Our member, Dr Utsa Mukherjee (Brunel University London, UK), talks about his new book, Race, Class, Parenting and Children’s Leisure: Children’s Leisurescapes and Parenting Cultures in Middle-class British Indian Families (Bristol University Press, 2023).
The book is about the leisure lives of middle-class British Indian children and the parenting ideologies that underpin them. In this book, I ask what it means to be middle-class and Indian in contemporary Britain, and how these subject positions mould the leisure geographies of children and their families. Through the joint lens of race and class, I illuminate the pivotal role played by children’s leisure activities in the reproduction of social identities and inequalities in contemporary Britain.
At the heart of the book are the narratives of professional middle-class British Indian parents and their 8-to-12-year-old children. These parents enjoy relative economic privilege and wealth while simultaneously occupying a position of relative racial disadvantage as racialised minority subjects. From a plethora of organised leisure lessons to screen-based leisure pursuits, the children in these families have busy leisure schedules.
In the book, I draw on the lived experiences of these parents and children to reflect on wider issues around classed and racial inequalities, parent-child relations and child agency using leisure as my point of entry. The book therefore makes a number of contributes to current debates in childhood and family studies, leisure studies, and the sociology of race and class.
In the United Kingdom today, leisure activities occupy a significant portion of children’s waking hours. Indeed, a multi-million-pound leisure industry has developed to cater to children and families. Scholars who have looked at this growing trend of children’s leisure participation have pinned it down to middle-class ideologies of child-rearing where leisure has emerged as an arena of class reproduction. However, our current understandings of these processes are race-blind and based mostly on the experiences of white middle-class families in the UK despite the notable growth of racialised minority middle-classes in the last few decades.
Moreover, in many existing accounts of children’s soaring leisure participation children themselves are seen as passive members of the so-called ‘backseat generation’ – who are driven around from one organised activity to the other by parents who have the time and resources to devote into such activities. We rarely hear the voices of these children, how they experience their own leisure lives and create meaning around them.
These missing pieces of the puzzle led me to pursue a project about the leisure lives of racialised minority middle-class families which developed into this book. Drawing on the narratives of the middle-class British Indian parents and children I worked with, through this book I have challenged race-blind approaches to our understanding of middle-class parenting and demonstrated the salience of both race and class in shaping leisure cultures within middle-class racialised families.
For school-going children, there exists a lag of time between the end of school hours and their bedtime (Labriola and Pronzato, 2018). Large scale quantitative studies in the UK indicate that school-aged children are increasingly spending these hours in structured and paid-for leisure pursuits such as sports, performative arts and other extracurricular activities (Meroni et al, 2017; also see Sport England, 2018). Mullan’s (2019) analysis of children’s time use patterns in the UK between 1975 and 2015 further revealed that children today are spending a larger portion of their daily waking hours in screen-based leisure activities while outdoor and unsupervised play has declined significantly over this period as homework has increased and risk anxieties are keeping children off the streets and other outdoor spaces. The rising profile of after-school activities among children across Europe and North America, also attests to the growth in leisure-based industries and services that often target children as a key demographic. There are now scores of commercial leisure centres dotted across Britain. In 2018, when I conducted my study, families in the UK were spending a whopping £67 million a week in leisure lesson fees for children and adults, a 21 per cent increase compared to only three years ago (Office for National Statistics, 2019a). Equally, children are spending more and more of their waking hours with digital media with half of all ten-year-olds in the country having their own smartphone and 80 per cent of all 5– 15-year-olds watching online videos on demand (Ofcom, 2020). These figures demonstrate the growing importance of leisure activities – both offline and online – within the everyday geographies of British children and how these leisure pursuits contribute significantly to the economy.
