Tiger moms and helicopter parents: The economics of parenting style
October 12, 2014 5:10 PM   Subscribe

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. [study here]
posted by forza (27 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
The elephant in the room which the article misses is what happens when the parents are mentally ill. I think this happens a lot more than people like to admit. My parents are considered normal by all their friends and acquaintances but back in the day they gaslighted me and pushed me so hard that my only possible exit was to estrange myself for 17 years. I did not really understand what happened until a couple of years ago after my mother died and people started saying things they never would have said if their words could have gotten back to her. She had a real problem and I was really a victim of it. But that water is so far under the bridge that you can walk the dry streambed now.

It is far too late to go around assigning blame but the reality exists of the might-have-beens. It would be foolish and stupid to pretend those things aren't real. In some alternate universe, a localroger whose parents weren't crazy might be piloting space probes or developing new advanced computers. Or maybe I'd just be miserable. I fell into a comfortable niche despite my parental problems. Is that a blessing or a curse or Fate? I do not know.
posted by localroger at 5:25 PM on October 12, 2014 [35 favorites]


from the study quoted in forza's post: " 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."

Wishful thinking. Inequality "trends" are not that; they are structural, burned-into-policy barriers to equality that are becoming more and more robust. Parents with means are better able to enable their children's education, including the beneficial social networks that accompany privileged education.

I don't support the "Tiger Mom" approach in America, but I can see how something like this would be necessary in a place like China where either you get educated and get connected or you are forever stuck in struggle. Same thing in India and lots of other places.

To play my own Devil's Advocate: As robotics and automation take over more and more human work, and our population expands (to a projected 10-11 billion, by 2050), there is going to be an even more desperate struggle for work and other sustainable resources, we may see the "Tiger Mom" approach embraced by parents as a means to push kids to success, just like it is seen today in China and India (among the educated middle classes).

Americans take a lot for granted; they took the ill-advised self-esteem movement for granted, until we began to notice empathy scores in youth halving over the last 20 years.

Hard work, "grit", stick-to-itiveness, doing something for its own sake; THOSE are the qualities that set people up for success; THOSE are the qualities that are learning and education enablers - and if your parents have cash and a strong social network, your chances are that much better, all other things being equal.

Educational "achievement" is going to become far more skills-based than we ever imagined. What do you REALLY know? Can you take the facts you have learned and synthesize them? Can you apply that synthesis to novel, real-world situations? THAT is learning. It comes from enabling people to learn that "grit" pays off; that results follow from grit, even for its own sake.
posted by Vibrissae at 5:39 PM on October 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


It's an interesting theory, but there seems to be a confounding variable that I am not clear whether or not they controlled for: number of children per family (or per woman, which is probably more easily measured).

In some cases I think the decline in number of children per family -- which in many ways is a very, very good thing -- has led to the "helicopter parent" phenomenon just because there are fewer children across which the same amount of 'parental effort' is spread.

Of course, the number of children per family has been declining for a long time in industrialized countries. But in the way of 1/x curves, the biggest change per unit of x happens when x is small. (In other words, the change in y if y=1/x from x=2 to x=1 is greater than the change from x=5 to x=4.)

It was certainly the case in my family, and it is a pretty common refrain to hear among others, that the first child bore the brunt of the "authoritative" / "hands on" / coercive / traditionalist parenting, while the second got a much more laissez faire (or, arguably, attention-starved, constantly-shadowed, etc.) experience. So absent anything besides declining family size, in a society where there are a lot more single-child families you'd expect the "hands on" parenting style to be much more common, and to be amplified through multiple generations: people who receive that style of parenting are probably more likely to inflict utilize it if they become parents, so it becomes self-amplifying.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:22 PM on October 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


1) We argue that parents, by and large, know about the pros and cons of different parenting strategies, and that their own choice of parenting style is driven by incentives.

I think parents tend to parent their children the way they themselves were raised, unless they make a huge conscious effort to do otherwise. (I am making such an effort, and it does not come naturally at all.)

2) The benefit of intensive parenting (authoritarian or authoritative) is that the children are more likely to engage in the choices that the parents consider appropriate. The return, therefore, depends on the stakes, i.e., the extent to which it matters whether the children make the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choices from the parents’ perspective.

Cite please? I guess "authoritative" embraces some parenting styles that I could see "working" in this way, but I'm not at all convinced that the influence of "authoritarian" parenting - especially involving corporal punishment - lasts beyond the kids moving out of the house (except in cases where the rules which had been enforced by the parents are also vigorously enforced by society as a whole.)

3) a return to the tough methods advocated by the Bible is unlikely.

I think you mean "abusive methods justified by a particular, self-serving interpretation of the Bible."

