PICKING UP THE GIST OF DEEP STRUCTURE
Kavesdropping is discussed only glancingly in the literature on the socialization of children, child development, and sociology of childhood, and in (lie growing literature on work and family life, so let me say a word first about how ii might fit in. The first three sets of literature take as their task the development of a theory of the child. Much of literature on work and lamily, on the other band, icnlly focuses 011 parents. What we don’t know
much about from any of this writing is how children come to understand the relationships between people who care for them.
Eavesdropping is a commonly acknowledged part of everyone’s—and especially the sociologist’s—life. It allows us to gather information not intended for us and quite possibly secret. But oddly, we seldom picture eavesdropping as part of socialization. When we think of a child “being socialized,” we usually imagine a parent telling a child what to do: “Johnny, brush your teeth.” We picture direct, frontal, face-to-face, voice-to-voice contact. Or, following R. D. Laing’s theory of attribution, we think of a parent telling a child how she is. A parent might say, for example, “Sally, you are a hardworking girl,” and by such an attribution make the child identify with “hard work” and so motivate the child to work hard. * Or we think of a parent exemplifying a social pattern that the child observes: "This is how we put on our boots.” The very term “socialization of” suggests a process done to and not by children. As Barrie Thome, Jean Briggs, Gai7 Fine and K. L. Sandstrom, and Barry MayaU have all emphasized, children have their own perceptions about what adults want for and from them. They pick what information they want to learn and make from it their own picture of what’s going on. In the course of putting together their own picture of reality, children look over their parents’ shoulders, at the wider scene. I ike the litde sociologists they are, kids see their parents context.5
Socialization goes on when the child is in direct contact with an adult and also when she or he isn’t. It is not made up of messages a parent sends, but of those a child receives—gleans, intercepts, or, like Rufus and Catherine, sofdy steals. Thus, socializing messages include not only gestures and statements about the direct relationship between parent and child (“I love you”) or the parent’s characterization of the child (“You are a good boy”), but also indirect statements passed over the child s head about the nature of his care (“ I ’ ve got coverage ’til 5:00” or “It’s your turn” or “Betty [a grandmother] fell through again for Friday night”).
The cultural spotlight is trained on the nuclear family, where the action is supposed to be. But children learn about the tilt of the cultural spotlight, among other things, pardy by exploring the world outside the family, too— babysitters, neighbors, relatives, childcare center staff. And what does the child researcher want to know? !rirst, the child wants to know: Is the person taking care of me now going to take care of me Will this babysitter last? Is Aunt Alice going to come to our house often and regularly? How long will I stay in summer camp? Second, the child wants to know: What is the relationship between one caregiver and another? Are my parents more afraid of my third-grade teacher or is my third-grade teacher more afraid of my parents? Does the babysitter resent, envy, love, or just feel a tepid liking for my mother? Is she attached to my dad or only to my mom? Third, what does that lead my caretaker to feel about me? Does Aunt Alice like taking care of me, or is
she bored with me? Is she nice to me but resentful on the phone to my mom? What does that resentment have to do with me, and what does it have to do with my aunt’s relation to my mom? These are the kinds of questions that allow a child to guess how loving or predictable her or his world is. In a sense, this essay takes a child’s viewpoint on the important research by Lynet Uttal, Cameron Macdonald, and Julia Wrigley on the adult relations between parents and those who care for their children.6