78. Helicopter Parenting

Over time and across locations, increased income inequality raises the stakes of pursuing a college degree, resulting in increased parental intervention in their child’s education. In this episode, Dr. Matthias Doepke and Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti, the authors of Love, Money and Parenting join us to explore the implications of these evolving parenting styles for our educational system.

Matthias is a professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Fabrizio is the Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Matthias Doepke –  Professor of Economics at Northwestern University
  • Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti– Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University.
  • Doepke, M., & Zilibotti, F. (2019). Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids. Princeton University Press.
  • World Values Survey – A global  survey of society values and norms.
  • James Heckman – Nobel Memorial Prize winning Economist at the University of Chicago
    • Elango, S., García, J. L., Heckman, J. J., & Hojman, A. (2015). Early childhood education. In Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, Volume 2 (pp. 235-297). University of Chicago Press.
    • Heckman, J. J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor economics, 24(3), 411-482.
    • Doyle, O., Harmon, C. P., Heckman, J. J., & Tremblay, R. E. (2009). Investing in early human development: timing and economic efficiency. Economics & Human Biology, 7(1), 1-6.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2011). The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, 35(1), 31.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2012). Invest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy. The Heckman Equation, 7, 1-2.
    • Heckman, J., Grunewald, R., & Reynolds, A. (2006). The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education. Zero to Three, 26(6), 10-17.
    • García, J. L., Heckman, J. J., Leaf, D. E., & Prados, M. J. (2016). The life-cycle benefits of an influential early childhood program (No. w22993). National Bureau of Economic Research.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312(5782), 1900-1902.
    • Doyle, O., Harmon, C., Heckman, J. J., Logue, C., & Moon, S. (2013). Measuring investment in human capital formation: An experimental analysis of early life outcomes (No. w19316). National Bureau of Economic Research.

John: Over time and across locations, increased income inequality raises the stakes of pursuing a college degree, resulting in increased parental intervention in their child’s education. In this episode, we explore the implications of these evolving parenting styles for our educational system.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Dr. Matthias Doepke and Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti, the authors of Love, Money and Parenting. Matthias is a professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Fabrizio is the Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Matthias: Thank you.

Fabrizio: Thank you for having us.

John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Our teas today are…are either of you drinking tea?

Matthias: Not right now.

Fabrizio: Not really. No.


Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon.

Fabrizio: Very good.

John: And I’m drinking Cranberry Blood Orange, it’s a black tea.

We’ve invited you here to discuss Love, Money, and Parenting. In this book you use economics to explain differences across countries and across time in how we raise our children. How did this book come about?

Fabrizio: Well, this book comes from our research. For many years, we have been interested in understanding what’s going on inside the family’s interaction in society, the cultural processes as determinants of economic development. But this is also a book that comes from our personal experience as parents. We have been moving around many countries. Our professions, for instance, led me first to London where I took my PhD. Then from there I was here in Spain. I moved to Sweden, I stayed for eight years, back to the UK in between, and then in Switzerland. My daughter was actually born in Sweden and has lived herself in many countries and eventually I have moved to the United States while my daughter stay in Switzerland. So, both as a parent and as a person, I have been in contact with many parenting cultures.

John: And Matthias?

Matthias: From my perspective also, it was a large part of the motivation was the contrast between my own childhood and what it was like as a parent. I grew up in the 1970s in a very relaxed time for parenting where we had a few hours of school, we would go to lunch, and then the afternoon and evenings you could do pretty much whatever we wanted. It’s a very freedom-oriented, independent childhood, which I greatly enjoyed. And so I expected that my own parenting many years later will be very similar to that, the truth ended up to be completely different. So we are now much more involved parents than my own parents had been. And so a lot of the motivation from the personal side comes from reflecting what the reasons why the parenting we do now—in the society we live in today—turned out to be so different from what we were used to as children.

Fabrizio: If I can add something to that—Matthias has emphasized the contrast between our own childhood and our own parenting—there is also a lot of contrast between parenting culture in different countries and every time I’ve moved…a big culture shock. We live in a world that, especially in moving around in industrialized countries, you would expect the difference not to be so large and yet when my daughter was born in Sweden, I was shocked by the way children and parents interact in Sweden, how generally relaxed liberal Swedish parents are. Then I moved to Switzerland. The culture there is somewhat more formal. Children have to respect some stricter rules and the school is also like that but then when I moved back to the UK with my daughter for some time and then later I moved to the US, I realized that the pressure on children is much stronger in these countries than in Sweden or in Switzerland, where I lived.

