Why Swedes Are Chiller Parents Than Americans

A new book looks at the wide variety of parenting styles around the world.

Ilya Naymushin / Reuters

Fabrizio Zilibotti was born in Italy and met his wife (who’s Spanish) in London. Their daughter was born in Sweden, where she spent some of her childhood before the family moved to the U.K. and then Switzerland.

As he spent time in each of these countries, Zilibotti—who now lives in the U.S., teaching economics at Yale—became intrigued by the variety of parenting philosophies he encountered, from Sweden’s laissez-faire style of child-rearing to the U.K.’s more rule-oriented approach. Parents in every country, he reasoned, loved their children more or less equally, so it seemed a little puzzling that they had such divergent ideas about what was best for their kids.

That puzzle is the impetus for Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, a new book that Zilibotti co-authored with Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University (who himself grew up in West Germany).

Zilibotti and Doepke are both economists, so it makes sense that they focus on the incentives that different societies give parents to raise their kids in a certain way. In particular, Zilibotti and Doepke trot out data point after data point indicating that one very important determinant of parents’ child-raising strategies is the level of inequality in a given society.

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.

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.

Pinsker: In the book, you note how today’s standards around disciplining children are a major break from the past. What did these standards used to be like, and why do you think they changed?

Zilibotti: If you look at the course of history—I would say until the age of the Enlightenment—it was universally accepted that children must be strictly controlled and disciplined, because children don’t know what the right behavior is. There was a lot of debate in the 19th century about new approaches to education and recognizing the individuality of children. These were influential, but they were very much a discussion in the intellectual elite—it took until after World War II to have widespread change in the attitudes that parents had towards children. Helicopter parents are generally not smacking children or doing anything of that sort.

Now, I grant that part of this is maybe what Steven Pinker has discussed as a general rejection of violence. But I also think that it’s very important to consider that in early times, family jobs were usually static, so parents had to teach children more or less how to be like them; farmers would teach their children to be good farmers. More recently, children acquire more education and skills outside of the family, and when this happens, it means that parents cannot really control their children directly—I wouldn’t be able to look over my daughter’s shoulder to see if she’s studying hard enough in the library. So it becomes much more important to motivate children [to do things on their own] than to tell them what they can and can’t do.

Pinsker: Your book suggests that to some degree, parents who are overwhelmed by the pressures they feel in a given society  don’t have any choice but to respond to these larger economic forces. Do you think that parents can opt out of any of the child-rearing strategies that economic forces steer them toward?

Zilibotti: I think it’s hard to opt out individually. It’s hard to preach the virtue of free-range parenting to Americans or convince Swedish parents that they should be more pushy—it’s not going to work, because it’s not the response that works best in those societies, economically.

There are other forms of intervention that might work, but they relate more to policies and institutions. If we reach the consensus that the current competitive system puts a lot of strain on families and we want to improve the quality of family life, improving daycare can be something that changes early opportunities for children. Making schools less unequal, like emphasizing more federal funding and less local school funding, may be another way. Just opting out of the incentives—it’s hard.