Economics of Parenting…linking inequality with parenting styles

Pikeetymania all over… Inequality is being linked to all kinds of things and this time on parenting styles.

This this post, Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti connect the two things.  They say in societies where equality is high, parents allow children to be more imaginative and be carefree. In societies, where the ineq is high, parents are more demanding and strict:

In developmental psychology, the broad strategies that parents employ in raising their children are known as ‘parenting styles’. Starting with a seminal contribution by Baumrind (1967), a distinction between three main parenting styles has taken hold: Authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. As the name suggests, the authoritarian style is one where parents demand obedience from their children and exercise strict control; this style is often associated with corporal punishment. Permissive parents, in contrast, follow a laissez-faire approach and let children make their own choices. The authoritative style is one where parents attempt to influence their children’s choices, but they do so by reasoning with them and by shaping their values, rather than through command and discipline.

While many parents worry about juvenile risks, we believe that the returns to effort in education and work during adolescence are even more important. A seemingly universal area of disagreement between parents and children is the trade-off between working hard for school and for one’s career versus having fun with friends and other immediate enjoyments. Few parents wish that their kids blew off homework more often in exchange for some instant pleasure. This conflict can be interpreted as a difference in time preference – parents worry more about the long-term consequences of children’s behaviour (such as studying for school) than do the kids themselves. Hence, many parents push their children towards harder work, either through coercion (such as ‘grounding’ children, i.e., not allowing them to spend time with friends) or through sustained indoctrination with a strong work ethic and a striving for success.

The return to pushing children hard consists of the increased likelihood that they will do well later in life. How important this is to parents depends crucially on the degree of economic inequality, and in particular on the return to education. In an economy where education and effort are highly rewarded and where people with little education struggle, parents will be highly motivated to push their children hard.

Thus, we expect economic inequality to be associated with intensive (authoritarian and authoritative) parenting styles.

In contrast, in an economy where there is little inequality and artists and school dropouts earn only slightly less than doctors and engineers, parents can afford a more relaxed attitude, and permissive parenting should be more prevalent.

In series of graphs, they show the relationship to be working!

Why authoritative parenting is rising?

Regarding the recent rise of more intensive parenting in Western countries (‘Tiger Mom’, ‘helicopter parents’, etc.), our theory offers a straightforward explanation. In the 1960s and 1970s, when anti-authoritative, laissez-faire parenting reached the peak of its popularity, economic inequality was also at an all-time low. Given low returns to education, there was little reason for parents to exert major efforts to push their children. The last 30 years, in contrast, have seen ever-rising inequality combined with increasing returns to education. Children who fail to complete their education can no longer look forward to a secure, middle-class life, and consequently parents have redoubled their efforts to ensure their children’s success.

A final question is why among the intensive parenting strategies, modern parents increasingly rely on the subtle indoctrination methods of the authoritative style, rather than the command-and-control approach of an authoritarian parent. The methods of the ‘Tiger Mom’ notwithstanding (which have both authoritarian and authoritative elements), traditional authoritarian parenting with its ample use of corporal punishment is becoming less common in many countries. From the economic perspective, the advantage of the authoritative approach is that the children, once successfully indoctrinated, no longer need to be monitored to do the right thing – they will implement the parent’s preferred choices on their own accord. Hence, authoritative parenting is more attractive than the authoritarian style when monitoring is difficult or impossible. We believe that the authoritarian style is declining because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen. The crucial phase of education is now often the college or post-graduate level rather than elementary or secondary school. Once off to university, children are no longer under the direct control of their parents, and they will succeed only if the appropriate values (such as valuing hard work and academic success) have already been instilled in them.  

Further, this trend will continue to rise:

Given that the spread of higher education is unlikely to reverse, our theory predicts that authoritarian parenting will continue its current decline; a return to the tough methods advocated by the Bible is unlikely. Regarding permissive versus authoritative parenting, the evolution of the return to education is what matters. If the march towards higher inequality continues, the current era will mark the beginning of a sustained trend towards ever pushier parenting. If, on the other hand, today’s inequality trends prove to be an aberration and we return to the less unequal times of the 1970s, future children (and their parents) will be able to enjoy a relaxed childhood once more.

Good stuff to read…

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