Q&A with Professor Matthias Doepke Regarding His New Book, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids
Love, Money, and Parenting is an international and historical look at how parenting choices change in the face of economic inequality. Parents everywhere want their children to be happy and do well. Yet, how parents seek to achieve this ambition varies enormously. Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti discuss how investments in early childhood development and the design of education systems factor into the parenting equation, and how economics can help shape policies that will contribute to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. (Source)
What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
Doepke: Part of the motivation was personal: My coauthor Fabrizio Zilibotti and I both grew up in Europe in the 1970s and experienced a fairly relaxed childhood – our parents were what we now call “permissive” parents. I think we both expected that we would raise our own children in a similar way, but then we ended up being much more involved in our children’s lives and more “intensive” parents overall than our own parents were. We realized that our own decisions in part reflected a changed economic environment. The book explains how similar forces have resulted in a general spread of intensive parenting styles in recent years, and how economic incentives can explain a lot about how parents raise their children both across countries and throughout history.
Could you explain the role played by income inequality for determining parenting styles?
Doepke: The general argument of the book is that parents love their children and want them to do well. What it means to do well, however, is in large part shaped by the economic environment. If inequality is low and people at different parts of the income distribution experience a similar quality of life, economic success is less important for parents and children. This allows parents to relax and to be more permissive, which gives room to children to discover their own interests and talents at their own pace. In contrast, if inequality is high, parents have more reason to worry about where their children will end up on the income scale. Success measured by educational achievement and a lucrative career becomes more important to parents, which leads them to adopt a more intensive, achievement-oriented parenting style.
How have changes in economic incentives resulted in the spread of the “helicopter parent” phenomenon?
Doepke: Since the 1970s, economic inequality has risen sharply in the United States and many other industrialized countries. One important aspect of this change is a much higher return on education. College graduates now earn almost twice as much on average as high school graduates. Education also matters for other outcomes parents worry about, such as the probability of finding a partner to marry and even health and longevity. The consequence of these changes is that parents feel pressure to push their children to succeed in education and at work. The rise of “helicopter parenting” is one manifestation of this change; other aspects are increased monetary spending on children (on items such as extracurricular activities and tutoring) and almost a doubling in time spent on childcare by average parents since the 1970s (with the largest rise in education-oriented activities such as helping with homework).
Do you have any concerns about the economic and social consequences of the “intensive” parenting styles that is widespread today?
Doepke: A first concern is that intensive parenting is not a lot of fun, and instead often stressful for both parents and children. Many kids are now expected to perform well throughout their childhoods, from qualifying for top preschools as toddlers to building a resume of school accomplishment and extracurricular activities that gives them a shot at top colleges as teenagers. The room to relax and “just be a kid” has shrunk. It is probably no accident that anxiety and depression among children have been rising lately. A second, arguably even more important concern is that intensive parenting has also resulted in more unequal parenting. Highly intensive parenting is widespread among the upper middle class, but parents from less fortunate backgrounds cannot always keep up. This rising “parenting gap” puts equality of opportunity at risk and contributes to declining social mobility.
What is the most important take-away for parents from your research?
Doepke: Unlike other parenting books, our does not take the perspective that parents are doing it wrong, and that we know how to do it right. Our view is that, by and large, parents are doing right by their children, but also that their choices are shaped in large part by the environment they live in. A consequence of this perspective is that if we want to change parenting, the way forward is not to blame parents, but to change the environment that parents respond to. This environment is shaped not just by global economic forces, but also by institutions and policies in areas such as early childhood education, family support, schooling, university admissions, and the tax and transfer system. The examples of other countries where parenting is more relaxed show that changes to these institutions can lead to different, and arguably better, outcomes. Hence, to change parenting, we need to become political actors and campaign for change, at levels ranging from the local school board to national politics.