We at beijingkids are always interested in new angles on the debate about parenting styles, whether it’s evidence of the importance of talking to your kids, or even a video game satirizing tiger moms. But now a different group of experts has waded into the arena: economists.
Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti are professors of economics at prestigious US universities, and the authors of Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids. They argue that “helicopter parenting” is a rational response to changes in the global job market.
The sort of 1970s childhood now often idealized through a haze of nostalgia, a childhood of long lazy days free of parental supervision, was fine for its time, when there were plenty of secure, well-paid manual jobs. Now, the difference in financial and other life outcomes between graduates and non-graduates is so significant that pushing your children to succeed academically is the only responsible way to support them. So runs their argument.
It’s a fresh take on an old debate, and they bring a lot of evidence to bear in its support. However, personally, I am still skeptical.
The evidence that they put forward compares outcomes based on four different parenting styles: permissive, uninvolved, authoritarian, and authoritative. Doepke and Zilibotti equate helicopter parenting with the “authoritative” style, and point to better outcomes for children raised in that way. However, this model is structured in such a way that “authoritative” represents the best, most balanced approach, so it’s no surprise that children raised in this way tend to succeed. In practice, “helicopter parents” are often more authoritarian, pushing their children rather than guiding them.
Secondly, no real human being parents in a single style consistently. Doepke and Zilibotti link to a Princeton University “discover your parenting style” questionnaire, which I took out of curiosity. It made me realize that I’m more authoritarian than perhaps I like to imagine, but I gave up in frustration halfway through, faced by questions like this:
Your 5-year-old son has pushed his 3-year-old friend in the playground. The smaller child has fallen and hit his head. Fortunately, it is nothing serious. However, the parents of the smaller child are upset. How do you handle the situation?
– I apologize to the other parents but remind them that this can happen when children are playing.
– I punish my son by not taking him to the playground for a couple of days. He must realize that what he did is not acceptable.
– I engage in a number of conversations with my son about how bad violence is. I help him to empathize with the other child.
– I invite the child to our home and let the two children play.
The answer, to me at least, is I do all four. They’re not mutually exclusive. The quiz is no more meaningful than “Which Sex and the City character are you?” And this sort of generalization misses the fact that all children are unique. I handle my easy-going, compliant son differently to my stubborn, intense son because they respond differently. I know many parents who thought they had parenting sussed with their first child, only to find that everything that worked on the firstborn fails with the second child.
There’s one more significant problem with the economists’ evidence. It’s based on studying people born in the early 80s, who are now adults. They’re right to point out that the world is different now to how it was the 1970s – but completely miss the fact that the world our kids grow up in will be different again, with AI taking over most traditional white-collar work. The jobs of the future, employers tell us, will require not the ability to pass tests, but creativity, teamwork, and emotional intelligence: all the skills children learn through unstructured play.
Of course, in the end, it’s all about balance. Kids need free time, but they also need guidance and boundaries. As parents the best we can do is blunder through from day to day, trusting our instincts, our love, and our knowledge of our own offspring; not perfect perhaps, but better than economic theories as a lodestar to follow.