I recently spoke with Zilibotti about this pattern and about other society-wide variables that shape parenting style. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: Why do you and your co-author think parenting in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s was so much more laid-back than what came afterward?
Fabrizio Zilibotti: In a nutshell, we think that economic conditions have a lot of influence on the way parents raise their children. So, in the United States, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the number of hours parents spend supervising the activities of their children has increased dramatically. This trend is especially strong in countries where economic inequality has grown the most, and in general that’s where we see more of what’s become known as "helicopter parenting.”
Why is this so? Well, parents want their children to do well in life, to be successful. And in a society that is very unequal—where there are lots of opportunities if one does well and very negative outcomes if one is less successful—parents will be more worried that their children won’t become high achievers in school. But if you go to a country where there is less inequality, parents may be less worried about that, not because they care less about their children, but because the negative outcomes aren’t as bad. There are some other things they care about—maybe to see their children happy and to let them express their individuality. And those things can get sacrificed when there is pressure on them to be high achievers.
Read: ‘Intensive’ parenting is now the norm in America
Pinsker: Does helicopter parenting “work”? If it’s a rational reaction to economic conditions, is it actually giving kids any advantages?
Zilibotti: We have, again, some data on that. There is a lot of variation, but at least on average, it appears so, based on the best of the statistical techniques we can use. We can see that parents’ involvement—in the form of an “intensive” parenting style—tends to be associated with better educational attainment. This is especially strong when you look at post-college education, but it is also true for college attainment.
Pinsker: You argue that another factor that shapes parenting style is how a country’s education system is set up. What incentives does the American system produce, and how do those incentives compare to other countries’?
Zilibotti: The United States has a number of features that are important in shaping the way parents behave. One of them is that there is a lot of differentiation in the quality and prestige of schools and universities. The process of entering or being admitted to university is really competitive, and the preparation for that starts many years earlier.
In parts of Europe, the concern about admissions to schools and universities is much less pronounced. In Finland, for example, there is much less variance in school quality, and the type of incentives that this creates for parents is really different. Parents don’t move around because of a bad school district or a good school district. Finnish kids and parents know that it doesn’t matter much to be at the top of the class, because the difference between universities is, relatively speaking, not very large.