How Parental Pressure can Rise with Income Inequality

Dutch children play together outside and ride bikes to school without parents hovering nearby, and Danish, Swedish, and German children can play in "forest kindergartens" in the woods under adult supervision designed to assist rather than direct, while US children are often scheduled for several supervised after-school activities in addition to homework under the watchful eyes of “helicopter parents” Pressure in the form of after-school academic classes may be even greater in Korea and China, where income inequality can exceed that in the US.

Why do so many caring parents get over-involved with their kids? The new book Love, Money and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids sees these parents responding to an economically unequal environment by doing what they can to provide safe and beneficial activities so their kids can do well in education and careers. .

Economists Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University and Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale University explain that when inequality rises and a good education is seen to make a big difference in future well-being, parents in the middle class and above have responded by helping with homework, signing kids up for structured activities that fill up after school hours, and send them to coding camp to give them a boost for college admissions and so-called STEM careers.

Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children's bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren't watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight—outside your child's bedroom to help him or her avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep.

“Being part of the upper tier is more important now,” said Zilibotti. “It moves people’s decisions.” These considerations they see as less important in countries where average kids have a better chance of making a decent living, often with the help of government policies that promote child-care, better pay for teaching, parental leave, and a basic income more widely distributed.

Their major conclusion? ”Across countries, the intensity of parenting lines up very closely with economic inequality,” said Doepke. As a country becomes more unequal, parents get more intense, and and if it becomes more equal they tend to grow more permissive. “If everyone is more or less the same, in a way, there’s more room to relax and let the kids just enjoy themselves and be less frantic about the parenting,” Doepke said.

According to Jenny Anderson in Quartz on-line for February 14, Doepke described his own childhood as less structured than is typical today. “We had lots of freedom. Our parents gave us food and shelter, but we had a lot of free time. I expected to be the same, but I find myself in America, and a lot more helicopter than free range.”

Of course, adequate parental supervision is is important, and structured activities can be beneficial, Time and location are also important: it's harder for kids to walk to neighborhood shops or movies in a typical suburb today than it was in a city like Chicago in the mid-1900s. So what do the authors suggest?

Parents can use their judgement to allow time for free play as well as structured activities. On a governmental level, the authors endorse quality affordable child care to provide more equal starts to less advantaged children, and vocational training programs that will give more career opportunities outside of the college route. Countries like Finland and Germany can provide examples. The authors also encourage skepticism about the proliferation of high-stakes tests that lead parents to help kids prepare while kids may end up with more stress along with the neural and hormonal reactions that go with it..

Treat media as you would any other environment in your child's life. The same parenting guidelines apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Know your children's friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, what sites they are visiting on the web, and what they are doing online.

So though caring parents do the best they can, they might be mindful of the influence of their economic and social environment and try to achieve a work-life balance for their children as well as for themselves.