialization research that focuses on the work and family interface, including how postindustrial families grapple with cultural ideologies and pressures as they seek to balance work and family demands, and negotiate their children’s autonomy and dependence.


Language socialization Working families Work and family Socioeconomic class Social interaction Habitus Children 


In recent decades, there has been a rise in dual-career families as women have increasingly entered the paid workforce in the USA, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere (Waite and Nielsen 2001). Accompanying these trends is a growing body of research in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines that examines the relations between work and family (Perry-Jenkins et al. 2000; Pitt-Catsouphes et al. 2006). The term “working families” emerged in this literature as a signifier of research that investigates the interface between work and family. Though broad enough to describe any family in which one or more adults work, it often has been used to refer to dual-earner or employed single-parent families with children, in contrast to “traditional” arrangements where one parent is the wage earner (such as the father) and the other parent the homemaker (such as the mother). This research has focused on the management of time and childcare by working parents, the distribution of family chores, working families’ goals and values, child outcomes relative to parental employment, family well-being, and the challenges involved in balancing work and family demands . Much of the literature analyzes survey data and self-reports, such as questionnaires and interviews. While such studies are valuable, only recently have studies examined spontaneous social interactions in which parents and children communicate and organize working-family life (Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2013; Tannen et al. 2007). It is in this context that the language socialization paradigm has offered new ways of analyzing working families through careful attention to their everyday social interaction across settings within and outside the home. This research takes a distinctly ethnographic approach, revealing what working families actually do during their daily lives and examining how language socialization occurs through family activities, routines, and talk.

Early Developments

Language socialization research takes as its focus how children and other novices acquire (or do not acquire) the linguistic and cultural knowledge needed to become competent members of their families and communities (Duranti et al. 2012). Though the intersection of work and family is a relatively new focus, many early language socialization studies were concerned with topics pertaining to work-family issues, such as the organization of caregiving, the daily round of work and household chores, gendered divisions of labor, and families’ economic activities in nonindustrialized societies (Ochs 1988; Schieffelin 1990). Even language socialization studies that have focused on other issues shed light on how the goals of working adults can affect all areas of family life. Kulick (1992), for example, demonstrated how language shift in the small village of Gapun, Papua New Guinea, was occurring through a transformation in language socialization practices linked to villagers’ changing notions of their place in the world, largely due to encroaching proletarianization, a growing cash economy, religious influence, and their desire for a more Western life style.

Language socialization studies of family life in the USA have been very influential. One such study was Heath’s (1983) examination of how socioeconomic class differences shape language socialization practices, with significant consequences once children enter formal education in the USA. Through a detailed examination of socializing practices in working-class Euro- and African-American and middle-class Euro-American households, Heath explored how the early socialization of class-inflected ways of taking meaning can influence children’s academic trajectories in formal education. Heath illustrated how middle-class strategies of reading and engaging in bedtime stories (including encouraging children to elaborate on and associate stories with their daily lives) facilitate the development of a school-based model that allows middle-class children to smoothly transition into and succeed in school, in contrast to the educational struggles faced by children from working-class and ethnic minority families that approach literacy events differently. In a similar vein, Lareau’s (2003) ethnographic study of child-rearing patterns among American families suggested that class impacts parenting strategies in ways that contribute to the maintenance of class differentiation. What she calls “concerted cultivation” in middle-class families imparts differential advantages to their children, compared to the “accomplishment of natural growth” model facilitated by working-class parents (see also Kusserow 2004).

The work of Ochs, Taylor, and colleagues on dinnertime narratives among Euro-American families in Los Angeles contributed significantly to the literature on middle-class dual-earner working families. Ochs and colleagues found that through social interaction during dinnertime routines, family members share information, aid one another with problematic events in their lives, and give shape to family values, solidarity, social organization, gender roles and identities, and relationships (e.g., Ochs and Taylor 1995; also see Blum-Kulka 1997; Tannen et al. 2007). Like Heath, they asserted that storytelling with family members socializes middle-class children to intellectual skills that are valued in mainstream educational settings, such as critical thinking, perspective-taking, and metacognition (Ochs et al. 1992).

