We love the idea of “free-range” parenting. Our childhoods in the 1970s followed this approach to the letter — and it was a lot of fun. Our parents did the bare minimum of supervision. Afternoons and evenings were spent at friends’ houses, exploring the neighborhood and the nearby woods, or playing soccer with other kids. Worries about the future or our standing in school rarely crossed our minds.
Most American parents today follow a very different approach. First-graders have busy schedules, with afternoons filled with activities ranging from music and sports to chess. Even “play dates” are now officially scheduled. Overall, time use data show that American parents spend twice as much time caring for and supervising their children today than what was the norm in the 1970s, even though most families are smaller today with just one or two kids, instead of three or four as was common then.
Have American parents lost their way? We don’t think so. Our research suggests that this radical shift in child rearing, while perhaps more stressful for both parents and children, is a smart response of loving parents to a changed world. Economic shifts have raised the stakes in parenting, giving parents little choice but to give up the free-range approach they enjoyed as children.
The main change is a stark rise in both economic inequality and the economic benefits of more education. In the 1970s, inequality was lower than ever before, and unemployment was low as well. College graduates earned more on average than high school graduates, but not by much. In addition to the usual college-prep curriculum of math, English, and history, high schools offered vocational training, which often led to well-paid and stable blue-collar jobs.
All of this meant that there was more than one path to a secure middle-class existence, and therefore pushing kids to maximum school achievement and onward to top colleges was not a priority for most American parents.
Today, there is a much larger gap between those who succeed in education and those who don’t. It’s no secret that the wages of workers who didn’t attend college have stagnated for decades. College graduates now make about twice as much as high school graduates, and face lower unemployment risk. Other gaps have opened up: college grads are healthier, more likely to get married, and more likely to stay married than adults with less education. All this explains why today’s parents are anxious and willing to put in a lot of effort to give their children an extra push.
If today’s parents follow the “helicopter” rather than the “free range” approach, it is because it works. Free time for children is not always productive. Thinking of our own childhoods, in between occasional moments of creative discovery and play we also spent many hours watching mindless TV. One of us today is raising three boys who would be the first to admit that they would use additional free time primarily for playing videogames. Marathon Fortnite sessions are surely entertaining, but they won’t help much with the math test next week.
Our research backs up the notion that intensive parenting is associated with success in school. In the lingo of developmental psychology, “helicopter parenting” corresponds to an “authoritative” parenting style where parents interact a lot with their kids and attempt to guide them through challenges. “Free range” parenting would be called the “permissive” style, where children have a lot of freedom but also emotional support from their parents. The remaining parenting styles are made up of the “authoritarian” style, where parents emphasize obedience and a strict hierarchy between parents and children, and “uninvolved” parenting, which captures parents who neglect their children.
In the international PISA study of student performance, the kids of authoritative parents score substantially higher in math, reading, and science, even if we compare otherwise similar parents with the same level of education. This is true across a large set of countries. Specific activities correlated with child success are reading books with children, telling them stories, and discussing politics with them, although most likely it is less the details but the overall close interaction between parents and children that counts.
In the United States, we can track the success of different parenting styles using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which takes around 9,000 children who were between 12 and 16 years old in 1996 follows them throughout their adult lives. Here we find that kids of authoritative parents are substantially more likely to succeed in higher education, such as graduating from college.
The effects are particularly large for top-end qualifications such as professional degrees (such as medicine and law) and Ph.D. degrees. For given characteristics of the parents (such as their education), children of authoritative parents are 60% more likely to achieve such a degree compared to permissive (i.e., free range) parents, 85% more likely compared to authoritarian parents, and 135% compared to uninvolved parents.
Given these findings and the high economic returns to getting more (and better) education, it should be no surprise that parents opt for the parenting style that gives their children the best shot at success.
The “free range” movement may have a point that some of today’s parents are overprotective and stifle their children’s growth. But our view is that, by and large, today’s parents are doing just fine by their children, given the world we now live in. As much as we like free-range parenting, we don’t expect a return to the old ways unless there is reversal in the economic changes that have driven up the stakes in parenting.
Those who want to go back to an age when parents were relaxed and children were free would do well to remember that it’s not the parents’ fault — it is the economy.
What kind of parent are you? Take our quiz to assess your parenting style.
Matthias Doepke is a professor of economics at Northwestern University. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. They are the co-authors of “Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids.”
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