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Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1997

African American Family and Parenting Strategies in Impoverished Neighborhoods Robin L. Jarrett

This article considers how qualitative insights can inform quantitatively-derived neighborhood effects theories. Neighborhood effects theories argue that inner-city areas lack social and economic resources that promote the social mobility prospects of African American children. Consequently, children who grow up in impoverished neighborhoods are at risk for dropping out of school, bearing children prematurely, and engaging in delinquent activities. Qualitative studies, however, identify family and parenting strategies that buffer children from the risks associated with inner-city residence. When these practices are used, children are more likely to complete high school, forego premature childbearing, and participate in prosocial activities. Insights from qualitative studies expand on neighborhood effects theories by identifying variations in child social mobility prospects and the processes by which conventional outcomes are achieved. More specifically, qualitative studies focus attention on important factors that permit children to succeed, despite social and economic obstacles. KEY WORDS: African American families; African American children; qualitative research; urban poverty; underclass; urban ethnography.

INTRODUCTION Recent discussions of the urban underclass focus on the results of growing up in poor neighborhoods. Demographic data concerning African Americans document the concentration of many of the most impoverished families and children within inner-city neighborhoods (Huston 1991; Huston Direct correspondence to Robin L. Jarrett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Human and Community Development, Bevier Hall, 905 South Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, Illinois 61801. 275 C 1997 Human Sciences Press, Inc.



et al. 1994) Increases in various indices of social disorganization—crime, joblessness, welfare dependency, school drop-out, and out-of wedlock childbearing—parallel changes in neighborhood composition. In light of these compositional and organizational changes, quantitative researchers have hypothesized a link between residence in impoverished neighborhoods and the social mobility prospects of children and adolescents (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993; Crane 1991; Jencks and Mayer 1989; Tienda 1991; Wilson 1987). While many children who grow up in impoverished neighborhoods will remain poor into adulthood, "neighborhood effects" theories fail to address the experiences of competent children who grow up in the same neighborhoods and become socially mobile. Moreover, these theories fail to identify the processes by which successful mobility outcomes are achieved. This article will identify family and parenting activities that enhance the likelihood that children growing up in impoverished neighborhoods will complete high school, forego (or recover from the negative consequences of) premature parenting, and engage in prosocial activities.1 More specifically, the discussion will highlight how these activities contribute to successful child development in high-risk environments. I will draw upon quotes that derive from empirical studies of other researchers, as well as my own empirical work, to illustrate effective family and parenting strategies. My review of qualitative studies demonstrates how, contrary to deterministic neighborhood effects theories, some poor African American families actively strategize to construct a safe and nurturing social world that enhances the future mobility prospects of their children (see Jarrett 1995 for a detailed discussion of the literature review). The discussion is divided into three sections. In Section One, I discuss neighborhood resource and collective socialization theories—two frameworks used to explain the effects of neighborhood residence on children's social mobility. In Section Two, I present qualitative data that identify family and parenting strategies that obviate the negative effects of growing up in impoverished African American neighborhoods. Finally, in Section Three, I critically discuss how the qualitative data expand on neighborhood resource and collective socialization theories.

THEORETICAL DISCUSSIONS OF NEIGHBORHOOD EFFECTS Two theories—neighborhood resource and collective socializationhave been proposed to explain the process by which impoverished neighborhoods impair the social mobility prospects of African American children. Neighborhood resource theory argues that impoverished African American neighborhoods have a limited supply of good quality child-serv-

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ing institutions and facilities. Parks, schools, libraries, and other child services are typically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and poorly maintained. Consequently, poor children have little exposure to enriching educational, social, and cultural experiences that are characteristic of institutions and facilities in more affluent neighborhoods (Chase-Lansdale et al. forthcoming; Klebanov et al. forthcoming; see also Garbarino and Sherman 1980; Wilson 1987). Collective socialization theory maintains that inner-city neighborhoods lack middle-class residents who provide conventional role models and social control for poorer residents. Non-family adults who engage in ghetto-specific behaviors, such as crime, hustling, non-marital childbearing, and dropping out of school are the most significant role models in children's lives. Through frequent exposure to unconventional adults, children are encouraged to emulate alternative lifestyles as they mature (Brooks Gunn et al. 1993; Jencks and Mayer 1989; Wilson 1987). Neighborhood resource theory concentrates on the demographic characteristics of institutions and organizations within poor African American neighborhoods and collective socialization theory focuses on the demographic characteristics of the people who live there. While the intervening processes cited in each theory differ, they hypothesize a common and deterministic outcome for African American children. Children who grow up in impoverished neighborhoods can expect to have lowered prospects for conventional social mobility outcomes in adulthood. Clearly, neighborhood effects theories capture the experiences of some African American children. Demographic data document a relationship between neighborhood residence and negative child outcomes (Brooks-Gunn et al.: 1993; Crane 1991; Jencks and Mayer 1989; Tienda 1991; Wilson 1987). However, by failing to include qualitative insights in their formulations, neighborhood resource and collective socialization theories obscure variability in child developmental trajectories and outcomes, and the processes by which alternative outcomes are achieved. Further, the exclusion of qualitative insights conceals the importance of family and parenting strategies that minimize negative neighborhood conditions and promote successful child development. I consider these issues in the next section. ILLUSTRATIONS FROM QUALITATIVE STUDIES: FAMILY AND PARENTING STRATEGIES IN IMPOVERISHED NEIGHBORHOODS Qualitative findings suggest why, in some cases, family influences predominate over deleterious neighborhood influences. Qualitative studies of



