Over the past few decades, American parents have been pressured into making a costly wager: If they sacrifice their hobbies, interests, and friendships to devote as much time and as many resources as possible to parenting, they might be able to launch their children into a stable adulthood. While this gamble sometimes pays off, parents who give themselves over to this intensive form of child-rearing may find themselves at a loss when their children are grown and don’t need them as much.
Prior generations didn’t need to be as preoccupied with their children’s well-being or future. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s, my brothers and I were as luxuriously removed from our parents’ minds as they were from ours. It was the gilded age of childhood freedom. My brothers and I consumed hours of television and ate staggering amounts of sugar—for breakfast. We vanished each summer morning, biked back for lunch, and then disappeared again ’til dusk. My parents also had a life. My mother played mah-jongg weekly with “the girls” and went out every weekend with my father without calling it “date night.” My dad played squash on weekends at the downtown YMCA and didn’t seem to worry about whether my brothers and I felt neglected.
The amount of time they spent on activities and with people outside the family was common for that era. The sociologist Paul Amato has found that couples in my parents’ generation “had 51 percent more friends, were 39 percent more likely to share friends with their spouse, had 168 percent more organizational memberships, and were 133 percent more likely to share those affiliations with their spouse” than those born in 1960 and after.
My parents were likely more relaxed than the generations that followed them because they could assume that their kids would do better than they did, just as they were doing better than their own parents. “From 1950 to 1970, the yearly income of the median worker more than doubled, and those at the bottom of the earnings distribution saw their earnings increase even more,” writes the Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper in her book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times. In addition, “the number of low-income students attending universities nearly doubled between 1965 and 1971.” There was still poverty in rural areas, and racial discrimination still restricted opportunities for many. However, segregation was slowly decreasing, and income distribution was becoming more equal. Outside agriculture and temporary-work industries, employers typically provided health insurance, and many jobs guaranteed a pension.
But as inflation, economic stagnation, and fears of communism rose in the 1970s, notions of restructuring the economy took hold, including a free market unhindered by government regulation. By the 1980s, businesses and government were well on their way to ending the social contract that benefited Baby Boomers’ parents. The Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker described this transformation as the “great risk shift”—where economic and health risks were “offloaded by government and corporations onto the increasingly fragile balance sheets of workers and their families.”
For example, from 1980 to 2004, “the number of workers covered by a traditional … retirement pension decreased from 60 percent to 11 percent,” Cooper writes in Cut Adrift. Job-based health coverage provides far less protection to U.S. workers and their dependents than it once did. Today, the average middle-class married couple with children in the U.S. works an additional 15 weeks of full-time employment each year compared with couples in 1975.
“The financial and emotional burden on families has grown in ways that were almost unimaginable just a half-century ago,” writes the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg. Parents’ anxiety about financial security and the world that awaits their kids pushed American households into a frenzy of work and parenting, seemingly causing many to jettison friendships and activities in order to create more time to supervise and advance their kids.
The economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti explain that the turn to intensive parenting was, in part, a reaction to rising economic inequality. In their book, Love, Money and Parenting, they argue that in countries with high social inequality, such as the U.S. and China, parents are required to do far more to support and prepare their children, because business and government do so little. This reality stands in contrast to low-social-inequality countries that have more family-friendly policies, such as Germany and Sweden. Looked at another way: If I don’t have to worry about paying for good-quality preschool, high school, or college; if I know that my child will be okay even without a college degree, because there are plenty of decent jobs when they leave home; if I know I won’t be bankrupted by my child’s illness—let alone my own—then it’s easier for me to relax and hang out with my friends.
According to one study, the average number of close relationships that adults had with friends, co-workers, and neighbors decreased by a third from 1985 to 2004. Meanwhile, the number of hours they spent with children skyrocketed. From 1965 to 2011, married fathers nearly tripled their time (from 2.6 hours to 7.2 hours a week) with children, while married mothers increased their time by almost a third (from 10.6 hours to 14.3 hours a week) in the same time period, according to a 2013 report by Pew. In that time, single mothers almost doubled the amount of time spent with their children, from 5.8 hours a week in 1985 to 11.3 hours a week in 2011, while single fathers went from less than one hour a week in 1985 to about eight hours a week in 2011.
Spending more time with children has been a trend over the past half century, not just in the U.S. but in other wealthy Western countries. However, many of those societies have social policies that don’t force parents to create this time by giving up their social lives. Instead “many Scandinavian and Western European countries have obtained shorter standard work weeks through legislation or collective bargaining,” according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution.
Friendships matter. Although countless studies report their value in maintaining physical and emotional well-being, it seems that when American parents feel crunched, their friendships tend to get sacrificed. In many ways, today’s parents seem to hope their children will provide the meaning and support prior generations of parents received from adult friends, hobbies, and organizational memberships. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, nearly three-quarters of parents of school-age children said they hoped to be best friends with their children when they’re grown. This hope is being fulfilled, to some degree. Studies show that parents and their adult children have far more frequent and affectionate contact than they did only four decades before.
In the same way the concept of “soul mate” evolved to capture a romantic ideal, being best friends with your child captures a parental ideal: that all the love and resources a parent pours into a child are paid off by the child’s shared desire for closeness. However, parents’ expectations of extensive intimacy with their children can create problems as well—especially when their kids are just a text away. The desire for parents to respect boundaries is one of the most common complaints I hear from adult children in my therapy practice, where I specialize in intergenerational conflict and estrangement.
Parents who have sacrificed their friendships for their child may find themselves lonely and isolated when the child withdraws, wants more space, or rejects the parents—realities with sometimes grave consequences, because loneliness and social isolation are associated with increased risks of premature death, dementia, heart disease, depression, and suicide. According to the CDC, nearly one-fourth of adults ages 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated today, and more than one-third of adults ages 45 and older report feeling lonely. The historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of The Way We Never Were, explained in an email: “The neglect of parents’ own social networks and other adult relationships can make them too reliant on their kids for support and stimulation, leaving them with fewer outside interests when the kids move out or aren’t as attentive as the parents want them to be.”
Today's parents have withdrawn from friends and organizational memberships for many reasons—the norm of intensive parenting is just one of them. (And it’s worth noting that not everyone has the resources to parent intensively, though it’s become a highly valued strategy across classes.) Policies and practices around work and family life have failed to keep pace with changes in women’s economic roles. More and more, households depend upon the incomes of two earners, leaving limited time for activities beyond work. American parents are working longer and harder than ever with less and less to show for it. Given these harsh realities, it’s not surprising that in a report by the Council on Contemporary Families, the University of Texas at Austin sociologist Jennifer Glass and colleagues found that American parents were ranked least happy among the 22 OECD countries they studied.
Parents are spending more time than ever with their children because our kids matter very much to us and—hopefully—we do to them. “Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be,” write the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor, in On Kindness. “Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness.” Yet relying too much on relationships with children to meet our emotional and social needs can be unfair to the children and detrimental for the parent.
Happiness is a resource best drawn from multiple wells. Many countries keep the reservoirs of their citizens protected with social policies that allow them to relax and spend time not only with children but also with hobbies, communities, and friends.
We would be wise to do the same.