We need more helicopter parents

It’s fun to make fun of helicopter parents, but we need more of them, writes Brink Lindsey in The Atlantic.

Today’s hyperventilating “helicopter parents” are comic fish in a barrel. Playing Mozart to their babies in utero and dangling Baby Einstein gewgaws over their bassinets. Obsessing over peanut allergies, turning school science fairs into arms races of one-upmanship, and hiring batteries of private tutors to eke out another 10 points on the SAT.

But better too much parental attention than too little, Lindsey writes.

College-educated parents are spending significantly more time with their children then they did before 1995. Less-educated parents spend more time too, but the “parental attention gap” is growing.

There’s also a class divide in parenting styles, according to sociologist Annette Lareau.

 Among the poor and working-class families she studied, the focus of parenting was on what she calls “the accomplishment of natural growth.” In these families, “parents viewed children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”

College-educated parents have taken on a much more ambitious role – one that Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” “In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children’s talents, opinions, and skills,” Lareau writes. “They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children’s development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills.”

In addition, college-educated parents are much more likely to marry before having children and much less likely to divorce.

As of 2011, 87 percent of children who have a parent with a bachelor’s or higher degree were living with two married parents. The corresponding figures for high school grads and high school dropouts were 53 and 47 percent, respectively.

. . . since the ’70s, divorce rates among the highly educated have fallen significantly; among non-college grads, by contrast, they have stayed high. Specifically, only 16.7 percent of women with at least a college degree experienced a marital dissolution within 10 years of a first marriage between 1990 and 1994 – a 31 percent drop from 20 years earlier. For other women, though, the marriage breakup rate in the latter period was now 35.7 percent – 6 percent higher than 20 years before.

So most children of the college-educated — about a third of the population — grow up in stable, child-centered families with two parents determined to cultivate “the skills they will need to thrive in today’s highly complex knowledge economy.” It’s not really the violin, karate or Kumon classes that give them an edge. It’s Mom and Dad.

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Is this or the previous post (“Study: Parents matter more than schools”) really a surprise? Students from families that are doing well–economically and socially–do better than students from families that aren’t.

    Schools are a major mechanism for the “inter-generational transmission of inequality.”

    Many people, especially in the ed business, think that schools are a ladder up from poverty. Perhaps they were once. Today, they are the opposite.

  2. Parents certainly are the most important factor. And there’s a stronger correlation between home atmosphere (parents demonstrating to their kids that learning matters) and student achievement than parents’ education or income. That being said, when kids don’t have that parental support,K-12 schools are morally obligated to do more, not less. And many of them do.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is easy to say schools should do more. It even happens in a lot of places. However, I am not optimistic about how effective “doing more” will be.

    We have this wonderful fantasy that K-12 schools will somehow turn just about everyone into a pre-college student. And we say that this is an important goal because college is needed to get a good job.

    But very few jobs use much of anything that is specifically learned in college courses. College matters because it cheaply signals to potential employers “intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.” However, this system is very costly to the young people who go through it. It’s not just the money and time. It’s the boredom and feeling of waste and failure that happens to the large number of people who aren’t terribly interested and/or don’t succeed in it.

    Pretty much all of us who comment here were successful in school and liked it. We are a minority. It’s hard for us to imagine a different experience. Besides, all the stuff that we didn’t like about the schooling process is pretty much behind us. But everyday lots of people younger than us are suffering and getting set up for failure.

    I’d like to see two changes: a real commitment to basic literacy and numeracy–which are important to rise out of poverty–and then an end to the paper chase of diplomas that have little relation to what a person actually does in post-school life.

  4. Bostonian says:

    I don’t think having a father in the home is actually that important. Studies have found that the children of widows resemble those of married couples more than they resemble those of unwed mothers. My wife and I have similar goals for our children, and if I died today, I don’t think their progress would be derailed.

    Men and women who get married before having children are more intelligent than those who do not, and the genes they pass on to their children likely explain the superior outcomes compared to those of illegitimate children.

    • IIRC, the data on children of divorce shows far more problems among those kids than those from intact families. I haven’t read about children of widows/widowers, but the deceased parent did not leave the familiy voluntarily, unlike the parent initiating a divorce, so I am not surprised by your comment on that group. It fits with my childhood experiences, when a number of kids in my town had lost fathers in WWII or Korea. However, I would never say that having a father in the home is not that important.

      • I remember this from a conference that I attended ages ago:

        Children who grow up with two married parents have the best outcomes on all measures of well-being, but children who start out with two parents and lose one to death do nearly as well. Next comes children of divorced parents and, far behind, come children of never-married parents. The differences are very significant. On average, stepfathers do not improve child wellbeing significantly, even though they raise family income.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          I read an article recently that explained why the children of widows did better. Apparently, the surviving spouse frequently keeps the memory of the dead spouse alive and will “talk up” their memory – speak with respect and affection about the dead spouse. That gives the kid a positive view of marriage and their dead parent.

  5. cranberry says:

    Every Pilgrim is a Puritan, but not all Puritans are Pilgrims. Since when did “college-educated” or “present in the home” become a synonym for “helicopter parent”?

    By the way, I suspect the 5 hour increase in time spent “with” children can be attributed to the Team Sport Culture. Standing on the sidelines watching your child’s game isn’t Quality Time.

    • Watching games or meets may not be quality time, but the travel time to practices, games, meets and tournaments is very likely to be very high quality. I’ve spent uncounted hours and miles in Mom’s taxi and have found that time to be very valuable. Some was content-based; talking about current issues, practicing math facts, learning state capitals, principal rivers etc, some was discussing what’s happening at school/team, some was talking about future plans and some was discussing specific interests. During tournaments and meets, we also spent time on homework.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “Standing on the sidelines watching your child’s game isn’t Quality Time.”

      Of course not! You have to be yelling at your kid, too 🙂