A few years ago, a friend told me that she planned to enroll her kids in an accelerated after-school math program, once they got a little older.
I asked if she worried that they would be bored in school. What if the after-school program had already taught them everything the teacher was teaching?
She shrugged, and told me that the smart kids in the school district went to enrichment classes. Their parents were largely engineers, she said, and if the engineers signed their children up for extra math, so would she. Boredom, shmoredom.
“That would have been a very strange story when I was little, and now it’s a very common story,” notes Matthias Doepke, an economist at the London School of Economics. He says “there is this aspect of a race,” which has become particularly pronounced among America’s upper middle class over the last few decades.
Indeed, according to a recent Pew survey, nearly half of American parents characterize themselves as “overprotective,” more than double the number who say they give kids “too much freedom.”
And that overprotectiveness may have unintended consequences.
Many adults remember a childhood playing sports with neighborhood kids during the afternoon, and being told to get home by 5:30 or 6 p.m. Now, in lots of leafy suburbs, where a soccer game could easily come together, you’ll find the streets abandoned at 4 or 5.
Kids are busy: They’re taking after-school math classes, being shuttled to ice hockey practice, enrolling in SAT prep courses, trying to get good enough at the viola that a college might want them for the orchestra.
Doepke, who coauthored the book Love, Money, and Parenting, argues that there’s a clear rationale for parents to hover over their kids: income inequality. As inequality has surged over the last 50 years, middle- and upper-middle-class parents have increasingly worried that if their kids don’t have the right kinds of credentials, the consequences will be dire.
But in lots of countries, the way that many Americans parent would be considered both strange and unacceptable.
Doepke and his coauthor, Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti, examined the link between inequality and parenting styles across the world.
In countries with higher income inequality, parents tend to push their kids harder. In countries where people are more equal, parents are a lot more relaxed.
The World Values Survey found that countries that value “hard work” over other attributes are some of the most unequal — including Russia, China, Turkey, and the US. Countries where there’s less inequality, and more of a safety net — like Japan, Sweden, and Germany — don’t rank “hard work” as highly.
When Zilibotti spent time with his wife and daughter in Sweden, they noticed that Swedish nursery schools (which are free) encourage play and exploration, and discourage any kind of formal learning. And even when kids start school — at seven years old — “stress and anxiety are considered the prime evil from which children should be sheltered.” They are not graded in subjects until turning 13.
Scandinavian countries may be outliers in this survey. But consider Japan, which is a bit more mainstream. In Japan, 25 percent of those polled believed that hard work is a top value to teach kids. In America, that number was 70 percent.
Which makes perfect sense.
Starting around 1980, Doepke says, inequality in the US began to surge, after “one of the most equal times we’ve probably ever had.”
And a major piece of this surge was the rise in the “college premium,” the amount that the average college graduate makes, versus the average high school graduate. College grads used to make about 40 percent more. Now it’s closer to 100 percent.
Not surprisingly, the pressure to get kids into college — often, prestigious colleges — has spiked. Since 1960, both mothers and fathers have doubled the number of hours per week that they spend with their kids. And family sizes in the US have decreased substantially over the last few decades, so all that time is being lavished on fewer children.
Which is to say: American parents used to be a lot more like Scandinavian or Japanese parents. Until inequality made us believe that there was no such thing as being too intense.
Ironically, though, by trying to help children win in the short term, we may be imperiling their long-term success.
Doepke argues that we often emphasize activities and achievements that can go on a college application, to the exclusion of everything else. Though jobs demand teamwork, and reward those who can cope with imperfect situations, the college admissions process highlights individual achievements and unrelenting perfectionism.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean, wrote in 2015 about the worrying changes that she and her colleagues saw in kids and their families. It was, she noted, “a new phenomenon — parents on the college campus, virtually and literally. Each subsequent year would bring an increase in the number of parents who did things like seek opportunities, make decisions, and problem solve for their sons and daughters — things that college-aged students used to be able to do for themselves.”
Doepke notes that we’ve seen a major uptick in depression and anxiety among kids. And while some of that is undoubtedly due to social media, intense competition is tough on both students and their parents.
For parents with less means, the psychological stress of America’s divergent economic outcomes is acute. And the pressure to get kids into college — even if that college isn’t Princeton — can be tough to shoulder.
Nazli Kibria, a sociologist at Boston University, says that families struggling to stay in the middle class see what richer people are doing. And they increasingly put pressure on themselves to imitate it. She believes that “everyone now has at least the ideal in their head that good parenting means this kind of very involved, extra rich, supplemented parenting.”
And that, Kibria says, can mean taking on extra jobs to pay for lessons, camps, and tutors. She sees low-income mothers investing their own time to figure out how to supplement kids’ knowledge at home. And they may have to choose which of their kids seems most well-suited to attend college, because it would be impossible to pay more than one tuition.
Ironically, this rat race — which has intensified during a period of growing inequality — may do little to help those who finish first. Instead, research suggests, collaboration and creativity will soon become workers’ real sources of value.
As the rise of AI has shown, memorization has its limits. But inventiveness and initiative have not yet been programmed. What if that SAT prep course is less important than a kid-organized soccer game? What if reassembling a broken clock is more useful than learning calculus before everyone else?
We are taking a huge risk by adopting this style of parenting, Doepke argues. There is a danger “that this streamlining of everybody doing the same thing in the same way stamps out innovation that we’d all benefit from.”
Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.