Interesting ideas, but on the whole I think this gives too much credit for good intentions to abusive parents.
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:10 PM on October 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I have kids I imagine I'll use an "authoritative", but far less authoritarian approach than my parents did. My parents said the same - that they were taking a far less authoritarian approach than their parents. I think in addition to the economic factors mentioned in the article, which no doubt play a role, there's also a more general shift across generations from authoritarian/corporal parenting to less, well, abusive and domineering parenting. I'm not entirely convinced that there's a shift in the other direction - being way harder on your kids than your parents were on you. I'm curious about that dynamic. I also do not think "helicopter parenting" is necessarily a sign of being more authoritarian or even authoritative. When I think of that term, I think of parents trying to provide a safety blanket around their kids and influence their lives even when they go to college, etc. That's not necessarily "authoritative" in the way I understand, which is much more about teaching your kids how to handle their own lives and become autonomous by instilling values in them. In that sense, helicopter parenting is almost the opposite of authoritative. It doesn't fit into authoritarian or permissive necessarily either - it's just its own quirky thing, I guess? Anyway, I'm not convinced that parents are getting far more strict than their own parents were, though if there's research that's been done to support that, I guess I'm wrong.
posted by naju at 7:22 PM on October 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think parents tend to parent their children the way they themselves were raised, unless they make a huge conscious effort to do otherwise. (I am making such an effort, and it does not come naturally at all.)

This is my personal experience, anyway. It's like how people repeat the romantic relationships of their parents--people repeat the parent-child relationships, too. I look at my mom and dad and I see their parents in everything they do. If I ever become a parent I will be consciously working at being different.
posted by schroedinger at 8:18 PM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


The popularity of the authoritarian style is declining [Agreed] because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen [Um, what?]. "The rising inequality implies higher returns to education."

So, talking about children of wealthy parents right?
posted by vapidave at 8:26 PM on October 12, 2014


So, talking about children of wealthy parents right?

I think we're talking more specifically about children of precariously wealthy parents. Parents with a sufficient legacy to protect their children against the vagaries of the marketplace don't fret like this, and parents of the working class don't have the energy to helicopter at the end of a working day.

This is an affliction of the increasingly insecure bourgeoisie.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:37 PM on October 12, 2014 [9 favorites]


Metafilter: this is an affliction of the increasingly insecure [petit] bourgeoisie
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:46 PM on October 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


No, its not. The article mainly compares data from World Value Survey against that of the Gini index--this is aggregated data, across all economic levels in any given locale. So whatever is happening is to be understood as a general phenomenon, not restricted to any particular socioeconomic class. And that's the interesting implication, the generality of it.
posted by polymodus at 9:44 PM on October 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


After commenting WRT the second clause which I disagree with
"The popularity of the authoritarian style is declining because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen. The rising inequality implies higher returns to education. This calls for pushier parenting styles, such as the authoritative one. A decline in inequality is likely to prompt a more relaxed parenting."
I made an honest attempt at understanding the above but the more I read the less certain I become. I have no idea which planet the author is from.
posted by vapidave at 10:55 PM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


polymodus is correct, this is country-level data.

It's very interesting to see the cross-country correlations between inequality and various parenting values -- more equal countries place more emphasis on independence and imagination as opposed to hard work -- but the textual analysis is highly unconvincing to me.
posted by leopard at 11:26 PM on October 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some of the Tiger Mom stuff - like the classical-music-child-abuse we see a lot of in China - is quite a rational choice, since it confers higher social status on the family overall (which is very difficult to attain otherwise) in exchange for relatively little (it's quite easy to become an impressive pianist if you do it for 2 hours a day as a kid).
posted by colie at 12:46 AM on October 13, 2014


It might be country-level data, but it's being interpreted through the lens of a very narrow set of typologies seemingly drawn from pages of the New York Times magazine. It doesn't, for instance, seem to distinguish between "permissiveness" and neglect, or "authoritarian" parenting and abuse, or talk at all about "uninvolved" parenting. More seriously, it seems to reflect the ideologies and anxieties of the professional upper middle-classes, while appearing to generalize about everyone. It doesn't seem to recognize that harsh discipline and authoritarian parenting styles might not always be linked to parents' desire for their children to achieve at school. They could, instead, simply be a response to the stress and powerlessness of poverty—a desire on the part of marginalized parents to control the one thing in their lives they have any sort of authority over. Or, they could simply be family or cultural tradition, or a result of mental health problems, or any number of other things that aren't about "pushing children hard." Similarly, "permissive" parenting is not necessarily a response to low social inequality. This study, for instance, finds that permissive parenting certainly does negatively affect educational achievement, but that it's not a function of low social inequality. Instead, it tends to be a symptom of unstable or fluid family structures: it's much higher in single-parent or step-parent families, for instance.

