The Real Problem With Helicopter Parents: There Aren't Enough of Them

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Mocking obsessive parents is fun. But their excesses are small compared to the parenting failures in so many homes. This "Parent Gap" is a real force behind America's stark and unyielding income inequality.

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Today's hyperventilating "helicopter parents" are comic fish in a barrel. Playing Mozart to their babies in utero and dangling Baby Einstein gewgaws over their bassinets. Obsessing over peanut allergies, turning school science fairs into arms races of one-upmanship, and hiring batteries of private tutors to eke out another 10 points on the SAT. When we stop giggling, it's only to cluck with disapproval. Katie Roiphe, writing in Slate, says that overparenting "is about too much presence, but it's also about the wrong kind of presence. In fact, it can be reasonably read by children as absence, as not caring about what is really going on with them, as ignoring the specifics of them for some idealized cultural script of how they should be."

Well-educated parents of means these days do have their own distinctive way of messing things up. And so it's entirely appropriate for those of us in this group to mock and admonish ourselves into lightening up a bit. Yet when we extend our gaze beyond the relatively narrow confines of college-educated parents and their college-bound kids, things look very different.

Examining American society as a whole and the role of family life in shaping that society, a good case can be made that the main problem with helicopter parents is that there aren't nearly enough of them.

THE PARENTHOOD DIVIDE

The kind of intensively hands-on parenting that we now like to lampoon and criticize is of relatively recent vintage. In this regard, it's worth noting that the terms "helicopter parent" and "overparenting" only entered general usage in the past decade or so. New words were needed to describe a new phenomenon. We can actually document its emergence statistically: according to husband-and-wife economists Garey and Valerie Ramey, starting in the 1990s parents began spending significantly more time with their kids.

And what really stands out in the Rameys' findings is a clear distinction between college-educated parents and everybody else. Prior to 1995, college-educated moms averaged about 12 hours a week with their kids, compared to about 11 hours for less-educated moms. By 2007, though, the figure for less-educated moms had risen to nearly 16 hours while that for college-educated moms had soared all the way to 21 hours. Similar trends were observed for fathers: The time that college-educated dads spent with their kids rose from 5 to 10 hours, while for less-educated dads the increase was from around 4 hours to around 8 hours.

So while the time parents spend with children living at home has increased across the board, the trend has been especially pronounced among highly-educated households. The parental attention gap is growing.

This is part of a larger parenting shift that breaks down along class lines. Through in-depth observation of family life in select homes the sociologist Annette Lareau has identified clear differences in parenting across the socioeconomic spectrum. Among the poor and working-class families she studied, the focus of parenting was on what she calls "the accomplishment of natural growth." In these families, "parents viewed children's development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support."

College-educated parents have taken on a much more ambitious role - one that Lareau calls "concerted cultivation." "In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children's talents, opinions, and skills," Lareau writes. "They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children's development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills."

The findings of Lareau and the Rameys document the emergence of a growing class divide in American family life. But the fissure is actually much wider than the work of these scholars shows it to be. The parenting gap isn't just about how much time parents spend with their kids. It's also about whether they live together with their kids.

THE RISE OF THE SINGLE-PARENT HOUSEHOLD

Over the course of the past half-century, American society generally has seen a dramatic rise in single-parent families. Children born to unmarried mothers have soared from 10 percent of the total in 1969 to an astonishing 41 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, the share of children living with two married parents has fallen from 77 percent in 1980 to 65 percent in 2011.

The rise in single-parent households is much more pronounced among minority families. In 2008, 29 percent of white, non-Hispanic children were born to single mothers, compared to 53 percent of Hispanic children and 72 percent of black children. In 2011, 75 percent of white, non-Hispanic children were living with two married parents, while the same could be said for 60 percent of Hispanic children and only 33 percent of black children.

These racial cleavages are largely explained by a similar divide along class lines. As of 2011, 87 percent of children who have a parent with a bachelor's or higher degree were living with two married parents. The corresponding figures for high school grads and high school dropouts were 53 and 47 percent, respectively.

A major contributor to the growing class differences in family structure is the emergence in recent decades of a "divorce divide" along educational lines. Divorce rates have traditionally been lower for college-educated couples than for the rest of the population, but marriage breakup rates for everybody soared during the 1960s and '70s. For women whose first marriage occurred between 1970 and 1974, the share whose marriage failed within 10 years stood at 24.3 percent for those with a college degree or better and 33.7 percent for the rest. But since the '70s, divorce rates among the highly educated have fallen significantly; among non-college grads, by contrast, they have stayed high. Specifically, only 16.7 percent of women with at least a college degree experienced a marital dissolution within 10 years of a first marriage between 1990 and 1994 - a 31 percent drop from 20 years earlier. For other women, though, the marriage breakup rate in the latter period was now 35.7 percent - 6 percent higher than 20 years before.

Family life on either side of the class divide has thus been heading in opposite directions over the past few decades. Among the roughly 30 percent of Americans with college degrees, marriages have grown more stable and parents have committed themselves to a more intensive, hands-on, and time-consuming approach to raising children. But for everybody else, a more modest increase in time commitment by parents in intact families has been swamped by a rising tide of family breakdown. Children of the well-educated elite now receive unprecedented parental attention aimed at "concerted cultivation" of the skills they will need to thrive in today's highly complex knowledge economy. Other kids, meanwhile, are left more on their own in the traditional style - except that now the "accomplishment of natural growth" is hampered by all the distractions, disruptions, and stresses of family breakup.

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Brink Lindsey is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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