Does economic inequality lead to over-parenting?

Yes!  Says some really cool cross-national comparative research.  Great piece in the Post by Economics professors Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti highlighting their research on the matter.  Really, really interesting.

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 schoolwithout 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 craftsinstead. 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. [emphases mine]

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…

In the United States, about two-thirds of parents include hard work on the list of top values to instill in children; in Sweden, only about 11 percent of parents place hard work that high. This lines up with differences in economic inequality: In the United States, households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution earn on average almost nine times more than households in the bottom 20 percent. In Sweden, the top quintile earns 4.3 times more than the bottom…

Japan serves as an interesting test for our thesis, since it shares some cultural characteristics with China (both countries are influenced by Buddhist and Confucian traditions), yet it’s more economically egalitarian. In Japan, the economic inequality ratio is higher than in Sweden but lower than in China and the United States. Indeed, Japan’s parenting attitudes, as reflected in the World Values Survey, are closer to those in culturally remote Germany and the Netherlands than to China’s.

Across all postindustrial economies, in fact, we found that the share of parents emphasizing “hard work” lines up remarkably consistently with the degree of economic inequality.

Damn that’s interesting stuff!  I’ll just be over here in America trying to parent Swedish style. Okay, realistically, maybe more like Japanese or Italian style. But no helicopters for me.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Does economic inequality lead to over-parenting?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Years ago, in one of the most equalitarian and prosperous periods of the U.S. economy, the 1950s and 1960s, the age of permissiveness in child rearing was born in America. Dr. Spock’s common sense guide on how to raise babies ruled. As social inequality grew, parenting became less permissive.
    That fits with the Post article.

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