Stop Pretending That Intensive Parenting Doesn’t Work

It’s expensive and time-consuming. But the data prove that kids benefit.

Photo of a mother and a father helping their daughter climb a rock
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; L. Willinger / Getty

Since having our first kid two years ago, my wife and I have become the type of parents we used to pity: intensive parents. To an extent we didn’t anticipate, we have found ourselves pouring time into securing the best child care we can access, the best school district we can afford, the best health care for weird infections and rashes. We conduct relentless investigations into things we have no desire to think about: Should we get life insurance, and how much? And how does this boring-as-death policy actually work if we both, say, quit our jobs and die on a junket to Mexico? Should we let our kid face forward in his car seat a little early so that he’s more entertained on long drives, or is that actually dangerous? Exactly how far do we have to live from a freeway to avoid the worst hazards of air pollution?

Our kid barely knows how to use a fork. I have a hunch that in the hard-decision department, we’re only getting started.

Even as we’ve done all of this tedious work, I’ve often wondered: Is it really necessary? Because if not, how many hours with loved ones, good meals, good books, and nights of quality sleep have we given up in pursuit of this child-development mirage?

Parents today find themselves caught in a strange limbo. Many of us agree that intensive parenting is warranted. At the same time, a growing chorus claims that intensive parenting doesn’t benefit kids and might even harm them. Which side is right?

As a data scientist and an economist, I’ve spent the past five years writing a book about parenting and child development, and as I dove into the research, I found an answer to this seemingly endless debate. When we focus on the best studies that really separate causation from correlation, pretty much everything that intensive parents worry about does indeed seem to matter.

Data confirm that parents are right to seek out better neighborhoods, early-care environments, and K–12 schools. Kids should be in smaller classrooms and taught by better teachers. Tutoring, college-guidance counseling, and test prep matter significantly, as does actively managing children’s complex health and behavioral problems—including the quality of their sleep, nutrition, and air. Kids do benefit from exposure to extracurricular opportunities in science, sports, and the arts.

Add up the impacts of making all of these things a little better over the full course of childhood, and it becomes clear that they can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in future income. (Income alone is obviously not a measure of human achievement, but it’s so strongly tied to health and happiness that it provides a rough barometer for impacts on overall well-being.) If you want to raise a happy and healthy person, intensive parenting works.

And yet, many smart, sincere people claim that it’s a sham. Why? Some critics believe that family environment—children’s upbringing distinct from their genetic inheritance—has little bearing on their future, citing research on adopted children and twins to prove their point. Many of these studies conclude, for example, that biological twins raised by separate adoptive parents wind up doing similarly well—a finding interpreted to show that parenting differences don’t really matter. Unfortunately, these studies suffer from a problem known as “restricted range.” People who choose to adopt children are a select group; they tend to have some preferences and circumstances in common, and they tend to offer children comparably advantaged home environments. Inferring that parents don’t matter because these children end up doing similarly well is like inferring that height doesn’t matter in basketball because all NBA players are pretty good.

In fact, a balanced interpretation of adoption research suggests that the impacts of family environment are so large that they can account for most outcome gaps between rich and poor kids. One large study that followed 1,650 adoptees into adulthood showed—once we impose suitable adjustments for the restricted-range problem—that more advantaged parents (who tend to follow the intensive-parenting handbook) can increase their children’s lifetime income by more than $1 million. That’s comparable to the difference between a child who earns a high-school diploma and one who earns a college degree.

Critics also argue that the rise of intensive parenting has harmed children overall. Some cite a “creativity crisis” allegedly caused by overstructured, overplanned childhoods. However, subsequent research has shown that this trend is likely an artifact of faulty data analysis and interpretation rather than a real underlying phenomenon. Most of the extreme parenting behaviors decried in these arguments—rescuing children from every micro-problem they face at school, tormenting college administrators with special demands—are probably quite rare. Intensive parenting does not call for an all-consuming pursuit of academic and extracurricular excellence at the expense of play, rest, friendship, and mental health—and indeed, one of the hardest parts of intensive parenting is helping children make the best use of their limited time. Although rates of suicide and self-harm among adolescents have increased in recent years, evidence tying these tragedies to changes in parenting is slim compared with other factors such as rising inequality, the advent of social media, and parental opioid addiction.

Perhaps most telling, I’ve had trouble identifying any critics of intensive parenting who do anything else with their own children. One economist argues that parents have little power to shape their children’s future and yet homeschools both of his children. The founder of the “free-range parenting” movement—often cited as an alternative to intensive parenting—made her own kids  “spend one summer doing math sheets every day after camp, and another summer writing an essay a day.”

These people are surely right that not every little parenting decision matters, and that some kids could benefit from more autonomy—but in practice, they embrace all the core tenets of intensive parenting. I’m not aware of any critics with kids applying the real alternative: the “accomplishment of natural growth” style of parenting documented by the sociologist Annette Lareau, which is more common among working-class and poor families. This parenting style—which tends to be adopted out of necessity or habit rather than through careful deliberation—involves greater emphasis on obedience, minimal extracurricular activities, and deference to whatever support local schools and health systems happen to provide.

Still, even if we accept that intensive parenting works, committing to it every day is a grind. Many parents—even advantaged ones—have the capacity to do only a fraction of the things that might benefit their children. They have to make trade-offs between summer camps or saving for college, between art classes or math tutors, between mental-health counseling for an older child or better day care for a younger child—and, for that matter, between relaxing on Friday night after a tough week or driving a child to basketball practice. These choices are hard to make and can exacerbate parental anxieties about class, privilege, and social mobility. Subconsciously, this can push us toward the conclusion that intensive parenting is bad, and that we should dismiss it.

The simple fact is that we need greater public investment in child development. Just as Medicare makes health-care services more widely available to seniors, we need to make skill-development services—paid leave for parent-child bonding, early education, after-school and summer programs, tutoring, counseling, college preparation, early-career development—more widely available to families.

These services, when we’ve bothered to offer them, have proved better than free: They make kids so much healthier, richer, and more productive that they pay back taxpayers and then some. Our stinginess toward children amounts to a kind of national self-sabotage.

Intensive parenting isn’t going away, because too many parents know it works—and the problem is not its high costs. The problem is that we impose these costs on the wrong people: individuals. This ensures that only the richest, most highly educated parents can manage everything without breaking their lives in half. What we should be doing is making it easier for all children to get the kinds of opportunities enabled by intensive parenting.

To do this, voters must compel policy makers to shift more of the child-development burden from overloaded parents to publicly funded professionals such as teachers, tutors, counselors, coaches, and nurses. These programs wouldn’t take power away from parents, and they wouldn’t “collectivize” parenting. They would simply empower more parents to do what rich parents have been doing all along.