Parents are trying too hard

Mom and Dad are spending more time caring for their kids, writes economist Bryan Caplan in Chronicle of Higher Education.  But is it worth it?

Time-diary studies show fathers and mothers spend more time caring for their kids than they did 40 years ago.

But the benefits of parental attention wear off as children grow up, Caplan argues.  In the long run, nature beats nurture.  And parents who do too much may burn out, which isn’t much fun for children or parents.

One notable study by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute found that while most parents believe their children want more face time, only a tiny minority of children actually do. In contrast, about a third of children wish their parents were less stressed and tired. What kids seem to want from their parents isn’t more time; it’s a better attitude.

In other words: Take it easy, Mom and Dad. Your kids will be fine.

Hmm. I’m not convinced that parents have so little lasting effect on their children. On the other hand, neglectful parents probably aren’t reading the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Via Division of Labor.

About Joanne


  1. When I was a child, my family lived on a low-income neighborhood. I remember when my parents teach me to do my homework until midnight, and I was just seven years old. It was tiresome to me, but way more exaustive to them. Now, I and my sisters are typical middle class members, with university-like degree. Our old neighbors still live in the same neighborhood, in the same conditions as well.

    We have to consider that I’m not American* and we was a poor family, not a middle class family, which I believe is the usual case in US. Anyway, I’d like to just emphatize that the parents can have a good role in the success of their childhood, at least in some very specific situations.

    * In the strict sense, I mean 😉

  2. I have to disagree that the benefits of parental attention wear off as kids get older. My kids are compassionate, hard working individuals, and I am so proud of them. I think the time I spent listening to them and caring for them when they were young was the best thing I ever did.

  3. I am an adoptee who at the age of 35, reunited with his birth parents.

    I have far more in common with my birth parents than my adoptive parents, from SAT scores to taste in movies.

    So, I am a living science experiment, and I must back what Caplan claims. Notice, he’s not saying too much about what makes children and parents HAPPIER in the long run. It’s just that the amount of stressful effort parents take on to try to CHANGE their children is non-productive and probably runs counter to family happiness.

    He quotes Judith Harris and she says you should think of your children more like you think of your spouse. You don’t wake up in the morning and think about how you’re going to make your spouse smarter. Instead, you want to create a way of life with your spouse that allows everyone to grow and be happy. Top down models of trying to change children will be as unsuccessful and frustrating as trying to change your wife. Just enjoy and relax more!


  4. I read it as kids don’t NEED perpetual parent time as they grow older. Which makes sense. Peers become the main “friends” and constant parent attention becomes stifling. That’s not to say, of course, that parental guidance isn’t necessary; but as the article says, What kids seem to want from their parents isn’t more time; it’s a better attitude.

    That “better attitude” probably doesn’t include being a helicopter parent, I’d wager!

  5. After a quick reading of the article, I think he’s arguing that since twins reared separately are very similar in adulthood, environment doesn’t matter. Yet, to extend his argument, if it’s valid, it must apply to everything in a child’s environment. Schools don’t matter, nutrition doesn’t matter, nothing one does will matter. I can’t accept that, but it’s the logical extension of his argument.

    I believe the studies he cites use criteria which are too general. I think it’s easier to measure IQ in children than in adults, as children’s performance can be compared to age-level norms. If the studies had categories of adults, such as, “level of education–completed college, some college, etc.,” that may be too general to catch the difference between a neurosurgeon and a nurse-practitioner.

    I believe that families matter. Nutrition matters. Schooling matters. Also, one’s inborn capacity for learning matters. However, it is all affected by income. A certain level of income is sufficient to provide all the support a child needs to become a productive adult. Below a certain level, it’s very very hard. Of course, the parents’ income is influenced by their birth family’s income and environment.

