The Rug Rat Race

College-educated parents now spending twice as much as time with their children than less-educated parents, according to Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California at San Diego.  But before the chorus of  “Doh” starts, these parents haven’t just re- discovered the joys of Lego, Play-dough and rolling around on the floor because it’s so groovy.   It’s fun with a purpose, as the phrase goes.  Ramey and Ramey found that:

increased scarcity of college slots appears to have induced heightened rivalry among parents, taking the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.  In other words, the rise in childcare time resulted from a ‘rug rat race’ for admission to good colleges.

The study will be presented at the Spring 2010  Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Evidently, if you’ve got to hang out with short people who drool,  it had better pay off.  Are less-educated parents too busy at work or have they discovered a secret to happy family life–letting kids be kids?  I’m told that I didn’t play as a child, and my own efforts as a Play-mobile mommy were limited to saying things in funny voices as my kids tolerated my presence on the rug.  My husband took them on lots of field trips to Pep Boys and bike shops–does that count?


  1. mcQuaidLA says:

    As a contentedly mal-adjusted adult, I’m appalled by all the work that goes into being a kid (or parent) these days. Back when I was a precocious brat, even my overly-involved mom would feed me my Carnation Instant Breakfast (two) and then kick me out of the air-conditioned house into the simmering Mississippi summer heat so I could fish or crab off a nearby pier, explore the woods north of our subdivision (where my friends and I discovered an old graveyard; excellent for smoking cigarettes and perusing men’s “adventure” magazines away from concerned parents) or ride our bikes to the point of exhaustion. We were limited only by our energy and imagination, and no doubt, more than a few of the choices I made could have conceivably ended in disaster, but they didn’t and I still got into a good college.

    Now, it all looks like a race from the moment mom starts crowning in the delivery room to get the kid into Brown. But then, I suppose one of the reasons parents are so paranoid about getting their kids into a top-notch college is because there are no good union jobs left for those who aren’t college material or don’t wish to be.

  2. Cranberry says:

    After glancing at the paper, I have a couple of quick observations. First, the authors link increased investment of time on the part of college-educated parents to more time spent with older children, arranging extracurricular activities, and chauffering them to the same. The theory seems to be, college-educated parents invest more in their older children, in order to give them better odds in competitive college admissions. That may be; however, I don’t see any mention of possible cuts in middle school and high school budgets for extracurricular activities.

    When I compare my schooling to my children’s schooling, what jumps out at me is how easily it is assumed that parents will arrange activities and transportation for their children. In my teenage years, my parents didn’t need to do that, because the school offered sports, clubs, and activities on campus, after school, and also offered a late bus and late late bus. No one worried about kids hanging out for the next activity, either. No one refused to allow students to wait for the next activity, or the bus, due to a fear of being sued. Now, apparently, students who are not involved in an activity must leave the local high school campus after school. Those students who take the late bus must register for it at the beginning of the day, and pay a fee. The activities are no longer free–they’re also supported by fees. Thus, I don’t think that it’s necessarily true that college educated parents are engaging in a “rug rat race.” Rather, I think they’re more likely than working class parents to have the means to provide their children with an experience equivalent to the experience children in the ’70s and ’80s received, for free, from their local school district. Cutting out the late bus and the late late bus, or charging for them, and instituting activity and sports fees carry very large unintended consequences. They harm the high school records of children whose parents won’t, or can’t, step in to pick up the slack.

    Second, I don’t think that academic pressuring does any good with young children. I felt very, er, happy-go-lucky compared to my peers who were using flash cards on their toddlers, and signing their children up for serious coaching in this and that. Some years later now, my children all read exceedingly well, and they are able to get roles in plays and participate in high school sports. Earlier pressure is not more effective pressure. Letting kids do what they want to do, even if it’s hanging out in the back yard, jumping in puddles, is a great approach, and I recommend it. I have seen kids freak out on their parents in the late middle school years. I think that “The Hurried Child” has lessons to impart to today’s crop of parents.

  3. I agree with Cranberry, the authors rely upon a mere two pieces of “evidence” to support their hypothesis that increased college competition is causing an increase in child care by college educated parents. The first is a comparison of child care between the US and Canada and the second is another author’s work on the rise in college entrance competition.

    These two pieces fail to elevate the authors’ suggestion beyond a hypothesis as there are numerous other reasons for the increase in college educated parents raising their children. For one, the number of college graduates has risen sharply over the past 30 years, with advances being made in female graduates. As the number of female graduates increase, so will the number of stay-at-home mothers who are college graduates. At the same time, the stay-at-home father has become more common in dual degree households where the wife happens to make more. Both of these reasons explain the increase in child care time among college educated parents.

    As for the US-Canada comparison on competition for college admissions, there has been less of a push for universal college in Canada than in the US. Since I entered school in the mid-80’s, I have been told that it is the duty of every student to reach and graduate from college. This emphasis has even increased in recent years. Canada, quite wisely, does not delude itself into thinking that it is necessary for everyone to get a college education. Therefore there are less college educated stay-at-home parents in Canada.

    It is sad that this qualifies as a serious paper and will be presented at any conference.

  4. Cranberry says:

    Hi momof4. My husband and I happened to settle not far from where I grew up, so my impressions are based on the same small slice of the Northeast. Certainly, even in my hometown, there were non-school based activities in which older kids participated. Sports such as hockey, figure skating, and horseback riding were not school-based.