low-income African Americans identify four types of strategies that facilitate conventional child outcomes. They include: family protection strategies, child monitoring strategies, parental resource-seeking strategies, and in-home learning strategies. Family Protection Strategies Qualitative studies provide insights on how some poor families create domestic stability in the midst of neighborhood disorganization and in the absence of strong role models outside of the family. Family protection strategies consist of behaviors that families use to manage their daily lives. These include: avoidance of dangerous areas, temporal use of the neighborhood, restrictions on neighboring relations, and ideological support of mainstream orientations (Anderson 1990; Burton 1991; Burton and Jarrett 1991; Clark 1983; Furstenberg Jr. 1993; Hannerz 1969; Jarrett 1991; Jarrett and Burton in press; Jeffers 1967; Kostarelos 1989; Merry 1981; Williams 1981). Some families are able to construct social worlds which limit the impact of the dangers in which their children's lives are embedded. Consider the example of Don and Angela Carter-Williams. Residents of a severely impoverished Chicago community, they circumscribe their own and children's movements within the local neighborhood. Don and Angela have identified safe and dangerous areas and plan their family's activities with these factors in mind: According to Don and Angela, beside the church, their neighborhood had 'nothing' to offer the family. They are fearful and cautious when moving about the West Side. When Don and Angela are not working and the children are not in school they stay home, are in church, or visiting the homes of church friends or reIatives....They feel threatened by the violence, despair, and hostility which they see among their neighbors in the ghetto. [Don and Angela] believe that the church develops in children hope, self-respect, and concern for the rights of others (Kostarelos 1989: 235-236).

Obviously, the geographically-defined neighborhood does not make up the Carter-Williams family's world. The social and moral world of the church sets the boundaries for this family. More generally, the location of gang territories, high-crime areas, and street loiterers may further serve to construct, if not constrict, neighborhood boundaries (Anderson 1990; Merry 1981). Some families in poor neighborhoods perform domestic tasks during specific hours, reflecting a perception of safe and dangerous times. This behavior has the effect of insulating individuals with different lifestyles from one another. Burton (1991) observed this temporal pattern in an impoverished neighborhood in a northeastern city:

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[N]eighborhood residents who are not involved in the local drug trade (which are the majority of families) use the safe morning hours to do their grocery shopping and banking, visit with friends in the neighborhood, attend church activities, deliver and pick up children from school, and take toddlers and preschool children out for walks (Burton 1991: 35).

Thus, for community residents, like shift work the late afternoon hours mark the transition to different personnel and a different pattern of activities. The restriction of neighboring relations is another family protection strategy. Some families avoid neighbors whose lifestyles differ from theirs. The Johnson family provides an example: The Johnsons' acquaintances are all among the respectable blacks in Dover Square, families that similarly value stability, work, and church and condemn criminaliry....Although he knows the local street youth by name and knows where they live, [Mr. Johnson] is not friendly with then and does not say hello when he sees them....Mrs. Johnson also knows who the youths are, but carefully minds her own business when she sees them (Merry 1981: 67).

Social distance is achieved in poor neighborhoods not only by physical barriers, but by strong ideological stands as well. Some families believe that their respectable behavior and adherence to mainstream lifestyles separate them from local families (see also Hannerz 1969; Williams 1981). These families try to create distance between themselves and others whose behavior they do not support. According to Irene Mack: We are different than the people around here. We are special. We do things different like with Christmas and birthdays. These are special times. We make sure that the kids understand they are different...not better than anyone but just striving for a better life (Burton and Jarrett 1991: 38).

In general, family protection strategies allow residents to create distinct social and, in some cases, physical worlds within the larger neighborhood.