    It’s impossible to run scientific studies on human families. Thus, all studies of twins reared apart, and adoptive children, rely on the vagaries of fate to separate children from their parents. The children most likely to be adopted are also the children most likely to have suffered from malign prenatal influences: maternal poor health, and maternal use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy. It’s very possible that the adopted children’s adult performance resembles their birth parents’ performance because they have similar prenatal and infant environments.

  6. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Parenting styles matter a great deal. Taking terms from Barbara Coloroso’s book Kids are Worth It, there are brickwalls (authoritarian and punitive), jelly fish (permissive) and parents with backbones (structured but flexible).

    How much time kids want to spend with parents depends on how pleasant parents are to be with. Parents who are respectful of kids are much more likely to have kids who want to stick around.

    In my experience kids who are homeschooled are more likely to have friends of different ages and more likely to socialize with adults, including their parents. The research on the influence of peers was done on schooled children and says more about age segregation in schools than the inherent nature of children.

  7. What I have found is that my kids don’t always want a lot of attention from me, but they do want me near-by. It seems that the don’t really want more attention, they just want me there at those particular moments when they do need the attention.

  8. I would like to get more details about the referenced study about maternal feelings regarding time spent on child care (the one claiming moms like it more than housework but less than watching TV). How old were the kids? Were the moms employed full-time, part-time, or were they homemakers?

    For me personally, the age of the child and my employment status makes a BIG difference in how much I enjoy time spent taking care of my kids.

  9. his point is parents are stressed and parenting more; but where’s the evidence that the stress is because of them doing more parenting? he argued correlation. couldn’t work, money, marriage, or something else be the main stressor? maybe kids want happier parents to be around, not miserable ones. so lighten up on work or make your marriage better or get out of debt. not enjoying childcare is similar–if you did less other stuff, maybe childcare is more fun.

    i sure wish i knew what “controlling for genes” meant though. same with his “twins are as you’d expect”. i have no idea what important ideas are handwaved in those bits.

  10. Maybe it declines in the teenaged years, but rebounds later on?

    I’m finding as an adult that an awful lot of the stuff my parents taught me – and an awful lot of the behaviors they modeled for me (thrift being a big one) are coming in extremely handy.

    And mothers would rather watch tv than spend time with their kids? I realize I’m not a mom so I don’t have perspective on that but that seems kind of sad to me.

  11. That report was too vague to mean anything.

  12. The advances being made in genetics are producing some very un-PC results, and as a result are being kept fairly quiet.

    Why is it we can accept that we breed animals to produce required characteristics and behaviors, but cannot accept that genetics plays a similar role in producing human charcteristics and behaviors?

  13. Parent2: Yet, to extend his argument, if it’s valid, it must apply to everything in a child’s environment. Schools don’t matter, nutrition doesn’t matter, nothing one does will matter. I can’t accept that, but it’s the logical extension of his argument.

    Why must it apply to everything in a child’s environment? Why doesn’t schooling matter, nutrition matter, etc? What’s logical about that? Schooling and nutrition are very different things to parenting styles. In Judith Harris’s book “The Nurture Assumption”, she puts forward the hypothesis that what matters is children’s peer environment, and provides a theoretical background that, as humans are social animals, if a child is raised in a social group which behaves quite differently to their parents’ (eg if their mum came from a culturally-different group), the child is best off adapting to their peers’ culture, as their parents will likely love them anyway. Noticeably, children acquire the accent of their peers, not of their parents’, when the two sets are different. And over the millions of years humanity has been evolving this might happen often enough to encourage a genetic bias towards peers. Now this is just a hypothesis at the moment, not much research has been done into it, and the accent problem is definitely too narrow to say that the peers hypothesis is the right one. But, as there is an alternative hypothesis as to why a child’s peer group might matter while parents’ individual styles mightn’t, apart from their genes, so it’s illogical to conclude that the logical extension of his argument is that they don’t.

    Ditto for nutrition. Food is very different to parenting. Many children have survived the death of both parents, none of them have survived being deprived of food for a long period of time. Furthermore, adults deprived of food also die. There is nothing in logic that requires us to ignore such empirical evidence that nutrition is very different to parenting.