This study seems fundamentally wrong-headed in assuming that any of the above is (necessarily) about maximizing the economic returns of children's education. Not all parents place a value on their children's educational achievement, even (especially) in highly unequal societies. If you never got any qualifications yourself, and none of your siblings did either, and no-one on your estate even went to college, let alone university, why would you see those educational pathways as realistically attainable (or even desirable) for your own children? Especially when the local schools are under-resourced and full of demoralized teachers and students whose parents share similarly jaundiced views of education to your own. And you have so little coming in each month anyway that your own material needs probably aren't being met either. According to this report,
The Department of Health [in 2003] estimated that four million out of 11 million children in England were failing to meet their developmental goals due to stress in the family caused by mental illness, domestic violence, or the presence of drug and alcohol abuse, or by social and material conditions causing stress and chaos
All of these things obviously have a huge effect on parenting styles and children's achievement at school. Parents in these conditions aren't exactly in a position to do a cost-benefit analysis in their heads and determine their parenting styles accordingly: Hmmm. Yes. The GINI co-efficient in my nation state is increasing. I had better place some boundaries on my children's behaviour so as to increase their chances of achieving A–C* grades in their GCSEs. No, it's probably late and you've had disrupted sleep for months and your 2 year old is squalling and the others won't stay in bed and who knows where your boyfriend is tonight and you know, why not yell at the kids? It seemed to work last night.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:33 AM on October 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


Right - helicopter parents care about their children's education but are not necessarily punitive about it. In fact, the common definition of helicopter parenting has to do with attempts to push obstacles out of kids' paths, not attempts to push kids over the obstacles.

Furthermore, not all parents who follow an authoritarian style actually care about their kids educations. E.g. religious homeschoolers following the "Bibical" advice of Michael Pearl will spank their children for any failure to obey instantly and cheerfully, but this same community also has a problem with educational neglect. Girls especially are often parented in this authoritarian way, and yet actively discouraged from getting a real education, lest it tempt them away from their "natural role" as a stay at home wife and mother.

Also, I have problems with the whole "authoritarian/authoritative/permissive" scheme to begin with, based on the writing of Alfie Kohn: "By the same token, Baumrind seemed to blur the differences between "permissive" parents who were really just confused and those who were deliberately democratic. There were no problems with the children of the latter parents, suggesting, in the words of another psychologist, that "a close look at Baumrind's actual data may reveal significant support for child-centered parenting" (Crain 2003) even though Baumrind has created a very different impression because she personally opposes that style." These guys are also guilty of that blurring.

I agree with the comment above to the effect that the data is interesting, but the textual analysis is terrible. It seems like these authors are maybe working through their own mixed feelings about the "tiger parent" style (inclined to use it on their own kids because they perceive it as effective, but recalling how much they hated it as kids?), and are kind of lumping together all other parenting styles as "not tiger parent" and then pretending those map neatly to some "authoritarian" and "permissive" axis.

But parents can be coercive for a lot of different reasons besides caring about their kids' education. The points about stress and exhaustion are very good ones. Mental illness, yes. And again, how they were raised. "Moral" goals rather than educational ones. Societal pressure.

All of these, but especially stress and exhaustion, could help explain the correlations in the data. The countries with the greatest inequality might also have the greatest number of tired parents who just don't have the patience to deal with children in a non-coercive way.
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:26 AM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


One thing I'd like to point out: when I was in graduate school for Educational Administration, I was taught that people do not reliably report their parenting styles and that any and all conclusions from self-reporting is going to be inaccurate.

The article is badly written, too.
posted by kinetic at 6:05 AM on October 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


One thing I'd like to point out: when I was in graduate school for Educational Administration, I was taught that people do not reliably report their parenting styles and that any and all conclusions from self-reporting is going to be inaccurate.

The data is not individual-level data, but aggregate-level data about attitudes about parenting at a national level. Unless there are consistent, systematic errors in how parents report their parenting styles (e.g., parents report themselves as more/less permissive than they really are), you have not made any criticism that undermines the national-level patterns.
posted by jonp72 at 7:02 AM on October 13, 2014


It's an interesting theory, but there seems to be a confounding variable that I am not clear whether or not they controlled for: number of children per family (or per woman, which is probably more easily measured).

The article only has scatterplots. They are not controlling for any confounding variables. At most, the article is establishing a pattern (which I think they do quite well), but they have not established a causal relationship and they have not accounted for all relevant omitted variables.
posted by jonp72 at 7:04 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Unless there are consistent, systematic errors in how parents report their parenting styles (e.g., parents report themselves as more/less permissive than they really are), you have not made any criticism that undermines the national-level patterns.

My understanding is that is exactly what parents do and any data that relies upon self-reporting in regards to parenting is flawed.

