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How Economics, Child Care Policy, and Job Markets Affect Parenting Styles

A new theory suggests that economic inequality might explain helicopter parents and your night sweats.

Parents tend to believe that their different approaches to caring for children are a product of cultural variation. This is definitely true — up to a point. But economics is a huge and often under-discussed part of the equation. Enter Matthias Doepke, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, whose new book, co-authored with Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale University, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, take an earnest tilt at a genuinely hard question: To what degree are parental choices informed by economic realities? Reducing his answer to a single line is reductive, but let’s do it anyway. When it comes to raising Americans kids, it’s the economy, stupid.

Doepke and Zilibotti suggest that the way we interact with our kids can be attributed to our perception of how important education is to economic success. They suggest that parenting styles have changed in America not only because of the way Americans feel about their roles as parents has changed, but because economic stratification has incentivized a hyper-competitive and overbearing approach. The theory goes a long way to explaining how intensive parenting has become increasingly important to middle-class parents. Fatherly spoke to Doepke about how raising kids became such a stressful endeavor.

There are lots of books about the financial stress of being a parent. This isn’t really one of them. Do you think day-to-day financial concerns are unimportant or just less important than other, less talked about stressors?

There are two different sides. The finances of parents matter because of stress. What are you going to going to be able to afford? That places constraints on activities, schools, and trips. But we argue that there’s a much bigger impact from broad economic conditions and financial conditions that shape our expectations for the future of our children.

In other words, parents are worried about money, but the way they choose to parent has more to do with their concerns for their children’s financial future than their own.

At the end of the day, as parents, we love our children and wish our children happiness. We want them to do well, not just and tomorrow but really for the entire future. Much of what we do is about trying to get them ready for the long run by instilling values or by trying to make them apply themselves in school and prepare themselves for the future.

We argue that economic conditions affect our expectations about the future our children are going to face. There are many aspects to this, but we think the most important one really is how high are the stakes are in education. When economic inequality is high and only those who really excel in school go to the best colleges get remunerative degrees, parents will perceive very high stakes and be much more stressed.

Given that, it would be reasonable to expect that parenting would look really different in countries with less economic inequality. Does it?

If you’re in a lower inequality society, you may still want your kid to do well — you may prefer they get the A in math — but if they don’t it’s not the end of the world. You know that there are different ways to happiness. There are ways that don’t really go through this one path of being the best in class and going to the best school. When we look across countries, what we found is that this idea of economic inequality really explains a lot of variation. The lower inequality countries have more relaxed parents who put in less time and just let go a little bit more. Where the stakes are very high, we have more anxious more pushy parents that really try to give the kids every advantage.

How has this changed over time? I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. My parents weren’t pushy at all. I had tons of freedom. But that’s not how I’m raising my kids even though I’d kind of like to take a more hands off approach….

I grew up in Germany, but my childhood looked very much like yours did. I was born in 1971 and as a kid, I could do whatever I wanted. I went to school, but my parents never checked my homework. In fact, I mostly didn’t do it because it didn’t matter so much at the time. It was a lot more carefree. I live in Evanston, Illinois now and have boys, who are 5, 8, and 11. It’s not like that for them. It’s a much more competitive system. But back in Germany, it hasn’t changed as much. In Sweden, it hasn’t changed at all. Swedish childhood today is very much like what we remember from being kids in the 1980s.

So my classic American childhood lives on in Scandinavia while my kids work their butts off. Doing you get the sense that all that labor is worth it from the perspective of a middle class American family?

In the United States, more so than in most countries, inequality has really increased. The gap between those with a college education and those without has grown. So where you end up on the scale is really on people’s minds. I perceive that in today’s America, without going to college, you won’t have very good choices. Those who don’t go to college are less likely to find a partner, to have children, a family life that we aspire to, and even good health. That’s what’s really made our lives as parents so much more stressful.

But aren’t we working against our kids best interest in some way? Those low inequality Scandinavian consistently outperform the United States in several economic and educational measures. I think some of that is because kids have more opportunity to explore and play.

Well, from the parents perspective we are kind of doing it right because this is the world we face. It’s just true that excellence in education counts for a lot. It’s maybe not a good thing, but given the world, we’ve been given we’re doing the right thing.

That’s incredibly depressing.

I fully agree on what the costs are. I really think there’s a trade-off between pushing your child to get a bit higher GPA down the road and the benefits from giving kids more freedom to do other things. I think about my own childhood — a lot of these skills that I made use of in my career really came from the other things. I ran the school newspaper, just as a fun thing. It had no impact at all on going to college. But these things help you discover more things about yourself, like what it feels like to organize a project. Many of those skills were more formative to my career. I’ve chosen then some of the things I learned in class. But at the same time when I was that age, I had the freedom to do that because you could have enrolled in any German University in any program and your GPA didn’t matter.

How does economic inequality play into the way we discipline kids?

The most strict discipline or authoritarian parenting is really based on obedience. The expectation is that kids just do what the parents tell and not ask questions. The recent psychology suggests it doesn’t seem to be working all that well in terms of school outcomes and risk-taking. In terms of things you can measure, the authoritarian parenting style is associated with people who have the worst outcomes.

Is there a sense that authoritarian parenting is more consistent with lower-income and middle-income families than with upper-income families? And why would that be?

It’s more prevalent in low-income families. There’s a lot of theory in sociology that argues that has to do with life expectations. If you are working class, your expectation is for your kid to work in a factory where they have no freedom of choice whatsoever. Maybe authoritarian parenting models the life that they can expect. There could be something to that. There could also be, to some extent at least, a question of the constraints that parents face. You might argue that families with fewer resources may not be able to change their parenting style. If you have a really low income and have to hold down two or three jobs you just won’t have the time to spend all these moments explaining in great detail to your children what’s going on.

That’s definitely not how America works. And it doesn’t look likely to change. Are we just stuck?

The natural starting points is education starting in early childhood. The big gaps in test scores or school progress we observe between rich and poor families are really established before kids even get into kindergarten. We just have a lack of investment for high-quality preschool programming for the whole population. Also, I think we have missed the fact that even though college is desirable it’s still not what most kids are going to do. In Europe, there’s a whole system of apprenticeship programs where you combine a day per week in school versus four days working in a company on occupational skills. In America, we design our education system with this idea that college is the one thing everybody should aspire to, forgetting that at the end of the day this really works for the minority of the students.

In fact, I would say it would be better for everybody if we could all afford to slack off a bit more and give some of the freedom back to the kids.

The interesting thing about your work is that it’s largely not prescriptive. You observe these phenomena, but don’t necessarily offer marching orders. Based on your research, what would you have American parents do?

The big story is that parenting depends on the communities in which we live. And parents do have impact on what those communities looks like. If there’s there’s a call to action, it’s really more in terms of working for changes in the institutions. This could be by looking at the educational policies of candidates and thinking about what you want to vote for. But even at the very micro scale, you have some impact on what parenting is like in your neighborhood. At your school, you have an impact. Do you have a school where there are hours of homework every night and returns that are not really so clear? Get active with other parents in your school. Tell the teachers you want to think of a system to keep homework manageable and leave enough time for other stuff.

Basically, trust yourself, but work to change the community.