Rebecca: As you had children as you were moving into these different spaces, did you find that your parenting style shifted as you shifted cultures?

Fabrizio: Yeah, to some extent it has. I mean, it’s hard not to adopt somehow because to some extent, the way other parents behave and expect you to behave affects you as a parent. At the same time, of course, I was bringing with me my own cultural way of thinking so sometimes that led to some little cultural clash. I remember when I decided that it was a good idea for my daughter to start school at six, which is unusually early for Sweden where kids start at seven. I had some discussion with the teachers and the offices, because they weren’t so sure this would be a good idea. I guess part of the reason why somehow I compromised with the local culture and I also kept my own perspective is because I’ve never been sure in which country I would eventually live and my daughter would eventually live. So I kept behaving perhaps more like an international parent than as a parent that lives and grow children in a particular place. And somehow what we argued in the book is that people—we as parents—adjust the way we do parenting to the type of society we expect our children to live in. So I was in Sweden, but I was never thinking perhaps I would stay for good there,

Matthias: And so moving on just from school, another example of the ways in which parenting has got more intensive is that now there’s a lot more supervision for children. In the United States, it’s now rare to see children just walk on their own to school. And in my own parenting, we really do adjust to this when we move back and forth between the U.S. and Europe. So when I’m in at home in Evanston, we don’t really let our kids go out on their own to the playground or to go to friends. And to some extent that’s a reaction to the environment, because nobody else is doing it. If I were to send my kids to the street, and we’re the only ones there, there’s not much for them to do. And because nobody else is doing it—and because I think by law, you’re not supposed to leave kids alone at all until age 14—it would be maybe even risky to do that. Maybe the police would pick them up if they’re called by somebody. But then maybe go to my parents house in Germany in the summer, it’s a different culture. There’s lots of kids on the streets and so we just tell the eight-year-old, “Just go out and do whatever you want and just come back when you’re done playing with your friends,” and so there’s also this quite direct feedback from what other parents do, to what other kids do, to what your own constraints are. That’s one of the examples of how the environment affects what parents do. But of course, we think that this economic dimension—which affects education first and foremost—is the most important one.

John: In terms of economics, you use economic analysis throughout the book, or at least a general economic approach to analyzing these issues. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you assume motivates parents in terms of their incentives and also the constraints that are faced? You’ve already mentioned the constraints a little bit here.

Fabrizio: Yeah, as economists we tend to view choice as the result of there being some objectives and some constraints. So we think that parenting also obeys this general law. When people think of economics, they tend to think of decision involving financial aspects. But actually, this is not what we think is the most salient aspect of parenting decisions. So when it comes to objectives in particular, we think that the parents love their children and they want them to be happy human beings—as happy and successful as possible in the type of society where they live. So, we don’t think that only economic factors matter, but we do think that economic factors to some extent influence choice, and more so in societies where economic inequality is more pronounced. So if you’re out, for instance, in a society where where you study, how successful you are in education matters, but not tremendously so—which could be a description of the time in which we were born—well then parents would tend to be more relaxed and maybe emphasize more having interaction with other children, relaxed socialization, playing soccer, and coming home dirty as I was doing when I was a child. When instead that economic dimension becomes more salient, then we see the parents become more worried about it because something that the children do when they are young may have important effects when they grow up. So if society is very unequal and where you end up is largely a function of success you have in an educational career, then they become more obsessed. Now constraints are also very important. Some constraints are of course of financial nature so if schools are expensive, parents have to figure out if they can afford it or if they have to save or if they have to borrow in order to be able to send their children to school. But there’s also other constraints. Maybe some type of cognitive constraints so parents themselves having an education may imply that they are better at handling some situations, they have more social skills to which they can influence their children’s way of thinking, and the entire structure of the family matters. So if there is only one person in the family that works, there is a shortage of time to spend with children. If there is good institutional support like I had in Sweden, in the form of high-quality daycare, that makes it easier somehow for a family to handle, especially for families that don’t receive help from outside or from families where there is only one person earning or just one person in the family like a single-parent situation. This is all the set of constraints. And the set of objectives is love and concern for the children. How much weight is put on economic consideration largely depends on the environment where a family growsl children.