The study notes, "Here, emphasising the values of ‘imagination’ and ‘independence’ in rearing children would correspond to a more permissive parenting style, whereas authoritarian and authoritative parents would be more likely to insist on the importance of ‘working hard’. "

I absolutely, 100% disagree with this correlation. It's making massive leaps of logic. People may say they value imagination. That has little to do with what type of parent they are.
posted by kinetic at 7:34 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that is exactly what parents do and any data that relies upon self-reporting in regards to parenting is flawed.

Exactly what are they doing? Are parents systematically reporting that they are more permissive than they are or are they reporting that they are more authoritarian/authoritative than they are? The bias has to be consistent in one direction in order for it to affect the overall pattern.
posted by jonp72 at 9:22 AM on October 13, 2014


I don't support the "Tiger Mom" approach in America, but I can see how something like this would be necessary in a place like China where either you get educated and get connected or you are forever stuck in struggle. Same thing in India and lots of other places.

Argh argh argh nooooo! I grew up in such a system (though my parents were more helicopters than tigers; I was a frustrated self-inflicted tiger type in a city with no opportunities for anything) and it is horrendous. The kids stop being human beings and end up being automatons. Mental health issues (particularly panic disorder and depression) was rife at my school because of all the expectations to be The Best At Everything, but nobody would address it - it was considered a personal failing. When I ran my alternative education blog I heard from so many young Malaysians about how they were suicidal because they couldn't keep up and nobody cared about them.
posted by divabat at 9:56 AM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Are parents systematically reporting that they are more permissive than they are or are they reporting that they are more authoritarian/authoritative than they are?

My understanding is that parents do not self-report accurately in either direction, and that some will say they are more permissive than they actually are. Others will report being more authoritarian when they are more permissive.

The bias has to be consistent in one direction in order for it to affect the overall pattern.

I'm not following you. Parents generally are not accurate self-reporters in regard to their actual parenting style, full stop. They report they are the type of parent they want to be or want to be perceived as, not the type of parent they are.

Hey, I could be wrong. This is based on information from graduate school, to never fully take on board 100% how parents report their parenting style.
posted by kinetic at 10:11 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that parents do not self-report accurately in either direction, and that some will say they are more permissive than they actually are. Others will report being more authoritarian when they are more permissive.

Then, this is not a valid complaint against the survey questions, because you do not reveal any systematic patterns to the errors. What you're saying is that error in self-reporting is relatively unpatterned or random, which means that it can be modeled effectively with standard margins of error that you'd do with any survey. The standard margins of error don't work unless the error is systematically biased in one direction, but you yourself said that errors don't work that way.

Yes, individual parents are in error when it comes to self-reporting their parenting style, but in the aggregate over large random samples (where many people self-report correctly, some falsely say they're permissive, some falsely say they're authoritative or authoritarian), the overall percentage of permissive vs. authoritative vs. authoritarian parents comes close to the "real" value you would get if you did a census of all parents.
posted by jonp72 at 11:28 AM on October 13, 2014


If parents want to be perceived as more authoritarian in countries where this is what the culture approves of, and as less authoritarian in cultures which approve of that, then at the very least the self reported data would tend to exaggerate the differences between cultures.

And with fluctuating and poorly-quantified sub-cultures within each culture, this tendency would certainly represent a big noise term.

(I really would like to see these things plotted as a function of number of children per family, too. That didn't leap to my mind originally, but on reflection it seems like it should be a much stronger correlation than economic inequality.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:05 PM on October 13, 2014


Yes, individual parents are in error when it comes to self-reporting their parenting style, but in the aggregate over large random samples (where many people self-report correctly, some falsely say they're permissive, some falsely say they're authoritative or authoritarian), the overall percentage of permissive vs. authoritative vs. authoritarian parents comes close to the "real" value you would get if you did a census of all parents.

Really? If people culturally mis-report, ie, report in the way they think they "should" be rather than the way they actually are, then you're not getting people balancing out to the norm, but you're getting something that reflects what the culture wants to believe but not what people actually do.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:26 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well if the self-reporting is invalid, then just turn the plots up-side down and that will give the correct result. It's either one or the other.
posted by polymodus at 7:29 PM on October 13, 2014


The elephant in the room which the article misses is what happens when the parents are mentally ill. I think this happens a lot more than people like to admit.

Basically parenthood is the ultimate cover for narcissists, and a culture that encourages authoritarian parenting styles makes a malicious, narcissistic parent look like a "good" parent to outside observers.

In an environment where opportunities are scarce and the path the success narrow, obviously parents are going to want to maintain a lot of supervision over their children to guide them into the few available "right" choices and make sure they succeed in them, because the consequences of failing to do so are so severe. But parents who want to do this for the good of the children can be hard to distinguish from parents who are doing so to fulfill their own narcissistic fantasies, so the latter type of parent can get away with their behavior towards their children almost indefinitely and thrive within a culture where such parenting doesn't attract any suspicion.
posted by deanc at 5:34 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


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