When we look closely at the statistics around children’s time use patterns, the picture gets even more complicated. Studies show that parental spending on children’s outside-of-school leisure activities differs by social class, since middle-class parents with higher disposable income are enrolling their children in multiple organised and paid-for structured leisure lessons at an ever-younger age (Vincent and Ball, 2007; Kornrich, 2016; Reay, 2017; Schneider et al, 2018; Wheeler, 2018). In Reay’s (2010) London-based study, she found that several middle-class parents spent more than £100 every week on their children after-school enrichment activities while many working-class lone mothers living on state benefit received less than that amount per week to live on. This puts into perceptive how the rising trend of afterschool activities or structured leisure rests on class inequalities. It is therefore not surprising that the quantity and frequency of children’s participation in structured leisure activities vary by social class despite the fact that children’s participations in forms of leisure inside the school is largely similar across the board (Lareau and Weininger, 2008; Bennett et al, 2012; Putnam, 2015). It has been argued that this surge in parental financial investment in and the resultant proliferation of children’s structured leisure lessons are fuelled by class-specific ideologies of child-rearing wherein professional middle-class parents respond to rising inequalities and job market volatilities by investing on the pathways that can shape their children’s future in terms of entering selective universities and securing top careers (Devine, 2004; Pugh, 2009; Kremer-Sadlik et al, 2010; Nelson, 2010; Lareau, 2011) […]
The existing body of scholarship therefore demonstrates that leisure is central to the everyday lives of children and their parents in middle-class households in Britain. This expansion in and changing significance of children’s leisure engagements, be it after-school activities, screen-based leisure or family time, lies at the foundation of this book. By focusing on the leisure lives of middle-class British Indian children, I address a number of key lacunae in the extant literature. First, the vast majority of studies that focus on the changing landscape of children’s leisure and, what following Such (2009) can be described as, leisure-based parenting practices do not include children’s voices and therefore fail to grasp how children experience and make sense of their leisure geographies. Second, most of the sociological literature on children’s leisure referred to till now is the product of research conducted with predominantly white middle-class parents where questions of race and ethnicity are left unarticulated. Even when Black and other racialised minority parents were included in the sample, the role of race, ethnicity and racism in shaping parental attitudes towards children’s leisure has either been downplayed or left under-explored (Manning, 2019; Delale-O’Connor et al, 2020). Our current understanding of leisure-based parenting is therefore largely race-blind. Indeed, as Reay et al (2011: 106) point out, ‘white middle-classes have colonised normativity across society’ wherein middle-classness has come to signify all this is good and proper and whiteness as a normative identity has displaced race to racialised others, thereby positioning both whiteness and middle-classness as the universal. This necessitates a closer look at the social processes that run through the time-spaces of middle-class children’s everyday leisure, with due attention to both race and class.
Notwithstanding Dumazedier’s (1967: 4) contention more than five decades ago that no ‘theorizing about our basic social realities can be valid … without consideration of the relevancy of leisure to them’, leisure research has lost much of its appeal and visibility within contemporary sociology (Stebbins, 2018). Therefore, my aim in this book is not only to break new grounds by bridging leisure sociology and childhood sociology but also to reinvigorate leisure scholarship by illustrating how leisure can offer a unique window into the reproduction of social inequality, identity and cultural politics as revealed through my study with middle-class British Indians. Although the data presented in this book were collected pre-pandemic in 2017–18, the insights that I have harnessed are more relevant now than ever before as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst clarion calls to ‘build back better’. The period of COVID-19 lockdown in Britain certainly reconstituted the geographies of leisure and learning for most children who were confined to their homes, as schools and leisure facilities temporarily closed their doors to curb the spread of the pestilence (Mukherjee, 2021; Lomax et al, 2022), and the impact of the pandemic has cast fresh light on the extent of classed and racial inequalities in health, employment, education and living conditions both in the UK and globally (Goudeau et al, 2012; Public Health England, 2020; Nazroo and Bécares, 2021; Blundell et al, 2022; Chen et al, 2022). This has created a new impetus among social researchers to think more critically about the way our societies are structured, and how inequalities are produced, reproduced and sustained. As we come out of the pandemic and look towards ways to combat social inequalities, we need to deepen our understanding of the various avenues – some more visible than others – through which classed and racial inequalities play out. The original data presented in the book can contribute to these conversations by showing how children’s leisure geographies play a key role in cross-generational reproduction of social advantages and as an arena where racial boundaries and identities are constructed and contested.