What Defines Class Orientation?

Article by Stuart Bramhall.


(My 4th and last post about the ability of OWS to expand into the traditional working class)

Why Do Some Kids Develop a Sense of Privilege?

I have always found class orientation to center around the presence or absence of a sense of privilege. By privilege, I mean an inherent belief common to the middle class that someone is more deserving (due to higher intelligence, better education, stronger character and/or sense of personality responsibility) than the less well off. One of my special interests, as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is the child rearing practices that contribute to a sense of privilege in adulthood. Obviously parents who subscribe to the ideology of privilege will inspire it in their kids. However this seems to be a minor factor. The nature of early childhood relationships and parental discipline seem to be far more important.

Free Play vs Preparation for Adulthood

As any new mother will vouch, infants have a strong craving almost from birth for the company of older children. If allowed to pursue this natural instinct, the vast majority of kids will choose to spend their time in the streets in the company of playmates. However children of the elite and upper middle class families are subject to a much more structured childhood, focused on “preparing” them for adulthood. In their early years, it’s common for their mother or other caretaker to be their primary companion. Even with the growing emphasis on academically oriented preschools, the focus is on working with adults to develop language, reading and numeric skills – not on free play with other children. Once middle class kids start school, after school hours are taken up with piano, violin, dancing or art lessons or structured team sports, and adult-centered “family” weekends.

The working class kids who play in the streets  get a far different type of education, one focusing on social skills such as group loyalty, fair play, dispute resolution and tolerance and respect for personal differences. The business world has known for decades that the best managers come from this type of background.

The Role of Permissive Discipline

Working class kids are disciplined very differently from their middle class peers. My own clinical experience corresponds very closely with the findings sociologist Lillian Breslow Rubin describes in Worlds of Pain. Blue collar parents typically set very strict (at times overly harsh) limits on children’s behavior. In contrast, discipline in academic and professional families tends to be much more permissive. Discipline is usually left to the mother, who is more likely to invoke guilt over bad behavior than to enforce specific consequences.

This continual use of guilt as punishment leads many members of the middle class to have extremely ambivalent attitudes towards their mothers, which often carries over into stormy romantic relationships and difficulty parenting. I have always found that children from permissive households have more difficulty learning self-discipline. They also tend to grow up with an imperfect sense of right and wrong and are far more dependent on external rewards (for example, earning a lot of money). Often good behavior is whatever they can get away with.

Mixed Marriages

Class identification can become extremely complicated when parents originate from different social classes, This often leads to major conflict over discipline, child rearing and money management. In these cases, a child will usually identify with the class of origin of the parent they feel closest to.

How Hardship Radicalizes Young People

I have seen numerous instances in which personal crisis in adolescence or early adulthood causes an individual from a privileged background to switch their class identification from middle to working class. School bullying (especially by kids from wealthier backgrounds) and work place harassment are the most common events causing them to alter their allegiance. A police arrest, serious medical illness, depression, loss of a parent, family home or other sudden change in economic circumstances can also be key events that radicalize people. It’s highly significant that the life histories of many young OWS occupiers are filled with such life events.

In contrast, it’s extremely rare for working class kids who go to college and become professionals to switch their allegiance to the middle class. It’s a topic discussed at length by in Worlds of Pain, by Richard Sennett in Hidden Injuries of Class, by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey in Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, and more recently by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano in Limbo: Blue Collar Roots and White Collar Dreams. It relates, in part, to the inability of children from working class homes to ever be fully accepted as middle class. However, in my own experience, it stems more from the profound loyalty to family, neighborhood and community that evolves out of shared hardship.

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