Child Monitoring Strategies Qualitative accounts identify specific parenting strategies that buffer children from neighborhood dangers. Monitoring or supervisionary activities reflect parental efforts to limit their children's exposure to larger neighborhood influences. Isolation and chaperonage are two key strategies. Isolation or "lock-up" is used to segregate children from negative adult and peer influences and activities. In the most extreme form, concerned parents attempt to confine children to the household. Cynthia, a young mother, emphatically (if not exaggeratedly) states:


Jarrett I keep my kids up inside with me all the time. I never let them out even it is 120 degrees inside. I will protect them from the stuff out there until I can do better...until I can get out of this project (Burton and Jarrett 1991: 42).

Ella Moore recalls a similar, though less stringent, confinement pattern in the Chicago housing project where her children were reared: I usually kept [my children] restricted until I came home or until their daddy came home. Then, if he let them go out and play, fine. Or if I came home, I would let them play on the ramp until I got ready to feed them. It worked out real nice 'cause that way my husband was home at night and I was home during the day. So they always had an adult at home or someone there with them while they was young....Our children was pretty good....I was fortunate enough that they wasn't having babies at 10 and 11,13 years old. They did try to finish high school (Jarrett 1992: 191).

While physical lock-up is impractical at all times and becomes increasingly more difficult as children leave the family circle (e.g. to attend school), it is somewhat feasible for very young children who have few social contacts outside of the household (Rainwater 1970). Often isolation is more subtle. Jeffers (1969), for example, observed that some parents selectively discouraged their children from playing with 'bad' peers (see also Anderson 1990; Silverstein and Krate 1975): Certain children were tagged as 'bad' and some mothers warned their children not to play with them. Some of the more protective mothers did not let their children play in the court because of their fears about the aggressive behavior of some of the other young children (Jeffers 1967: 107).

In some cases isolation is supplemented by creating parentally-approved play groups consisting of "desirable" children, including siblings (Tatje 1974). Chaperonage, or the adult accompaniment of children on their daily rounds in the neighborhood, is the second child monitoring strategy used by some poor parents to mediate the effects of living in impoverished neighborhoods (Clark 1983; Furstenberg Jr. 1993). Sam, a 65-year-old retired factory worker who cares for his three nieces, illustrates the chaperone role: I take them to school. Then I go and hang out with my buddies until it's time to pick my babies up. We hurry up and walk home because I want to be in the house by three o'clock.... I don't want them to turn out like the low-life drugheads their momma and daddy are (Burton 1991: 36).

Sheila, an outstanding high school senior, has avoided the risks associated with her impoverished neighborhood. Retrospective childrearing data from her mother suggest the important role of family chaperoning. In the Johnson family multiple kin members provided this function for young Sheila: As a young girl, Sheila was allowed to attend recreational activities, games, and social events only when accompanied by a relative. Usually these relatives were

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Sheila's older sisters, two nephews whom Mrs. Johnson considers 'trustworthy,' and Mrs. Johnson herself. Sheila was never allowed to walk to school alone. Her two older sisters accompanied her to school through eighth grade. Mrs. Johnson would tell Sheila to accept their guidance because 'I know what's best for you' (Clark 1983: 89).

This example also suggests that the most effective parents begin their monitoring efforts during childhood and continue them through adolescence. Like family protection strategies, parental monitoring strategies allow parents to control neighborhood influences on their children.

Parental Resource-Seeking Strategies In addition to protective monitoring strategies that insulate children from neighborhood dangers, parents, on behalf of their children, must be able to garner resources for their development. Qualitative data indicate that competent parents make use of both local and extra-local opportunities. Despite limited resources in poor African American communities, some parents are able to locate the limited good quality resources that do exist. Not only do these parents identify local resources, they also challenge them to fulfill specific functions. Parents expect schools to emphasize the "Three R's" which set the foundation for later academic success. A "Burgherside" parent holds clear expectations for the Head Start program in her community. She asserts: I feel that to upgrade a person is to teach him at Headstart. At Headstart....they should be learning them to write their name...teach them to say their numbers, a little bit of their 'ABC' [sic]....But your parents at home is not educated and so are not going to teach you how to write your name, or your numbers, or your 'ABC.' This is where the schoolteacher play his part (Ogbu 1974: 154-155).

This parent seems to be aware of the importance of concrete learning skills, particularly for children with uneducated parents. Mrs. Todd, a Washington, D.C. housing project resident, seeks opportunities through the local recreation center. Observations suggest that she is aware of the limitations of local schools and seeks compensatory activities: [Mrs. Todd] acted upon her belief that every child should have some preschool training by putting her children in the half-day nursery school that was operated by the Recreation Department She said she wanted much more than the school could give (Jeffers 1967: 77).

