Trendspotting: Middle-Class Parenting Habits Are Becoming the Norm

10/20/20 07:00AM EDT

newsWire: 10/20/2020

  • Are the child-raising habits of middle-class and working-class parents becoming more similar over time? For decades, the evidence suggested that affluent parents were increasing the amount of time they spend with children more than less affluent parents; recently, however, it seems that working-class parents are also adopting a “pushier,” more hands-on approach. (The Economist)
    • NH: Over the last 15 years, many researchers have warned of a growing class divide among American families. Books like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders have looked critically at the widening gap between the achievement-oriented parenting style of affluent families and the more indulgent style of everybody else. Best-selling books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother--or, at the ghastly end, the Varsity Blues bribery scandal--showcase the extreme lengths that privileged parents will go in trying to get their kids to the front in the “rug rat race."
    • But is it only affluent parents who are pouring more time and resources into their kids? This Economist piece says no. To be sure, families in high socioeconomic brackets may have been responsible for initiating the trend. But now, it seems, the highly involved parenting habits of affluent and the upper-middle-class are now being adopted by working-class parents. 
    • Let’s go through the data. According to many time-use studies, including this one that spans 1965 to 2012, parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds have been spending an increasing amount of time with their children, decade over decade. (See “Lockdown Silver Lining: Closer Mother-Daughter Bonds” and “Not Your Father’s Parenting Schedule.”) But the rise has been steeper among college-educated parents. In 2012, they spent about 30 minutes more with their kids per day than non-college parents. These long-term data series tend to support the idea that class divides have grown wider.
    • An up-close look at families in the 1990s offers more evidence of a large class gap. In 2003, sociologist Annette Lareau published research showing that higher-income parents were much more likely than lower-income parents to engage in “concerted cultivation”: a parenting style that provides kids with lots of guided interaction and scheduled activities outside of school. Lower-income parents were more likely to prefer “natural growth”: a more hands-off approach that allows kids more free time to play with their friends.
    • But the latest research suggests that these class differences may be disappearing.
    • In 2018, Patrick Ishizuka of Cornell University presented parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds with two fictional vignettes and asked them to rank the choices of the parent in the story from “poor” to “excellent.” In one story, a parent encourages their bored child, who’s between the ages of 8 and 10, to play outside (= natural growth). In the other, the parent encourages the child to sign up for extracurriculars like sports and music (= concerted cultivation). 
    • Most respondents at all educational levels--that is, 75% of both college graduates and non-college graduates--rated the concerted cultivation approach as “very good” or “excellent.” In contrast, only 32% of college graduates and 38% of non-college graduates said the same of the natural growth approach.
    • Lareau’s research, which was conducted in the 1990s, examined Boomer parents and some early-wave Xer parents. Ishizuka’s research was conducted in 2015 with parents who had kids living in their household. That would be mostly Xers and some early-wave Millennials. Therefore, from Boomer parents to Xer parents, concerted cultivation has morphed into the ideal parenting style for all socioeconomic groups. At the extreme, yes, these are the Gen-X "attachment moms" of preschoolers who later became “tiger moms” of grade-schoolers. For all that Xers sometimes talk wistfully about "free-range parenting," hot-house cultivation has become the gold standard across income brackets.
    • What explains the universal embrace of intensive parenting? Lower-income parents could be responding to changes in the labor market. More Xer parents now understand what many Boomer parents did not--that a college degree now confers a growing "wage premium" over a high school diploma. The composition of the working class is also different: A growing share are immigrants (and a growing share of these are Asian), who tend to have high aspirations for their children and push them to succeed. They might not have the same resources as more privileged parents, but they’re feeling the same pressure to take action. 
    • The nationwide expansion of day care and other early childhood education programs among low-income families could also be driving changes in parenting behaviors. After children are enrolled in programs like Head Start and ParentChild+, they’re more likely to be read to at home. 
    • The “trickling down” of affluent behaviors isn’t limited to parenting. Since at least the early 19th century, in fact, the spread of many now-prevalent cultural attitudes seems to follow this pattern. Consider, most recently, the liberalization of attitudes towards divorce or the rising public support for same-sex marriage. Survey data show that these too took root first among the educated and the affluent before spreading to working class families.
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