Rebecca: In your book, you talk about three different parenting styles. Can you talk a little bit about each of those styles and what kind of environments they tend to evolve in?

Matthias: So the three parenting styles we discuss, these styles have come from developmental psychology…so some archetypes that been discovered in a different field that we examine from the economic perspective. And so the three styles are the permissive parenting style where you give kids a little freedom, there’s the authoritarian parenting style where you prescribe particular choices and expect obedience from the children, and there’s the authoritative style, where you also try to influence the kids in a certain direction, but with a different method…just more based on persuasion and arguments as opposed to just expecting obedience. And so the first decision here is the one between permissive parenting where you give freedom to the kids and the two other styles which are more interventionist. And we argue that to understand why you would intervene in the first place, that there has to be some kind of disagreement. There has to be some initial disagreement about what the kids should do between the parent and the child. And of course, every parent knows that there’s tons of different areas of disagreement from using the iPad, doing the dishes, and lots of other things. But what we argue in the book is that perhaps the most important one is one that has to do with patience and valuing the future versus the present. So I think most parents would wish on the margin that their kids would think a little bit more about long-run consequences about the value of starting to know the value of not getting into trouble, whereas the kids on the margin perhaps think a bit more about enjoying the present, just having fun right now. So there’s this tension between “should I spend time investing in the future—preparing myself?”—or just enjoy this moment? And we think this tension is really there for most parents, for most children, most of the time. But what really varies is the extent to which, from the parents’ perspective, preparing for the future really is important. How high the stakes are in this decision between being more interventionist and being more relaxed. This is where economic inequality comes in because if you think—for example—of this whole dimension of, say, working hard for school, if inequality is relatively low and your future standing in society does not depend hugely on being the very best student in math in your class, well then the parents can afford to relax a little bit more. Of course there’s an upside to that too. It’s always a trade off because being interventionist might have some long-run benefits. There’s also costs, partly in terms of being less relaxed and maybe a little less fun right now, but there might also be other costs such as independence, being able to be free, also giving more room for kids to discover their own passions and really finding out what they’re excited about. So there’s this tension between intervening to prepare the kids for the future and letting go and inequality drives that basic choice. So this kind of tells us why permissive or why interventionists, and then other trade offs determine in which particular way you may want to intervene.

John: So for people who grew up in the 50s and 60s when income inequality was lower in most advanced economies, there was less pressure on kids to be successful and so forth, so parents generally adopted a less interventionist approach. And you also mentioned the same sort of thing across countries now when you compare, for example, Sweden and Switzerland.

Fabrizio: Right.

Matthias: That’s right.

Fabrizio: The level of economic inequality, but also the level of government-mandated redistribution is highly correlated with the adoption of different parenting styles. If we put a country on a line where we measure them by an increasing extent of inequality, we would have at the bottom of this line Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and also other central European countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Switzerland would be pretty much there in the in the medium to low inequality. And on the opposite extreme, we would have countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, and even more so, China, where the extent of the income inequality is high and in the case of the U.S., also the extent of our distribution is more limited. Now, when we measure—and we do this by looking at various data and various service—we try to classify parents according to their parenting style. The regularity that we find is that in countries with low inequality, parents tend to be systematically more permissive, and in countries with high inequality, parents tend to be systematically more authoritative to some extent also more authoritarian. So this is the type of pattern that we emphasize across countries and when we look somehow into this black box of the various archetypes and we see what values parents emphasize. Well, for instance, the World Values Survey is a data set that is based on a questionnaire that are posed to parents and parents are asked what values they regard as important in child rearing, and they can select out of a list of ten up to five of them. Well, the most preferred values for Scandinavian parents are independence and imagination. When you go to the United States, hard work is a much more common answer and when you go to China, as many as 90% of people think that hard work is a cardinal value in child rearing. And it’s not only Scandinavia versus U.S. and China, it looks like it’s true across the entire spectrum of countries. A bunch of countries that are in the in the middle in terms of inequality would be Italy, France, Spain, Canada, would also be in the middle of this scale. We were quite surprised because as economists when we look at differences across countries, these patterns are there when you look at some variety of factors, but they are rarely so strong as we have found in this case. Another thing that I want to add is that it’s not only true when you compare the country with another country in the same year. Because this survey has been repeated over time, we can also see how the attitudes of people—and of parents in particular—change over time as a function of the level of income inequality. And what you find is extremely interesting: that the speed at which different trends develop depends on the change in income inequality. So if a country starts from a given level of inequality and inequality grows very fast, then we see that the share of parents who are permissive actually declines faster than another country where the process of increase of income inequality has been slower. I emphasize the aspect of growing income inequality because almost in any country in the world in the period you look at, there has been increasing income inequality, but the speed of this change has been different across countries. So in the United States, the change has been much faster than say in the Netherlands or in Sweden. One could suspect that, “Well, Scandinavians are different from Americans in many other aspects and that may be why the society is organized around different principles,” but when you look at the changes within each country, it’s very hard to make this objection because cultural traits—the way more broadly we think about them—they don’t change that fast. So we think that economic change really must be really an important factor. Of course, we don’t argue that it is the only factor but we think is an important factor in the transformation of the way people do parenting.

