One of the developmental stages in parenthood is becoming a sucker for parental-advice clickbait. Voila: ”A Cure for Hyper-Parenting.” (It’s actually pretty reasonable advice, as the TL;DR is “chill, kids are resilient,” or, as put nicely, “total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.")
This part jumped out at me:
In “Parenting With Style,” a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti say intensive parenting springs from rising inequality, because parents know there’s a bigger payoff for people with lots of education and skills. (France is a rare rich country where helicoptering isn’t the norm.)
Doepke, the lead author on “Parenting With Style,” is a Northwestern economist whose research throughout the last decade has focused on children and families, from education to child labor to fertility, as well as women’s rights and occupational choice, so the subject is right in his wheelhouse.
And what Doepke and Zilibotti do is create a mathematical model to explain changes in parenting over time and across countries: When, and why, does authoritarian parenting become “authoritative” parenting (“where parents attempt to mold their children’s preferences with the aim of inducing choices that parents view as conducive to future success in life") or permissive parenting? How can economic conditions explain that?
It’s an abstract model, but the authors find that it reflects perceived changes in parenting styles, perceptions that are backed up with research. It also lines up with parenting styles and measures of inequality in developed and developing countries.
In short, here’s the evolution of parenting styles they’re attempting to explain:
Authoritarian parenting, as measured by practices such as corporal punishment, has been declining over time. In the 1960s and 1970s, permissive practices (anti-authoritarian parenting) gained in popularity. In recent decades, we observe a new trend towards more engaged and intrusive parenting (especially among the well educated) aimed to foster children’s achievements in education and other endeavors. For instance, time use surveys show a marked increase in the time parents spend on educating their children, despite the fact that parents also work more (Ramey and Ramey 2010). However, the nature of this new form of intensive parenting is authoritative and shuns the coercive methods of yesteryear.
Per Ramey and Ramey, here’s what “marked” actually means. It’s a really big mark:
There are two interesting things here. College-educated women—and women are still the primary caregivers—start out below less-educated women in time spent on childcare, but then flip that order, though the gap is small. Meanwhile, college-educated men increase the childcare-time gap over less-educated men around the same time. All in all:
The amount of time spent on childcare by less educated mothers rose by about 4 hours per week from 1975 to the 2000s, and time spent by college-educated mothers rose by about 8 hours per week. Thus even with the more complete set of controls, we find that college-educated mothers increased their amount of time spent in childcare by double the amount that less educated mothers did.
It’s a familiar trend: things have improved for less-educated families—perhaps because of greater awareness, greater outreach, better programs, likely some combination of many things—but they’ve improved much more for college-educated families. Eight hours is a lot: college-educated mothers are spending the equivalent of a full workday more with their children than the prior generation. Children of college-educated fathers get still more attention.
And it’s not like college-educated men and women are giving it up because they love being around their little bundles of joy so much: “basic childcare ranked below both cooking and housework.”
Parents do like play, but that only knocks off about an hour of the increase. Ramey and Ramey suggest something much less fun: economic survival.
Perhaps the most direct evidence in support of our hypothesis is presented by Hilary Levey. Her study asks, “What explains the increase in children’s participation in activities outside of the home, structured and monitored by their parents, when family time is so scarce?” (Levey 2009, p. i). After 16 months of fieldwork involving 172 interviews of middle- and upper-middle-class parents, children, coaches, and teachers, Levey concludes that parents believe that extracurricular activities are essential for obtaining the credentials their children need to gain admittance to “good” colleges, which is seen as a necessary and sufficient condition for the children’s future economic welfare.
The early 1990s are also where the top one percent accelerate their distance from the rest of the country, and the top ten percent noticeably widen the gap.
Back to “Parenting With Style.” This is the conceit: that parenting styles change with economic demands.
With high inequality and a low return on human capital—where children are expected to follow the model of their parents—obedience and hard work is a safe, conservative approach to economic survival, which encourages authoritarian parenting, and the authors find that the style declines in favor as countries develop stronger formal educational systems and white-collar industries.
With lower inequality and a high return on capital—as in the United States circa 1960 and in European social-welfare states today—permissive parenting is more acceptable: “In countries with low inequality (such as Germany, Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries), parents emphasize values such as ‘independence’ and ‘imagination’ over ‘importance of hard work.’ The opposite pattern is observed in more unequal countries such as the United States and China.”
In the United States, we have high inequality and high return on capital. There’s a premium on hard work, because the stakes are high. But it’s a quickly evolving economy that puts a high premium on finding skills.
Take the America foretold by Tyler Cowen, the George Mason economist and proprietor of the popular blog Marginal Revolution, in his fearsome new book Average Is Over. On one hand, failures will dog you the rest of your life:
I think what happens is when there’s more and better measurement [of your employment history], it’s like credit scores. Once you get a bad credit score, yes, it is possible to fix it, but as you probably know, it’s pretty difficult. So I think it will reward people who are disciplined early in their lives, and that will help a lot of people, but it also will harm some others.
On the other, you’ll have more opportunities to pursue success:
I think a lot of people will be liberated from a lot of oppressive manufacturing jobs, or a lot of service jobs, because they’ll be done by computers. There’ll be the world’s best education available online and free. I think there’s a lot about this future that will be enormously, fantastically exciting.
This is an economy that values hard work, but also independence; a parenting style is needed that instills discipline but not obedience, autonomy (which is necessary) without failure (which is fatal).
Doepke and Zilibotti save the condescension when naming it: “authoritative” parenting. But they acknowledge what that translates to: “This rise in childcare has given rise to the widely discussed phenomenon of helicopter parenting, i.e., the observation that parents ‘hover’ over their children at various activities to guide and protect them. At the same time, the support for coercive methods and corporal punishment has continued to slide; instead, the modern parenting style is authoritative in nature.”
There’s a logic to this. Kids have to learn for themselves, but they can’t fail, either. Hence the hovering. Autonomy without failure—or, perhaps, failure without consequences—is something of a paradox, requiring a much more fine balance than authoritarian or permissive parenting. And also a lot of work.
This also goes some way towards explaining the evolution of the stages of youth. The “imagination” stage, childhood, is curtailed; the “independence” stage, the transition into adolescence and towards adulthood, being both tremendously valuable and extremely risky, is lengthened, extending the runway into college or beyond.
It’s a compelling argument: helicopter parents are responding to economic cues, ones given by both the greater economy and the men and women, like Cowen, who are tasked with explaining it to us. And they’re doing what they think they’re supposed to do, and what it looks like they have to do. Getting American parents to chill about it will require more imagination than we’re imparting to the next generation.