Theses Doctoral

Kinder Panic: Parent Decision-Making, School Choice, and Neighborhood Life

Brown, Bailey

This dissertation examines how changing neighborhoods and the rise of urban school choice policies shape the experiences of parents raising young children. Drawing on 102 interviews with parents of elementary-aged children across New York City, descriptive network and geographic data from parent surveys, and four years of ethnographic observations of school district meetings, I answer four interrelated questions. First, how do parents integrate their sense of self into their school decision-making rationales? Second, how do ideologies around intensive mothering shape the particular experiences of mothers as they navigate school decision-making? Third, how do parents construct school decision-making networks that they draw on for advice and what are the spatial and geographic features of these networks? Lastly how do parents develop assessments of economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods and how do these evaluations guide their parenting strategies and childrearing logics?

Through this research, I make four theoretical contributions. I examine parent decision-making standpoints and demonstrate how parents construct their identities through school decision-making. My findings suggest that socioeconomic differences shape how parents construct their identity as they make school decisions. Working-class parents primarily draw on their past school experiences while middle-class parents integrate their stance for equity into their school decisions. I find that parents across socioeconomic background center their parenting ideals on cultivating their child’s creativity and individuality and seek schools that will nurture their child’s identity.

Second, I conceptualize the particular emotional labor mothers expend as they make school decisions. I find that mothers extend emotional labor in their search for schools for their children. Working-class mothers extend emotional labor at the beginning of the application process as they attempt to navigate application procedures. Middle-class mothers extend emotional labor in later stages as they attempt to implement a strategy for enrollment. Important racial and ethnic differences also shape how mothers take on these additional burdens of care work. I find that white mothers extend emotional labor by persistently contacting school administrators to seek enrollment while mothers of color across socioeconomic background extend emotional labor in their search for schools that will reaffirm and support their children’s marginalized identities.

Third, my dissertation contributes to our understanding of network effects in spatial context. I put forth a theory of cumulative network effects by evaluating the spatial attributes of parents’ advice networks. I find that parents draw on advice from family members, other parents, and organizations as they make school decisions. I find that both working-class and middle-class parents are more likely to enroll their children in non-zoned schools and schools that are greater distances away when they accumulate a large and spatially dispersed network.

Lastly, I link together theories on neighborhood perceptions and childrearing by demonstrating how parents’ neighborhood assessments guide their parenting strategies in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. I find that parents’ varying views of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in turn shapes their child rearing strategies. Parents who view the neighborhood more positively, cultivate relationships with neighbors and encourage their children to do the same, while parents who view the neighborhood less favorably create distance between their family and the neighborhood.

Overall, my findings demonstrate that parenting approaches have shifted as neighborhoods have undergone changes and as educational policies in urban areas have emphasized greater school choice options. I demonstrate how parenting is shaped by decision-making standpoints, longstanding ideologies about motherhood, cumulative network effects in spatial context, and parents’ neighborhood assessments.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
DiPrete, Thomas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 23, 2020