Though not specifically concerned with the consequences of having full-time working parents, these studies offer carefully documented insights into the socialization of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus (e.g., Bourdieu 1977; see Kulick and Schieffelin 2004). Habitus includes learned dispositions to act in particular ways, including how to communicate verbally and nonverbally, as well as taken-for-granted assumptions about the world. These socialized ways of thinking and being provide the individual with the ability to act according to expected norms, but also allow for creativity in social life. Language socialization methodology offers a way to understand how habitus is acquired, shaped, and subtly changed through everyday interactions between experts and novices, parents and children. Careful attention to adult-child and child-child social interaction brings to light unquestioned assumptions and unspoken rules that organize family and social life. The focus is on activities during which novices and experts interact, including those in which children are actively involved as participants and observers. Through attentive observation of such activities, language socialization research can shed light on how children acquire a habitus particular to working-family life, including how to be a worker – and a certain kind of worker at that – long before they begin working themselves (Paugh 2005, 2012).

Major Contributions

Language socialization research on working families seeks to engage with the growing interdisciplinary research focus on work and family in industrialized nations in Europe and North America. This relatively recent body of literature was strongly influenced by the efforts of a philanthropic organization, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation. The Sloan Foundation initiated a “Workplace, Workforce, and Working Families Program” to establish a body of research and community of scholars focusing on the social and economic changes accompanying the increase in dual-earner families in the USA. Since 1994, the program funded eight centers and numerous smaller projects on the issues facing middle-class dual-earner families in particular. Each Sloan Center on Working Families pursued its own detailed approach to the study of the work-family interface.

It was in this context that a new strand of language socialization research focusing on working families developed. In 2001, the UCLA Sloan Center on the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) was established and directed by Elinor Ochs, one of the founders of the language socialization approach. CELF integrated perspectives from anthropology, applied linguistics, education, and clinical psychology into one unified research agenda investigating multiple dimensions of the family life of 32 middle-class dual-earner families in Los Angeles, California. To qualify as “working families” for this research, families had to include two parents working 30 or more hours per week outside the home, and 2–3 children (with one 8–10 years old). The families represented various ethnicities (Euro-American, African-American, Asian-American, Latino) and middle-class incomes, but all were responsible for a monthly home mortgage.

A major goal of this extensive study was to document and analyze the ways in which members of working families actually live their lives and interact with one another on a daily basis while coping with the demands of work, family, and other activities. A detailed attention to social interaction was central to CELF’s approach from its conception, with ethnographic video recording of naturally occurring family interaction in and outside the home as a primary method. This was combined with a range of interdisciplinary methods: ethnoarchaeological tracking of family members’ activities and uses of space; mapping and digital photographing of families’ homes and artifacts; interviews about education, health, daily routines, social networks, and children’s lives; standardized psychological questionnaires and measures; and saliva sampling of cortisol, a stress hormone (see Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2013, for details).

The CELF methodology was duplicated on a smaller scale in satellite centers in Italy and Sweden, two countries that, like the USA, have experienced a dramatic rise in the number of two-career families. CELF-Italy (or iCELF), directed by Clotilde Pontecorvo at the Università di Roma La Sapienza, and CELF-Sweden, directed by Karin Aronsson at the University of Linköping, added an international and comparative perspective on the daily lives of middle-class working families. Together with the UCLA CELF, the three centers created an extensive digital video archive of family and household activities, including everyday conversation and language socialization practices of working families. This research illustrates the cultural constitution of family life through everyday interactions, activities, practices, and discourses in a particular moment in time. The use of video as a research method allows examination of actual familial interaction and engagement in activities, rather than relying only on self-reports.

In the three centers, the language socialization model was a component of the project methodology and was employed theoretically by many of the scholars analyzing the extensive data sets. Resulting studies highlight the importance of mundane interactions for creating shared worldviews, socializing competence, and reproducing and transforming knowledge about the family, community, workplace, and world. Through participation in daily routines and social interactions as both active participants and observers, children are socialized into culturally specific orientations toward work, education, time, morality, responsibility, individualism, success, well-being, and what it means to be a family – all of which take on particular forms in the postindustrialized, largely child-centered societies examined in this growing literature. In these dual-earner families where both parents have chosen to or decided they must work outside the home, children are exposed to a middle-class habitus with particular conceptions of work, achievement, interdependence, autonomy, and entrepreneurialism (Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2015).

