‘Intensive’ Parenting Is Now the Norm in America

Jason Reed / Reuters

Supervised, enriching playtime. Frequent conversations about thoughts and feelings. Patient, well-reasoned explanations of household rules. And extracurriculars. Lots and lots of extracurriculars.

These are the oft-stereotyped hallmarks of a parenting style that has been common in upper-middle-class households for at least a generation. But according to a recent survey, this child-rearing philosophy now has a much broader appeal, one that holds across race and class. The survey, which polled roughly 3,600 parents of children ages 8 to 10 who were demographically and economically representative of the national population, found evidence that hands-on parenting is not just what the well-off practice—it’s what everyone aspires to.

Intensive is the adjective that researchers, including Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who published the survey results late last year, use to describe this model of raising kids. It’s difficult to nail down precisely when it became the standard that so many American parents hold themselves to, but its approach seems built for an era of widening economic inequality, in which the downsides of a child falling behind economically are the largest they’ve been in generations.

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Intensive parenting was first identified as a middle-class phenomenon, most notably by the sociologists Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively. Lareau in particular called the approach “concerted cultivation” and contrasted it with a vision of parenting she labeled “the accomplishment of natural growth,” which entails much less parental involvement and which she found to be more common among working-class and poorer parents. A big lingering question since then has been why these class differences exist: Did poorer families have different notions of what makes for good parenting, or did they simply lack the resources to practice the parenting styles they believed would be better?

What’s useful about Ishizuka’s survey data is they suggest that even if parenting style differs by class, parenting attitudes—what parents think they should do—currently don’t. Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies parenting and has written about it for The Atlantic, explained in an email why she thinks this new study (which she was not involved in) is significant: “If parents from different social class backgrounds are engaging in different parenting practices … it’s not because those parents value different parenting practices,” she wrote. “Instead, there must be some other reason.”

Because intensive parenting requires an abundance of time and money, the reason is likely that some families have more resources than others. “Poverty not only limits parents’ ability to pay for music lessons, for example, but is also a major source of stress that can influence parents’ energy, attention, and patience when interacting with children,” Ishizuka told me.

Academic researchers have traced the origins of intensive parenting to the mid-20th century. But the timing of how it spread is somewhat uncertain: Ishizuka said there unfortunately aren’t historical survey data showing “how pervasive cultural norms of intensive parenting were among parents of different social classes and when they may have diffused.”

A plausible history of the past couple decades of American parenting, though, is that a critical mass of families with sufficient means started engaging in intensive parenting, and then everyone else followed. “That would be consistent with prior research on cultural shifts, which have shown that elite culture gradually becomes mass culture,” Calarco explained.

Intensive parenting is a style of child-rearing fit for an age of inequality, indicative of a stratified past, present, and future. The past: As some social scientists have theorized, the tilt toward intensive parenting originated at least in part from parents’ anxieties about their children competing for education and jobs. (The more extracurriculars, the logic of intensive parenting goes, the better the odds of getting into an excellent college and of securing one of the high-paying jobs that America cordons off for the best-credentialed.) The present: As Ishizuka described, intensive parenting is an ideal that’s currently out of reach for many families. And the future: Practiced as it is by some families but not others, it might replicate—or even widen—inequities in future generations.

Many children surely benefit from being raised like this—concerted cultivation can serve them well later in life, teaching them how to manage their time and assert their individuality. But heavily involved parenting can at the same time stunt kids’ sense of self-reliance, and overcommitted after-school schedules can leave them exhausted. Also, there is some evidence that parents who overdo it increase the risk that their children will grow up to be depressed and less satisfied with life. And on the parents’ side, the intensive ideal can lead parents—particularly mothers—to fear that they aren’t doing enough to give their child the best future possible.

In part because of the strain that intensive child-rearing puts on parents and kids, some parents have started moving away from the practice and toward free-range parenting, a hands-off child-rearing philosophy that recommends against constant monitoring (and that isn’t unlike “the accomplishment of natural growth”).

But as Calarco has pointed out, free-range parenting comes with a double standard: When whiter, more affluent parents practice it, it’s welcomed as a corrective to more overbearing approaches, but when poorer parents and parents of color practice it, it can be viewed as neglectful. Which means free-range parenting might be rooted in inequality, just like the philosophy that it’s a reaction to.