    In comparison to my childhood I do agree with the study’s authors that parents are investing far more time, energy, and tactical planning in children’s activities. I also agree that college admissions is the primary motivating factor. Other parents have said to me, “the extracurricular activities will get him into college.”

    I’m not certain that it’s the ONLY reason, though. I think it would be very interesting to compare the academic policies of the high schools to the increase in parental involvement. Many schools in our area have moved to de-track. The SAT was re-centered. I think that rather than decrease stress on high school students, those moves have increased stress. They’re now running around doing all sorts of activities outside of school in the hopes of creating an attractive admissions profile. It’s nuts.

  5. What I find interesting is that people go about entertaining and raising their children by first finding out what the “experts” think. So you have half the parents in the US playing the same games, using the same words, and following the same child-rearing books to the week and month.

    I try to be myself as much as possible with my children. I don’t like board games, so I don’t play them. I like the library, so off we go. It’s tedious raising children to a set of instructions.

  6. Increased scarcity of college spots? Can’t tell it from where I sit, where private liberal arts colleges are living in terror…what’s the yield on admissions offers going to be like??

  7. Cranberry: Not all communities had the schools as the center of activity. My kids hit middle school in the mid 80s and most of their activities, like those of their friends, were not school-based. Some kids used park & rec activities, but the serious levels were all club-run and parents provided all transportation and et ceteras. Although there were school sports, they were secondary (football the probable exception) and there were no activity buses. Band, orchestra and theater were more school-based, I think. That was in the suburbs of a major east-coast city, but I am now in the Midwest and have heard of situations similar to yours in the smaller communities.

  8. I had no idea that there was a lack of college spots! In fact, with the lack of kids being born in this generation, this makes your kids’ chances even better.

  9. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The norm in the affluent neighborhood where I grew up was for moms to chauffeur their kids around from music lessons to sports/dance to Scouts to CCD/other religious ed, etc. And this was the ’80’s (probably around the same time momof4 was doing the same thing).

    My mom went further than most of my friends’ moms as she was big into cultural events like the symphony, plays, art museums, etc. She dragged us to those I think primarily because SHE liked them, and considered our edification a nice fringe benefit. Today I think there is a bigger emphasis (at least in certain social circles) on doing it for the kids’ sake even if the mom doesn’t really care for it herself.

  10. While this is anecdotal, I wonder if upper-middle and middle class parents chose kid-centered activities for leisure time, and everyone else lets the kids come along to adult activities.

  11. Chartermom says:

    Ugh! According to the note at the beginning this study was financed via tax dollars “Valerie Ramey gratefully acknowledges financial support from National Science Foundation grant SES-0617219 through the NBER”. I just skimmed through the paper and as SuperSub points out the authors are basing their theory on two pretty limited pieces of evidence and a few statistical tests. These researchers seemed to have slept throught the class where “correlation is not causation” was taught. They also seem not to have considered that multiple factors might be at work.

    For working moms — the increase the internet explosion and the availability of broadband in most areas has made “work at home” much more available. While this might be considered flexibility (which they discount) I know it has allowed me to not only spend more time with my kids directly, but also to allow them to participate in activities which involve me coordinating and chauffeuring. My husband has similarly taken advantage of flexible options to be a very hands-on Dad. This ability really emerged in the late 90’s and is often not as available to the non-college educated as many non-professional jobs can’t be done remotely as often or as easily.

    For non-working moms (and dads) — rise of home-schooling. The amount of time a home-schooling mom (or dad) needs to spend on her children has got to really pull up the averages. And given the requirements of home-schooling, home-schooling parents (I’m guessing)are more likely to be college educated.

    Other factors — rebound reaction to the first generation of latch-key kids becoming parents themselves, cultural changes, etc

    I don’t know if any of these theories hold up — maybe I should apply for an NSF grant to test them……….

  12. Chartermom: Some days I think that the entire ed world slept through the correlation is not causation class. So far, I’ve heard misleading conclusions about Latin, 8th-grade algebra, # of books in the home, music, art, debate, AP/IB, foreign languages,extracurriculars and parents owning a home. In fact, all of the above serve as proxy variables for identifying the top students, because the top students were pretty much the only ones doing those things (some sports excepted). Now that 8th-grade algebra is mandated for everyone – the new magic bullet – it’s not holding the correlation because it’s often not real algebra because not all kids have the foundational knowledge and skills to do real algebra at that point. Sigh…

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Many educated parents postponed having children and when they do, have fewer. We want to spend time with our kids, because after attaining a certain level of career and material sucess, we want to be around our kids. Maybe a lot of less educated people planned less or not at all, so their kids are more burdensome and less enjoyable.

  14. Elizabeth- I take issue with your implication that those of us who had our kids younger and who have larger families view our children as “burdensome” and don’t like to be around them. If anything, it’s the other way around. We love kids so much that we didn’t want to put off becoming a mom until middle age and we wanted to have a full house 🙂

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Crimson Wife – I made a generalization as to why more educated parents spend more time with their kids. Didn’t mean to disparage all who had their children younger. Since this is what you wanted and this is what you planned, it worked out well. Many, not all, younger people do not plan – hence the number of out of wedlock births to women with a HS education or less, and all of the negatives that go with thst. I think that the whole issue is planning, which is what we both did, just in different ways.