How families make use of the time they have together, for instance, offers a valuable window into the socialization of a middle-class habitus that may nurture life advantages for mainstream children and maintain their middle-class status in adulthood. Goodwin (2007) found that through spontaneous family interactions, American middle-class children in the UCLA CELF study are afforded opportunities for acquiring and exploring valued cultural knowledge (such as idioms and theories about the world) in the midst of other everyday tasks and activities (such as during mealtime or while parking the car). Kremer-Sadlik and Kim (2007) argued that parents’ talk during children’s participation in organized sports activities, informal play, and “passive” engagement in sports (e.g., watching sports on TV) serves as an important socializing tool for middle-class American family values, goals, and desires. Parents assess children’s sports performances, socialize ways of dealing with pain and disappointment, and transmit culturally specific ideals about competitiveness, sportsmanship, and loyalty. Exploring this in depth, Goodwin (2006a) investigated one CELF family’s routine socialization of a “competitive spirit” through talk about sports and academic activities. Through explicit coaching of their children to succeed in sports or homework activities (like hockey, bike riding, or spelling) and in more indirect socialization (such as ranking children’s sports competence or performance relative to other children), the parents in this American family transmit the notion that competition and achievement are highly valued in their culture.

The ways in which dual-earner families manage, organize, and socialize understandings of time – one of the frequently cited concerns of busy families – is an important area of investigation (Kremer-Sadlik and Paugh 2007; Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2013). Analyzing iCELF data, Liberati et al. (2004) explored how children in Italian middle-class working families are socialized through language into culturally specific rules of time, including expectations for its use and how not to “waste” it by making profitable use of waiting time and anticipating and planning for future activities and tasks. Similarly, Wingard (2007) analyzed American parent–child interaction in the UCLA CELF data for the use of recurrent linguistic forms (such as “before,” “after,” “first,” and “now”) in planning activities for the day. She suggests that negotiations over how time is to be used socialize children to concepts of time and how to prioritize competing activities in highly scheduled working-family life. These studies show that through social interaction with caregivers, children acquire an awareness of personal time and family time, how to comprehend and manage both, and how time management is linked to ideas about morality, responsibility, and success.

Homework is a pervasive, time-consuming routine and socializing activity in middle-class dual-earner homes in the USA, Italy, and Sweden, one that is shaped by cultural ideals of “good” parenting and ideologies of childhood (Forsberg 2009; Kremer-Sadlik and Fatigante 2015; Wingard and Forsberg 2009). Liberati (2005), for example, found that children in middle-class Italian working families are socialized into valued work ethics through parents’ involvement with their homework practices. Homework is constructed as “children’s work,” with parents striving to socialize work practices and skills, while fostering children’s development of responsibility and their own self-initiative. Wingard (2006) examined American parents’ inquiries into and directives about children’s homework, exploring the tensions between parental control and socialization of child autonomy as working parents tried to plan out the afternoon’s activities around and prompt children to do their homework. Homework acts as a routine organizer of family life, despite hectic schedules, indicating its importance in middle-class families (Pontecorvo et al. 2013; Wingard 2006).

Routines and discourses about household work, personal hygiene, and the distribution and scheduling of chores are prime sites for the language socialization of middle-class norms and child-centered ideologies in the working-family context (although middle-class parents tend to prioritize them less than children’s homework and extracurricular activities; see Klein and Goodwin 2013). Arcidiacono et al. (2004) explored how family roles and culturally specific notions of work, family, competence, and responsibility are socialized through household work disputes about household tasks in their iCELF videotaped corpus of Italian working families. In a comparative study of the USA and Italy CELF data, Fasulo et al. (2007) considered how children’s agency may be constructed or limited by how parents focus on and socialize hygiene and household cleaning practices through verbal and nonverbal interaction. Goodwin (2006b) analyzed interactions involving directive sequences in the UCLA CELF families for how families’ interactive styles socialize, or fail to socialize, children into accountability for their actions and responsibilities. Interactions in which parents and children jointly establish frameworks of mutual orientation and alignment to an activity and parents are persistent in pursuing their directives display more successful outcomes than those in families where this does not take place and children are successful at bargaining (such as getting out of doing a chore requested by a parent). Klein and Goodwin (2013) further contrasted consistent versus inconsistent socialization practices in encouraging the uptake of responsibility for domestic chores and personal care among children in the UCLA CELF families. Those families with close parental monitoring and routine assignment of chores prompted greater accountability and willingness on the part of children to complete tasks. In a similar vein, Aronsson and Cekaite (2011) documented how middle-class working families in Sweden negotiate with children regarding personal cleanliness and household chores, and through forming “activity contracts” help to socialize accountability and self-regulation among children. Such negotiations and monitoring of children’s tasks do not appear to be so pervasive in other cultures, such as among the Samoans and Peruvian Matsigenka described by Ochs and Izquierdo (2009) in their comparison of the socialization of responsibility in those societies to middle-class American working families.