    So luckily, you can accept the results of this work, while not being logically required to accept that schooling, nutrition, etc, matters. Just as you can accept that, say, antibiotics kill bacteria but don’t work against viruses.

    It’s impossible to run scientific studies on human families.

    It is entirely possible to run scientific studies on human families. The way to run a scientific study is to form a hypothesis and go out and look for disconfirming evidence, while also seeking to reduce the chances of bias in their environment. It’s often impossible to run a randomised study on human families, but randomised studies are only a subset of scientific studies.

    It’s very possible that the adopted children’s adult performance resembles their birth parents’ performance because they have similar prenatal and infant environments.

    Of course it is possible. This hypothesis however supports the argument that parenting styles past infancy, within a wide range, don’t matter for a child’s adult outcomes (of course, parenting styles may make children very unhappy in their childhood, and that should be avoided, for the sake of reducing unnecessary suffering alone. Also very bad parenting styles appear very likely to result in permanent damage, eg we know that severe brain injuries acquired by a car or bike accident can cause permanent damage, so it seems exceedingly likely that severe brain injuries acquired by abuse cause such damage). If prenatal and infant environments do drive the relationship between adopted children’s adult performance and birth parents’ adult performance then the conclusion is that parenting styles past infancy don’t matter, within a wide range of parenting styles, and always excluding that group of really terrible abusive or neglectful parents.

    Ricki: I’m finding as an adult that an awful lot of the stuff my parents taught me – and an awful lot of the behaviors they modeled for me (thrift being a big one) are coming in extremely handy.

    Is that because they modelled those behaviours, or is it because you share genes with your parents? Or possibly if you are adopted, by coincidence your birth parents genes are similar to your adoptive parents?

    One of my mum’s cousins was adopted out at birth – we didn’t know she existed. Eventually she tracked us down. Now my family has always had a deep interest in education, 3 of my grandparents got some tertiary education, which was unusual at the time, and my granddad who was hauled out of school at age 14 to work on the family farm read his way through entire libraries. She was adopted by a family without much of one, whose idea of the maximum possible achievement for a girl was to leave school at 15 and get a job in a bank. But she always felt this burning desire to get an education, and managed to talk her adoptive parents into letting her go to teachers’ college because it led directly to a job. So even without a family around modeling education, she still wanted one. Which is bizarre.

    There is also a distinction between being taught specific skills, and what most of those studies measure. I was taught to cook by my mother, and use those skills all the time, but that doesn’t mean that it changed my personality, or raised my ambition, or those sorts of things.

  14. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Tracy W
    It is only recently that children have spent so much time with peers in age segregated groups, largely cut off from the guiding friendships of those who are older and the experience of nurturing friendships with those who are younger. My contact with home schooling families has been eye opening.

  15. Homeschooling Granny – yes, modern schools are fairly recent. A more common childhood environment historically was spending a lot of time with other local children, of mixed ages – be that other children in your hunter-gatherer band, or other children in your village, or other children in your tenement in a big city such as London or New York. I don’t see however how this historical reality alters what I said above – I referred to millions of years, I am well aware that schools big enough to age-segregate their students have not been operating for millions of years.

    In the case of homeschooling families – parents who chose to homeschool plausibly differ in many ways from parents who don’t, some of which may be related to genes. Also, one way to make a homeschooling parent have steam coming out of their ears is to ask them “But what about socialisation?” Homeschooled kids seldom grow up in complete isolation. Parents who homeschool generally ensure that their kids socialise with other kids, allowing for peer effects to influence their children (and even parents living on remote farms often have more than one kid, allowing for sibling relationships). Home-schooled kids may well be different to kids who go to age-segregated schools, but we can’t therefore attribute their differences to parenting behaviours without any further research.

