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


It's no coincidence that rising inequality in the home has been occurring at precisely the same time as rising inequality in the workplace. These two kinds of social polarization - one cultural, the other economic - are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Discussions of economic inequality often focus on the top 1 percent of earners versus the other 99 percent. But the more socially significant distinction is the one between the 30 percent and the70 percent - between, that is, the 30 percent of Americans who have college degrees and everybody else.

The average college grad today makes about 70 percent more than the average high school grad - up from around 30 percent back in 1980. According to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, wages for college grads rose 23 percent between 1979 and 2007 after adjusting for inflation, while real wages for workers with advanced degrees climbed by 27 percent. Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted wages for high school grads actually fell 3 percent over the same period, and those for high school dropouts dropped by 17 percent. If you add fringe benefits to wages and make different adjustments for inflation, you can make the numbers look better for everybody, but the disparities will remain.

Why have wages for the college-educated and everybody else been moving in opposite directions? It's a simple story of supply and demand: the demand for highly skilled workers has kept growing as the economy gets ever more advanced and complex, but the supply of those workers has failed to keep up. According to Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the relative supply of college graduates rose at an average rate of only 2 percent a year between 1980 and 2005 - a steep decline from the average rate of 3.8 percent a year that prevailed between 1960 and 1980. And all of the growth that has occurred has been due to women: the college graduation rate for young men is roughly the same as it was in 1980.

Things would surely look very different if the trends in college-educated homes toward greater family stability and "concerted cultivation" had been mirrored in the rest of the country. Consider, for example, a recent study by economists Sheldon Danziger and Patrick Wightman. Looking back at people born between 1956 and 1958, they found that 37 percent of those born to college-educated parents could expect to finish college by age 25, compared to only 8 percent of those whose parents had a high school education or less. Fast-forward to people born between 1979 and 1982, and the share of the kids of college-educated parents who earned a college degree by 25 had risen to 53 percent, while for the kids of high school grads and dropouts the share had slipped to 6 percent.

In other words, families with well-educated parents have been moving in sync with economic trends: They have been increasingly likely to produce new college grads in step with the rising demand for highly skilled workers. For families with less educated parents, however, there has been a total disconnect. And as a result, their kids have been falling behind.


The advantages of having well-educated parents are varied. Smart parents who naturally do well in school pass on their genes. They also tend to make more money, which can buy a safer neighborhood and a higher-quality education. But a less appreciated advantage is that college-educated parents are more likely to dote obsessively - even, yes, comically - on their children. And there is evidence that the very nature of their parenting style is good for grooming productive workers.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling Outliers, many of us are now familiar with the "10,000 hour rule": in almost any field you can think of, you can't perform at the very highest level without logging the requisite hours of diligent, focused practice. The move in well-educated homes toward "concerted cultivation" - or helicopter parenting, if we want to be snarky about its sometimes absurd excesses - can be seen as an effort to inject a lot more deliberate practice into childhood. Practice, in particular, at developing the skills needed to excel in school, and later in the workplace.

Most obviously, the children of well-educated parents receive much more intellectual stimulation in the home than do other kids. For example, child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley estimate that by the time they reach age three, children of professional parents have heard some 45 million words addressed to them - as opposed to only 26 million words for working-class kids, and a mere 13 million words in the case of kids on welfare. By the time kids start school, kids of well-educated parents are much better prepared than their classmates. Consequently, they're much more likely to receive praise and encouragement from their teachers, which means their attitudes about being in school are much more likely to be positive. Even relatively small advantages conferred early in life can thus snowball over time.

The deliberate practice that is going on constantly in well-educated homes extends beyond purely intellectual pursuits. As they march their kids through the weekly gauntlet of organized activities, the practitioners of concerted cultivation are drilling their kids in a host of skills critical to academic and economic success. Skills like managing one's time by making and keeping schedules, getting along with other people from different backgrounds on the basis of common interests, and deferring gratification in order to maximize rewards down the road. All of these, as well as fluency in the three Rs, are vital components of "human capital" - economist-speak for economically valuable skills.

So by all means, keep making fun of helicopter parents. The delusion that drives them off the deep end -- that, with enough exertion and planning, the crooked timber of their little ones can be lathed to perfection - is, after all, risible. But keep in mind that the excesses of concerted cultivation are of little account when compared to the deficits that now afflict so many homes. Those deficits are a major factor behind some of the thorniest problems in American society today, from multi-generational poverty and mediocre and worse schools to stagnant wages for large segments of the workforce. Policymakers tasked with addressing these problems face the daunting challenge of designing bureaucratic substitutes for the hovering, loving harassment supplied by Mom and Dad. A tall order, indeed.

This piece is adapted from the author's new e-book: Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter -- and More Unequal.


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

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