Examination of food interactions gives insights into the socialization of food preferences, eating practices, and human sociality in working families. In a comparative study of the socialization of “taste” during dinnertime among 20 middle-class families in Italy and the USA, Ochs et al. (1996) demonstrated that negotiations over food become a prime site for the socialization not only of culturally specific eating habits but also notions of morality, individualism, relationships, pleasure, and consumption (also Ochs and Shohet 2006). Paugh and Izquierdo (2009) found similar themes in dinnertime interactions among the UCLA CELF families for how they managed food-related conflicts and socialized strategies of negotiation over eating practices and individual autonomy. Comparing French and American dual-earner families, Kremer-Sadlik and colleagues (2015) argued that the cultural organization of dinner impacts children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. In one of the Swedish dual-earner families in the CELF-Sweden project, Aronsson and Gottzén (2011) examined “food morality” and related negotiations involving generational positions and affective stance-taking at mealtime.

Dinnertime interaction also provides a fruitful arena for the study of how ideologies about work and success are socialized. In an interview-based study, Galinsky (1999) found that American children in grades 3–12 know a considerable amount about their parents’ work, even though parents generally report that they do not talk to their children about it. Paugh (2005, 2012) used a language socialization approach to investigate how children learn about parental work (and ways of talking about it) through dinnertime conversations among middle-class dual-earner American families in Los Angeles. Through overhearing and co-constructing their parents’ narratives about work-related experiences, children are socialized into particular understandings about work, expectations regarding work conduct (such as morality, competence, and accountability), and family values and goals, such as about work-family balance. Parents’ future-oriented work narratives told collaboratively with or in the presence of children model for them how to talk about and deal with job-related uncertainty in American working life (Paugh 2012).

Even bedtime routines in working families have been shown to accomplish much more than the functional goal of getting children to go to sleep. Analyzing the UCLA CELF data, Sirota (2006) described them as collaborative interactions involving extensive negotiation of child autonomy and interdependence, with parents and children using mitigation, politeness, and bargaining strategies in their relational work to both prepare for and delay the bedtime separation. Through bedtime routines, then, American middle-class children are socialized into culturally valued aspects of personhood, including acquiring a particular balance of autonomous self-initiative combined with reliance on intimate familial relationships. As with negotiations about children’s homework, chores, personal hygiene, and eating practices, bedtime interactions are a prime site for exploring local ideologies of children and childhood, generational positioning, and the daily struggles of working families.

Problems and Difficulties

More cross-cultural research on language socialization in working families is needed to expand the literature and offer case studies for comparison. Most of the work described here took place in the context of Sloan-funded research in Western settings. While the interface between work and family is of considerable interest in those contexts, more comparative research is needed that has work and family as its focus. In other words, there is a distinction between language socialization research that focuses on the family’s role in socialization and language socialization research examining the connections to families’ working status. Remaining attuned to the work-family literature, including research emerging from psychology and sociology, may help bridge language socialization research on working families to the larger body of language socialization literature and anthropology generally.

