Today's middle-class parents spend more time with their kids, often around homework or school activities. Uncertain economic times may be one of the reasons. AJC File
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Does helicopter parenting give kids smoother ride to success? 

I sometimes wonder whether I owe an apology to my older kids for being too hands-off or to my younger children for being too hands-on.

With my older two, I adhered to my parents’ example: Provide food, clothing and shelter, lead by example and set some basic rules, but leave it to them to figure out their passions, their friendships and their math homework. That was the prevailing parenting model in my blue-collar neighborhood, where no one joined baseball travel leagues and group sports meant a stick, a street and whatever ball you could wrestle out of a dog’s mouth.

In Decatur, I found a very different family ecosystem, college-educated parents who devoted much time, money and angst into their children’s well-being and development. If a child expressed interest in art, the living room was turned over to paints, easels and canvases. When the child aspired to Van Halen rather than van Gogh, a Fender replaced the easel.

When kids lamented they weren’t challenged in class — which seemed to be every child at one time or another — parents scheduled meetings with teachers, sought gifted testing and found enrichment programs.

I spent the first few years of parenthood playing catch-up to all the parents who somehow knew the secret handshake to get their kids into classes with the best teachers or onto soccer teams with the best coaches. By the time my twins came along 11 years later, I had earned my tiger mom stripes.

Despite criticisms of helicopter parenting, the evidence increasingly suggests kids benefit when parents run interference. In their new book “Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids,” economic professors Matthias Doepke of Northwestern and Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale contend hyper-involved parenting is a rational response in countries with increasing economic inequality, such as the United States and China.

The book examines how economic conditions influence parenting. In countries where social mobility is not assured and where competition exists for top colleges and good jobs, parenting intensifies as anxious moms and dads jockey to best position their kids for success. Parents are less willing to allow their kids to follow their own path and risk floundering and failure when mistakes or missed opportunities can be consequential. In countries with economic inequality, the amount of time parents spend with their kids related to school work rises.

Sociologist Annette Lareau of the University of Pennsylvania also explored the economics of parenting styles in her 2003 book, “Unequal Childhoods,” in which she and a team of graduate students observed families from diverse backgrounds — black, white, middle class, working class — all of whom had children in the third and fourth grades. 

She found more affluent parents practiced “concerted cultivation,” in which children became the center of activity and parents fostered their talents, opinions and skills by enrolling them in organized activities and reasoning with them. She relayed how a child, after a full day of holiday events, still complained to her mother, “I’m bored,” expecting her mother to conjure up some entertainment. As a result, these children gained what Lareau called “an emerging sense of entitlement.”

Lower-income parents used their scarce resources to care for their kids, but expected their children would spontaneously grow and thrive. Lareau termed this style “the accomplishment of natural growth.” The kids didn’t have organized activities but played outside with cousins and watched television, and parents used directives rather than reasoning. They left schools to the kids. There was no sense of entitlement among these working-class and poor children who instead developed an “emerging sense of constraint.”

As an example of the differences, Lareau described a young girl who found a box in a dumpster and asked her working-class mother to help her build a dollhouse. Her mother just replied, “Nah.” In a middle-class home, the mother would drop whatever she was doing to help her daughter, said Lareau.

When Lareau checked in with these children a decade later, many of the working-class and poor kids had dropped out of high school. They had jobs and car payments, and seemed older than their years. Most middle-class children were in college and still benefiting from the buffering their parents did to prevent little snags from escalating into bigger obstacles. Interestingly, the children didn’t see the guardian angel roles that their parents had played in their lives and achievements.

I was kidding a friend’s 28-year-old son about his flourishing tech firm, telling him his mother deserved a cut for all the times she went above and beyond, running his forgotten math homework to school, paying for coding classes on weekends and buying him computers. His response: “Isn’t that just part of a parent’s job description?”

Today, it may well be.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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