How economic inequality gives rise to hyper-parenting – Chicago Tribune

These days, residents of different countries often drink the same coffee, buy clothes from the same retailers and use the same social media apps. Globalization has erased many traditional differences around the world. But when it comes to parenting, habits still vary from country to country by a startling degree.

In many American circles, “helicopter parents” monitor their children’s every move, and outliers who let their kids walk home from the playground on their own risk rebuke by local police. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, even kindergartners walk to school without adult supervision. And Sweden and Germany offer popular “forest kindergartens,” where children stay outdoors in nearly all weather, playing and exploring with minimal adult guidance. In those countries, unlike in U.S. classrooms, early literacy and numeracy are not part of the curriculum, even in regular preschools; teachers emphasize play and crafts instead. In China, by contrast, strict parenting is a much-discussed part of national life – and was the subject of a hugely popular television series, “Tiger Mom.”

Discussions of differences like these often focus on culture. China’s Confucian tradition, for instance, emphasizes respect for elders, which some observers suggest could be one influence on authoritarian parenting. But we have found in our research that varying parenting styles among nations are rooted primarily in economics – specifically, economic inequality. The common denominator in countries where intense, achievement-oriented parenting abounds is a large gap between the rich and the poor. Conversely, where inequality is low and governments provide safety nets, a more relaxed, permissive parenting style holds sway.

That suggests that to reduce the epidemic of hypercompetitive and overinvolved parenting in the United States, simply exhorting people to be more laid back won’t work. The only solution is to attack the problem at the root: by combating inequality.

Admittedly, the correlation we’re describing doesn’t prove that economic differences shape parenting styles. It could be, for instance, that cultural aspects drive both parenting and the design of policies and institutions that determine inequality. But the economic explanation looks more persuasive when you see that the relationship between inequality and parenting also holds within countries over time, not just among countries.

Many people who grew up in America in the 1970s remember a low-pressure childhood with a lot more freedom and independence than today’s kids enjoy. Data backs up those impressions. In 1969, 41 percent of American children biked or walked to school, a figure that had dropped to about 18 percent by 2014. In 2017, according to the American Time Use Survey, a typical American parent spent close to twice as much time each week interacting with their children than parents did in the late 1970s (almost 28 hours for both parents in 2017, up from 14 hours in 1976. And education-oriented activities grew the fastest.

These changes put a significant burden on parents. The numbers are even more striking when you consider that, in 1976, mothers were far less likely to be in the workforce than in 2017, which means that parents today are working more and doing more hands-on parenting.

Those changes track trends in inequality: In the United States, a household with two college-educated earners in the late 1970s made about $30,000 more (adjusted for inflation) each year than a household with two high-school-educated earners. By 2010, the gap had become a chasm: nearly $60,000 a year.

In most advanced economies, both inequality and the intensity of parenting have been on the rise since the 1980s. And the popularity of intensive parenting has grown the most in countries where inequality has increased the fastest. The exceptions are intriguing, too: Income inequality has declined in Turkey and Spain – and in both countries, the percentage of parents endorsing “hard work” as a crucial value for children has gone down.

When parenting becomes an arms race, the rich have a clear advantage – another problem in countries that embrace the intensive style. Obviously, when you’re holding down two or three jobs, you have less time to drill your kids on math, and you may not have access to tutors, test prep and private coaches. It’s a vicious circle: Inequality leads to the rise of competitive parenting, which further exacerbates inequality for the next generation. We’re seeing that play out in the United States.

You might think that, above a certain income level, there would be diminishing returns for competitive parenting. Once you have an excellent school (probably in an expensive neighborhood), SAT tutors, music lessons and select sports leagues, aren’t the boxes of intensive parenting checked off? But American inequality has been particularly pronounced at the top, with larger and larger shares of income going to the top 1 or even 0.1 percent of earners, so even parents near the peak of the income scale feel inequality’s pressures. The desire to push children one rung higher is relentless. Indeed, since the 1980s, couples with more money and more education have increased the time and money spent on their children at a much faster rate than others.

Many Americans lament the rise of the hovering, overinvolved parent and the loss of unscheduled free time for young people, but our analysis suggests that simply preaching the virtues of less-frantic child-rearing practices in faraway places will not do much to ease pressure on parents here. We should instead address the causes: We ought to create policies and institutions that push back against rising inequality by offering children paths to success that aren’t overly shaped by grades and class rank.

We can look abroad for examples of such measures. They range from free day care, to more equal funding of primary and secondary schools, to investments in vocational training and apprenticeship programs. With the right institutions in place, parenting culture will adjust. Change the economic incentives, and the helicopter parent phenomenon will fade away.

Doepke is a professor of economics at Northwestern University. Zilibotti is the Tuntex professor of international and developmental economics at Yale University . They are co-authors of “Love, Money and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids.”

Originally published by The Washington Post.

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