Another challenge is to address the diversity of family types that exist and are recognized in a social group. In fact, the definition of “family” and its cultural construction in historical context are issues that have plagued family and kinship studies for decades (Carsten 2000; Franklin and McKinnon 2001). In the face of a multitude of possible family forms (dual parent, single parent, same-sex, heterosexual, extended, adoptive, blended, etc.) accentuated by the availability of new reproductive technologies, delineating units of study and comparing and contrasting similarities, differences, and patterns across families is a significant challenge to language socialization and other research on working families. In the UCLA CELF study, all families were two-parent and most included heterosexual partnerships; however, there were two same-sex partnerships, and the families included biological, adoptive, and stepparents. Clearly more family types – particularly the increasing number of single-parent working families in the USA and elsewhere – need to be represented and studied through an ethnographic, language socialization approach.

The focus of much recent research has been on working families of a middle-class socioeconomic background. While this focus has been explained in that middle-class dual-earner families reportedly are understudied in the work-family literature, it raises several questions. What is excluded when focusing only on middle-class families? How is “middle-class” defined? Should researchers impose income limits, or should families self-select according to their own definitions of middle-class? As this area of language socialization research grows, it would be beneficial for scholars to examine a range of social groups, and to be specific in how they define “working families.”

Finally, as in any study of language socialization, researchers need to be careful not to depict working families as homogenous or unchanging. Often portrayed in the work-family literature as “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” and experiencing “time famine,” working families should not be denied an active role in the construction of their own lives. The language socialization approach to working families must deal with the challenges of individual variation and change (including families at different life stages) while trying to illuminate problems, concerns, and strategies shared across working families. There is a need for longitudinal research that follows working families for an extended period of time (such as over the course of a year or several years), as well as more comparative work along the lines of Heath’s (1983) groundbreaking study described above.

Future Directions

The three centers on Everyday Lives of Families amassed an extensive corpus of family life and social interaction, trained a new generation of language socialization researchers, and stimulated collaborative analysis of data. This comparative effort illustrates commonalities and differences among working families in these diverse cultural contexts. It also offers new cross-disciplinary ways of collecting and analyzing language socialization data, such as combining the use of ethnoarchaeological methods with video-taping to better understand interactional patterns and the use of material objects and spaces at home (see Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik 2013). These methods may be incorporated into language socialization studies more generally.

As work-family research expands, language socialization has much to offer. Through its methodologies and theories, researchers can study the moment-to-moment and turn-by-turn ways in which working families are created and maintained through interaction, shedding light on families’ concerns and the meanings of work and family. It can attend to how working families deal with but also resist the pressures and time restrictions put on them, as well as how parents may rework the socialization patterns they grew up with and how children may come to interpret and resist the working-family frameworks into which they are socialized. More cross-cultural studies would enrich this literature, particularly studies that examine diverse families from a variety of class, ethnic, and other backgrounds. Marti (2012), for example, provides a detailed look into working-family life in Chiapas, Mexico, detailing children’s observations of in-home store activities and interactions, and how they learn to participate in them. Such comparative research could bring to light alternative strategies for managing work and family, and link language socialization in working families to larger globalizing processes.

A greater focus on language socialization across the lifespan (Garrett and Baquedano-López 2002) would contribute to anthropological and work-family literature. Future studies could focus on how adults are socialized into being working parents by their children, their partners, their own parents, or their peers, coworkers, and others in their lives. How do working parents socialize one another to be working parents through their everyday social interaction? How do children socialize their working parents? This may entail more attention to language socialization involving paid work-related activities that directly influence the family, such as work-related activities brought into the home or when the family is brought to work-related events, preparation for work, the coordination and performance of work activities through electronic means from home, narratives and reports about work, and children’s engagement in paid and unpaid work (e.g., Marti 2012), to name a few. For example, Baquedano-López (2002) did some initial exploration of the language socialization practices of predominantly Latina, Spanish-speaking nannies caring for mostly Euro-American, English-speaking children in West Los Angeles, noting implications for children’s acquisition of Spanish, the socialization of affect and morality in the nanny-child relationship, and how children are being socialized as consumers of care. A focus on these activities could illuminate what children learn about work from their parents long before they begin working themselves and how this impacts their future career goals and trajectories.

Language socialization research in working families offers much potential for enriching the work-family literature, as well as contributing to the language socialization paradigm with its interdisciplinary methods and attention to work and family in today’s growing global economy.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyJames Madison UniversityHarrisonburgUSA

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