The college admissions scandal exposed the absurd lengths the rich and the famous will go to get their kids into desirable colleges. Alas, as I’m not the first to notice, when it comes to the college rat race, celebrities are just like us. Middle-class American parents are now obsessed with ways to enhance their children’s brain development, and these efforts start in infancy (or even before they are born!), continuing into an exhausting 18-year marathon of books, educational toys, museums, tutors, counselors, and swim meets that have become the object of endless eye-rolling by outsiders and even parents themselves.
The American writer Judith Warner happened to be living in France, with its luxuriously long maternity leave, superb day care, and leisurely lunches for mommy friends, when she gave birth to her two children in the 1990’s. She moved her family back to the United States a few years later and was stunned to find American parenting had become a grueling, panic-inducing extreme sport. She wrote a book about what she was seeing, which she called Perfect Madness.
Warner’s description is understandable but inaccurate. As economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti reveal in their recent book Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, today’s American parents are not so crazy after all. For better and worse, their parenting style is perfectly rational.
The authors’ background premise is simultaneously obvious and little understood. Child-rearing norms are not delivered to mothers and fathers from on high by the patriarchy’s central planners; they are a response to the specific socio-economic conditions in which children are growing up. A parent living in a subsistence agricultural economy would be wasting their already depleted energies reading The Little Prince to their children or asking them what they wanted to be when they grow up; their children would grow up to plant crops and pray for rain just like all the other children around them. Under these circumstances, a parent’s goal is to shape an obedient child who could follow instructions in rote tasks from a young age and wouldn’t think of whining when they couldn’t have pizza for dinner. And to that end, the parenting style would tend towards the authoritarian, in the famous taxonomy of developmental psychologist, Diana Baumrind that is frequently cited by the authors.
Richer, postindustrial economies like our own call for an entirely different set of character traits—and an entirely different approach to parenting. In these countries, the authors point out, education becomes crucial to a place in the high paid workforce. This education premium, as economists call it, means parents’ job description is far more demanding than it is for, say, agricultural or even industrial societies. Parents have to prepare children for, and nurture, their schooling to ensure their future success: hence, the toddler ABC puzzles, the homework coaches, the visits to science museums, the multiple showings of kid-friendly nature documentaries, and the summer service trips to Guatemala. The authors cite Time Use Surveys and PISA questionnaires showing that mothers are spending more time with their children than they were in the family-friendly 1950’s, even though, unlike back in that day, most mothers are holding down jobs. The increase in time spent with children is true not just for Americans but also for Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Canadian and British parents, among others.
Yet as Doepke and Zilibotti go on to explain, not all of these modern economies—or the parenting styles they foster—are exactly alike. In some wealthy cultures, parents give their children a great deal of freedom and would never think of planning three extra-curriculars per week; their “permissive” parenting approach requires them to do little scheduling and supervision. Parents in Anglo countries, by contrast, are “authoritative” and intensively hands-on. The authors attribute the difference to one crucial variable: a country’s level of inequality. In the U.S., where the gap between rich and lower-income people is very large and the education premium is high, parents have a great deal at stake in their children’s achievement. It’s the difference between a four-bedroom house and a flush college fund for the kids on the one hand, and a cramped apartment and State U on the other. By contrast, Swedish parents can be laissez-faire for the simple reason that with low inequality and plenty of state support, their kids will manage a comfortable life whether they get top scores and prestigious jobs or not.
Not so long ago, American parents were also far more able to relax. The permissive parenting methods popular in the 1970’s in the U.S.—older readers might remember the term “latch-key kids”—suited an era of relatively low inequality, according to the authors. But as the industrial age faded and a new knowledge economy took hold, a college education became the ticket to middle-class stability. By the 1980’s, parents began examining both their children’s report cards and college rankings with anxious frowns. In short order, they evolved into the much-ridiculed helicopter parents of today. The uncomfortable conclusion reached by Doepke and Zilibotti is that these parents are on to something. In fact, the authors find that intensive parenting correlates with higher achievement even more than does race, parental education, and income.
Love, Money, and Parenting is packed with striking details about parents and schools in places like China, Japan, France, Turkey, and pre-industrial England. (Did you know, for example, that in China, the gaokao, that country’s version of the SAT, is a matter of such national importance that construction and traffic are prohibited near exam sites on test day?)
Still, I came away from the book unconvinced that inequality explains as much as the authors posit. A rich body of research in cultural psychology, seemingly unknown to the economists, reveals American parents to be invested in more than just their children’s resumes but in their individual preferences, urges, interests, and talents as well. These efforts are not an obvious reaction to inequality.
More than parents in other countries, where children are expected to adapt to more standardized household routines filtered through widespread cultural norms, Americans look to their young to show them how much sleep they “need,” when they should eat, and later, whether they want tacos or chicken fingers for dinner. During the years of schooling, parents try to decipher which academic subjects, sports, or musical instruments their kids are drawn to. All the while they devote themselves to cultivating their children’s self-esteem, praising them repeatedly for a “great job!” for finishing the most ordinary tasks. (I wrote about this particular form of American exceptionalism here). Sure, most parents would love to be able to brag about a Harvard acceptance letter. And their efforts to make that happen can be toxic for families, schools, and the country as a whole ( see, Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, etc.) But in its better moments, American parenting is also a matter of helping children to find their individual “passion” and to pursue happiness in work that might genuinely suit them.
The American way would be alien to Swedes. Like the citizens of other Scandinavian countries, the Swedes are great believers in the Law of Jante, or Janteloven, an informal rule that no one should think of themselves as special or expect to be treated as such. The cultural lesson is clearly connected to the country’s distaste for inequality, just as it is to its parenting and educational methods. You can be sure there are no trophies lining the shelves of the bedrooms of Swedish children. Zilibotti, who was living in Sweden when his daughter was in preschool, recalls telling her teacher that he had taught his child to read. The teacher was visibly annoyed because, the economist assumed, she believed children should learn organically through play. Perhaps, but Janteloven is more likely the explainer here: it dictates that parents should not do anything that smacks of one-ups-manship.
Love, Money, and Parenting neglects long-standing, ingrained cultural ideals (in the American case, individualism, in the Swedish, Janteloven) that underlie the way parents think about and treat children, as well as the way people organize their economy. At the same time, the book’s analysis will likely cause parents to view themselves, their own parents, their friends and even the stranger with the unruly child in the supermarket with more understanding. Because even though helicopter parenting may be driving American mothers and fathers batty, it’s not madness.
This piece originally appeared at Institute for Family Studies
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