Poor parents must allocate significant portions of time and energy to ferret out such resources for their children (Jarrett forthcoming; Clark 1983; Furstenberg Jr. 1993; Jeffers 1967; Tatje 1974). However, some parents do lo-



cate necessary resources and use them to enhance their children's development. Resources outside of the neighborhood are frequently accessed through kinship connections. Parents who live in impoverished communities, by virtue of their network ties to "better-off" kin, have access to affluent communities with a wider array of institutional, informational, and economic assets. Extended kin members can link children into institutions and networks that provide greater opportunities (Aschenbrenner 1975; Furstenberg Jr. 1993; Jarrett 1992, 1995; Zollar 1985). It is not uncommon to send children to school in a relative's neighborhood as a way to take advantage of better school as well as recreational activities (Jarrett 1992, in press B). Cara, a young mother, describes the advantage of ties to economicallysecure kin who live outside of her impoverished neighborhood. She says: We are lucky that we have family who live in other neighborhoods here. We can send our children to their houses to play with other, nicer kids (Burton and Jarrett 1991: 35).

Brenda, another young mother, takes advantage of ties to her geographically-dispersed extended kin. Her young daughter Tracey gams benefits as a result of this connection: Brenda is the only member of [the Niles] family who is dependent on welfare payments...[T]hey continue to make sure that she has her rent paid, some food to eat, and clothes for herself and her two children to wear (p. 43)....Neither does Brenda have to look far to find a baby-sitter. Her sister Louise is generally more than willing to keep her daughter, Tracey. Louise says that the big backyard behind her single family home is a much better place for Tracey to play than the inside of Brenda's studio apartment (Zollar 1985: 26-27).

These examples describe the problematic effects of neighborhood impoverishment and how kin ties are used in order to circumvent them (see also Jarrett 1994). In-Home Learning Strategies Qualitative studies identify parenting behaviors that specifically facilitate the intellectual development of young children in poor neighborhoods. Parents devise in-home learning activities that are directly related to child competencies and tasks desired in school settings. Consider the interactions between Mrs. Todd and young Elsie: She said that she used to play with her children a lot, teaching them various things, and she would always read to them at night before they went to bed. The result of her instruction showed. Her oldest daughter, Elsie, could read at a third-grade level when she completed first grade....She was very alert So was her younger

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brother, Nicholas, who was so closely attached to her. He showed that he had picked up quite a bit from her. At the age of three, he knew the alphabet and could count (Jeffers 1967: 77-78).

Interestingly, the sibling bond between Elsie and her brother Nicholas further facilitates his intellectual development, suggesting another literacy acquisition pattern. High school senior Marie Chivers, recounts similar in-home learning experiences that are undoubtedly reflected in her current academic success. She recalls: [My mother] would let us go off and do our stuff and she'd be talking to us then—like she'd be standing in the kitchen cooking and be saying, 'OK, one plus one is what?' If we say 3, she'd say, 'No, you know it's not 3, it's 2,' you know (Clark 1983: 42).

These parenting behaviors highlight how the home learning environment reinforces school expectations. The congruence between home and school learning patterns may be an important strategy for mediating the limitations of impoverished inner-city schools. The Harrison family illustrates the importance of indirect parental behaviors. While some parents concentrate on specific learning tasks that mirror the school curriculum, Lillie and Lincoln provide encouragement and support of "appropriate" behaviors: Like many ghetto parents Lincoln and Lillie place a great value on education for their children....[T]he Harrisons have translated their concern into several positive steps aimed at encouraging their children to stay in school and excel. This is one area in which the use of positive emotional rewards is most apparent. Both parents make it a deliberate point of complimenting and praising each effort of their children—'good' report cards, special honors, even satisfactory homework assignments are celebrated (Tatje 1974: 185-186).

While expressive strategies sometimes reflect limited parental education, they nevertheless can play a critical role in keeping children attached to school authority, classroom routines, teacher directives, and conventional peers. What is important is that parents support efforts and continue to see and emphasize the legitimacy of conventional institutions, most importantly, the school. DISCUSSION Qualitative insights on family and parenting strategies expand on neighborhood resource and collective socialization theories. As neighborhood resource theory hypothesizes, impoverished African American neighborhoods provide limited opportunities for the children who live there. Qualitative examples, however, indicate that parental resource-seeking



