Dumb Questions for Smart People: Why Helicopter Parenting Is a Response to Income Inequality

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Wil S. Hylton talks to Matthias Doepke, economist and coauthor of the book Love, Money, and Parenting, about the economics of the way we raise our children. And the psychological repercussions that causes.

How does an economist end up studying helicopter parenting?

The field of economics began with a narrow focus on companies, workers, entrepreneurs, macroeconomics, and why different economies are rich or poor. But over time, people realized that if you want to understand the economy, you have to study how people make decisions and the constraints they face. So we wanted to examine how economic conditions influence parenting choices — whether they make people more restrictive or permissive, whether they give their kids more freedom or less.

You and your research partner, Fabrizio Zilibotti, both have young children. Did that contribute to your curiosity about this?

Yes, we both saw a huge contrast between the way our parents raised us and how we are raising our own children. My childhood was very relaxed. I grew up on a farm in Germany and had a lot of freedom. School took only half the day, so we were done at 12 or one and came home for lunch. The rest of the day was free, and it was really unscheduled. I could go to friends’ houses or play soccer, do what I wanted until dinner. My parents were also relaxed about school. They didn't check my homework. In fact, I didn’t really do any homework or keep up with my exams. They went to a parent-teacher conference once or twice a year, but it was very different from the United States, where I’m raising my own kids.

We found that places with high-income inequality correlate strongly with intensive parenting. In an unequal environment, it’s important to parents to push their kids hard to get ahead.

Are parenting attitudes in Germany still so relaxed?

It’s still pretty much like it was in my childhood. We spend summers in Germany, and kids are out on their own, walking around the village and visiting friends unannounced. The notion of more freedom for kids is still there.

Have you found other countries that are as permissive?

Sweden is even more extreme! When Fabrizio and I started working together, his family was living there, so I spent a month in Sweden every year. They have a strong belief that kids shouldn't be pushed very much and that formal learning should come as late as possible. There's no such thing as learning to read when a child is four — the Swedes will tell you that's cruel. School starts at age seven, and until age 13, there are no grades. When Fabrizio’s daughter was five, he signed her up for piano classes. His Swedish friends found it very strange to put that pressure on a child. When she was six, they felt she was ready for school, and the teacher let them know that it was possible, but she would never recommend doing that to a child.

Wow. And which countries are more like the U.S.?

At the more restrictive end, you have the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Turkey — they have the most intensive parenting styles.

How do you measure parenting styles?

We start with the World Values Survey, which has been done since the early 1980s in about 50 countries. It has questions on a wide range of issues — political attitudes, morality attitudes, values about religion, about sex, and so on, so it's a very wide-ranging survey of what people think. One thing respondents are asked is to select what values are important to emphasize in children — things like hard work, obedience, or imagination. We use their answers to associate each respondent with a parenting style. For example, people who think it’s really important for kids to apply themselves and work hard in school have a more intensive parenting style.

Do other sources confirm those results?

Yes, we also look at time-use surveys, where people are asked how they spend their day. For example, you can measure how much time people spend with their kids: are they with them all the time, or do they give them a lot of room? Then you can also look at particular activities, like how much time they spend helping kids with homework, and these correlate strongly with the results of the World Values Survey.

Once you see these differences, how do you determine their causes?

We start from the basic view that all parents want their kids to be happy, and the main reason they don’t let their kids do whatever they want is because they believe something else is better for them. We also know — from our own experience but also research — that the basic conflict between parents and children is about the present versus the future. It’s whether to let them play video games now or make them do homework and prepare for the future. We found that places with high-income inequality correlate strongly with intensive parenting. In an unequal environment, it’s important to parents to push their kids hard to get ahead.

Can you give me an example?

Well, income inequality is very high in the United States compared with the rest of the world, and two-thirds of respondents to the World Values Survey say that hard work is important for kids. In China, it’s even higher — about 90% say that hard work is important, and China has greater income inequality than the U.S. But in Sweden, which has low-income inequality, only 10% of people think you should value hard work in children. The vast majority think that’s crazy, and it’s better to give kids independence and freedom and teach imagination.

What happens in a country where inequality is so high that even hard work doesn’t make a big difference?

Then you don’t have the same dynamic. If you think of a society with low social mobility like India used to have, there is no incentive for most parents to emphasize hard work and education, because moving up or down in society isn’t possible.

Are you raising your own kids in the relaxed style of your childhood?

I had expected to be similar to my own parents, but things turned out quite different. In Evanston, Illinois, where my wife and I live, we can’t even let our kids walk on their own to the playground. Nobody does that, and if we did, someone might call the police. The law says they have to be 14. So I certainly wish I could be less restrictive, but we have to adapt to the environment.

Is restrictive parenting useful to kids, or just a thing that nervous parents do?

The data suggests that if parents are more restrictive, they do get many of the results they desire. For example, if you look at the impact on grades, test scores, the likelihood of graduating from college — all of those improve when parents are more intensive, authoritative, and to some extent, even authoritarian.

What are the negative effects?

Well, a more relaxed parenting style would give you other benefits, such as developing your own interests and finding out what you’re truly passionate about. If you live in a place like the U.S., you don’t really have that option.

So there’s a zero-sum element to it: if you spend time pushing your kids academically, they won’t have as much time to develop in other ways.

Exactly. And of course, we’re not saying that it’s wasteful to study math. But if you focus exclusively on grades and test scores, you’re competing for a ranking that’s artificial in some ways. That makes perfect sense in a society that puts so much value in the ranking, but it has a downside.

Can you measure the downside as clearly as the benefit?

There is research that points toward high-pressure parenting being associated with a higher risk of depression and suicide, so the stress of this seems to have negative consequences for mental health.

How can we give kids an opportunity to work hard and get ahead, without creating an incentive for parents to make them work too hard?

The most important thing is to support an equal educational system. Does it have good schools and bad schools, so it’s essential to get into the right one? Or does it provide access to quality education for all children, so parents can worry less about which place their kid ends up? The countries with low-pressure parenting culture also have cheap access to child care and preschool, so investing in early education is essential. If you want to influence parenting choices, you have to change the economic environment parents are responding to.

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