    I should have said earlier that a way that parents can affect their children’s adult selves independently of their genes (and without doing anything horrible like bashing them on the head) is by influencing their child’s choice of peer group. Eg if you want your kids to have a French accent, moving to France and sending them to a French school is pretty sure to do the job. Homeschooling may be a good idea because of the way it changes a child’s peer group, I don’t know of any studies that look precisely at the effect of homeschooled children’s peers on their adult selves though.

  16. I’d also like to add that while we should trust that children’s preferences do matter and have a role, the idea that we take parenting advice from them is absurd. So the notion that we should “spend less time with them” because children didn’t rank wanting to spend more time with their parents as important is really meaningless. Do they also prefer ice cream to brussel sprouts? Should we lay off on feeding them vegetables, too?

  17. Margo/Mom says:


    My “hunter-gatherer” group growing up included the children of a dentist and the son of a doctor. Actually, gender played a larger role than age in who matched up with whom. That is, I played with the girls across the street, even though I was the same age as their older brother. My brother was matched up with the boy up the street, despite their age differences. But I do think that family values and socialization have a role to play also. My kids have always had “peers” outside their grade and age–from a variety of non-school social groups. By the same token, I have worked with kids whose parents launched major rebellions at any grouping other than those that reinforced their classroom friendships in their carefully selected schools (selected by purchase of a house at great price within the attendance zone) and fervently believed that cross age groupings were detrimental for lots of reasons (that I never understood very well).

    So, now the problem is that parents are trying too hard. To quote Rosanne Roseannadanna, “It just goes to show, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.”

  18. But I do think that family values and socialization have a role to play also.

    Well yes, a family’s values influence who their children play with. My example about moving to France to get a French accent was based on that (or, if you’re French, leaving France to lose the accent). I picked that one because the evidence that kids generally adopt their peers’ accents rather than their parents is common knowledge, but less obvious effects are plausible. The parents you talk about may be consciously trying a slightly more subtle approach. The opposing cross-age friendships is odd, I agree.

    Also, it is plausible that the practical skills parents teach their kids about socialising can have a significant effect on how well their kids socialise and thus on who they form a peer group with.

    And I will repeat that it appears very plausible that abusive parents can have a terrible effect on their children’s adult lives.

  19. I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. One of his main points about success was that parenting does matter. Some of the evidence he mentions are the stories of Chris Langen and Lewis Terman’s “Termites”. Gladwell’s focus is on skills taught and opportunities given and not on the amount of time spent with children This seems like more useful information than just saying parents are spending too much time with their children. Exactly what are they spending too much time on?

  20. Exactly what are they spending too much time on?

    From observing the other parents in my social circle, I’d have to say schlepping their kids from one organized activity to the next. Many of my 6 yr old’s little friends are ridiculously overscheduled, with at least one and often multiple lessons, sports practices/games, club meetings, or tutoring every single day.

    Given that nearly all of the moms are employed at least half-time, no wonder they’re stressed out!

  21. CW,

    Hyper-activity seems to be a regular topic of discussion. But it’s not clear from the article that was what the author meant. If it was, why didn’t he just state it explicitly as you did.

  22. deirdremundy says:

    I bet this is a quality v. quantity time thing again.

    For instance, if I’m doing dishes while my kids play in the next room, this survey would consider it “Dishes” not “childcare” — even though my kids are still young enough to need constant adult presence (but not interaction).

    I’m guessing the ‘too much time” parents are the ones who insist on including themselves in every game, trying to make sure every moment is as useful as possible… you know, the ones who see their toddler happily stacking blocks and decide to intrude with a number/color lesson when all the kid wants is some time to quietly stack blocks…..

    With parents like that, is it any wonder the kids just want a break? A chance to did in the dirt without mom sitting there trying to direct their play?

    (Because if Mom was weeding nearby, the time study would read “weeding”, not “playing with child.”)

    Kids like to have their parents nearby– and they like parental interaction… but not of the forced “I will turn this mud puddle into an oppurtunity to expand your mind!” variety……..