Hovering Parents Don’t Need Lectures, They Need a More Equal Nation

A good many of us aging baby boomers are having trouble relating to the “helicopter parents” of our modern age — those moms and pops constantly hovering over their kids, filling their schedules with enrichment activities of every sort, worrying nonstop about their futures.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, baby boomers didn’t grow up like that. We lived much more “free-range” childhoods. We pedaled our bikes far from hearth and home. We organized our own pick-up games. We spent — wasted! — entire summers doing little bits of nothing.

We survived. So did our parents. So why do parents today have to hover so much?

The standard explanation: Times have changed. Yes, today’s parents take a more intense approach to parenting. But they have no choice. The pressures of modernity make them do it.

Economists Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University and Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale have followed all the debate over helicopter parenting, and they’re not jumping on this blame-modernity bandwagon. If the pace and pressures of our dangerous digital times are driving parents to hover, the pair points out, then we ought to see parents helicoptering across the developed world.

We’re not.

In fact, researchers have found significant differences in parenting styles from one modern industrial nation to another. Parents in some nations today have parenting styles as relaxed as anything aging baby boomers experienced back in the 1950s. In other nations, by contrast, parents seem as intense as today’s helicoptering norm in the United States.

How can we account for these differences?

Doepke and Zilibotti have a compelling explanation. Levels of helicopter parenting, they note, track with levels of economic inequality. The wider a society’s income gaps, the more parents hover.

The two countries most notorious for their helicopter parenting, China and the United States, just happen to sport two of the world’s deepest economic divides. And those more relaxed parenting days of mid-20th century America? They came at a time when the United States shared income and wealth much more equally than the United States does today.

What’s going on here? Why should economic inequality have any impact on parenting styles?

In severely unequal nations, the evidence suggests, childhoods have become high-stakes competitions. Only the “winners” go on to enjoy comfortable lives when they grow up. You either make it into the ranks of your nation’s elite or you risk struggling on a treadmill that never ends.

In more equal societies, you don’t have to matriculate at the “best” schools or score a high-status internship to live a dignified life. In societies with income and wealth more evenly distributed, broad swatches of people — not just elites — live comfortably. That leaves parents, as Doepke puts it, “more room to relax and let the kids just enjoy themselves.”

Parents in highly unequal nations can’t afford to relax. They have too much to do. They have to shape their kids into winners. But the competition their children face will always be rigged, because the already affluent in deeply unequal societies have more time and money to invest in that shaping.

Researchers Doepke and Zilibotti call for greater public investments in social services — like quality child care — to narrow the competitive advantage that wealth bestows upon affluent American families.

The investments they recommend would certainly help ease the pressure on working households. Would they be enough to get our parents more relaxed? Not likely, not so long as rewards keep concentrating in the pockets of the few at the expense of the many.

Our helicopter parents, in short, don’t need fixing. Our economic system does.

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press).