strategies and in-home learning strategies can expose children to good quality resources and experiences, despite neighborhood limitations. The qualitative examples further suggest that it is not merely the absence or presence of resources, or the quality or quantity of resources within neighborhoods that influence child outcomes, though clearly they are important. When resources and role models are limited, people have to struggle to provide them for their children. Parental skills and parental social networks affect children's access to resources. In impoverished neighborhoods competent, vigilant parents can ferret out local resources and well-connected parents can take advantage of extralocal resources. Qualitative insights on family and parenting strategies broaden collective socialization theories. Parents in poor communities use family protection strategies and child monitoring strategies to buffer themselves and their children from ghetto-specific neighborhood influences and role models. These interaction strategies allow some poor families and their children to lead mainstream lifestyles within impoverished neighborhoods, despite the presence of neighbors who participate in unconventional lifestyles. These residents literally inhabit the same physical space, but coexist in separate social worlds. Qualitative insights further enhance our understanding of communal monitoring and informal social control in impoverished neighborhoods. In the absence of neighborhoodwide childcare assistance, parents adapt alternative strategies. Some parents use an individualistic parenting style (see for example, Furstenberg Jr. 1993), whereby they alone are responsible for childcare, or they adapt a communal parenting style, in which kin members are jointly responsible for childcare. These examples indicate that while broad neighborhood support that reinforces parenting efforts is desirable, alternative parenting strategies can effectively foster positive child outcomes as well (Jarrett in press A). In general, the qualitative findings suggest that neighborhood effects theories are not wrong, but that they are limited. Unquestionably neighborhood residence matters. The family and parenting strategies discussed are responses to ecological conditions. However, neighborhood conditions do not deterministically and invariably impair children's social mobility prospects. Inclusion of insights from qualitative studies underscores the importance of focusing not only on problematic child outcomes, but positive outcomes and the factors that promote them. Some poor African-American families rear socially mobile children despite neighborhood impoverishment. This is a striking accomplishment since in ghetto neighborhoods, many more families, despite their best childrearing efforts, fail. Even families whose children are successful experience periods of struggle and setbacks (Clark 1983; Jarrett 1993; Rainwater

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1970). These families understand all too well that their best parenting efforts can be undermined by environmental influences. The fact mat some parents foster successful child development under adverse conditions demonstrates their tenacity and competence. Social mobility represents the fulfillment of societally-endorsed goals; and patterns. Yet families and their children incur personal costs as well. Social mobility requires adults to single-mindedly, and in the absence of sustained institutional support, single-handedly concentrate on the welfare of their children, often at the expense of personal needs and goals. Children whose safety, if not survival, depends on the constriction of their social worlds may forego a broader range of developmental experiences. Moreover, as the most capable families and their children withdraw from local neighboring relations, the prospect of revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods is further discouraged. While these families should be commended for their efforts, a consideration of the costs of effective coping strategies draws disturbing attention to the larger social, economic, and political conditions that create inner-city ghettos and the need for such exacting adaptive responses. The qualitative data presented suggest direction for policies and programs that seek to enhance the well-being of children in impoverished neighborhoods. Most critically, efforts are needed to change neighborhood conditions that compromise the developmental trajectories of these children. At the individual level, increased job and economic opportunities for both men and women would discourage the unconventional behaviors that occur in ghetto neighborhoods and which parents view as a threat to positive child outcomes. The economic stabilization of some local adults and the concomitant shift to conventional lifestyles would provide children with more mainstream role models and network opportunities. At the institutional level, increased support of child-serving institutions would provide other developmental contexts for children. Well-functioning day care programs, libraries, parks, and schools would provide a broad range of enriching experiences for children. In tandem, these changes would provide multiple sources of support to local families and their children. Individual and institutional assistance in parenting would lessen the extent of, if not the need for, demanding childrearing strategies found in inner-city communities. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This paper was funded by a Faculty Scholar Award from the William T. Grant Foundation, an NSF Award for the Study of Race, Urban Poverty, and Social Policy (Northwestern University), a grant from the Social



Science Research Council's Program on the Urban Underclass, and a Visiting Scholar Award from the Russell Sage Foundation. Jeanne BrooksGunn, Geraldine Brookings, Linda Burton, P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Thomas Cook, Greg Duncan, Martha Gephardt, Katherine Newman, Margaret Spencer, and members of the Social Science Research Council's Working Group on Communities and Neighborhoods, Family Processes and Individual Development made useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Deanne Orput and Robin Draper expertly assisted in the review of the qualitative studies and Denise Daniels skillfully assisted in preparation of the manuscript. Detailed comments from four anonymous reviewers helped in revising the article.


The focus on parents does not imply that other forces are unimportant in explaining child development and outcomes. Rather, it represents an initial attempt to begin identifying one set of factors. Adults in various institutions, such as schools, churches, and other child serving agencies may play key roles in children's lives as well.

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