MORE HELICOPTER PARENTS, PLEASE
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.