John: When you build this case, it seems so obvious, and I had never thought of this before. And I first saw an article about your book, and I read your book and some of your papers, and you make a really compelling case for this in the book and you provide a lot of data on this and I’m really impressed. Your book provides a really nice explanation of the rise of both tiger moms and helicopter parents and I think that’s something that a lot of faculty have seen in their students. What are the implications of having this changing mix of students in terms of teaching?…in terms of how we approach teaching students?

Matthias: It’s a very interesting question because it has to do a bit with this trade off between what we call the authoritative and the authoritarian style because the authoritative style, we use one where you work a lot with trying to explain to kids the reason for why we want them to do something, the reason for why studying is a good idea, why you should care about the future, why you should apply yourself and be conscientious. Now, why would people use this approach of being authoritative as opposed to just being authoritarian like in the old days and just tell them, “Do this and don’t ask questions?” Well, we think it has exactly to do with the fact that higher education has become more important, because for the authoritarian style to work — for you to be able to say “Do this, don’t even ask why. Just follow my instructions,” two things have to be true. First of all, you have to be in the right—you have to know what’s the right thing to do for the kid—and you have to have some kind of control, you have to be there to exert that pressure. And sometimes with kids, that’s the right approach and it all makes sense. If I think of if my five year old trying to run on the street…. I can grab him and tell him, “Don’t do this” because I know what the right thing is to do and I have the control to immediately impose this decision on him without going through a long argument why it’s a good idea for you not to be run over by a car. [LAUGHTER] And nowadays, the bigger conflict is about other stuff, about getting education and kind of getting ahead in life and for that college education becomes more and more important.

John: You mentioned the shift from more authoritarian parents in earlier generations going back for centuries to more authoritative parents, where you’re more likely to invest more time in teaching students and spending more time with them and I think some of that has been mirrored in how college teaching has been changing. If we go back to when I started teaching—sometime last century—it was really common for the instructor just to stand on the stage and lecture, and now we do much more with active learning, and we also spend much more time with our students, I think—or at least in general there’s been a shift to much more time-intensive instruction—and also much more focus on explaining why we do things the way we do. I think that mirrors the change that we’ve been seeing in terms of parenting as well, because students now expect to know why they’re doing something in ways that wasn’t true when I was a student.

MATHIAS: That’s right. And if you did the authoritative things successfully by the time the kids hit college, they should understand why they’re there, what they’re trying to learn, and they should have that self motivation, which makes it a very different process from having kids that don’t want to be there where you just have to—against their will—feed them some information. So that thinking would suggest that having authoritative parenting so more kids could really understand why they’re doing this thing would actually make it easier to teach them, would make it more fun, would make it—in a way—more successful. Which goes really against this notion that you often read in newspapers that helicopter parenting creates the opposite. Because there’s also this fear that helicopter parenting creates these kids that don’t really know how to take care of themselves, that have lost their independence, and therefore are lost once they’re get into college. If you look at the data of course, those cases do exist. I’m sure there’s some parents who really do over-parent—if you want to use the term—and where the kids do have some trouble adjusting to adulthood once college comes along. But on average I don’t really think that’s true because kids really do pretty well in college, and especially the ones that come from the backgrounds for helicopter parenting or more authoritative parenting is very common, they’re very likely to complete college. When you look at differences in educational success across social groups, a lot of the difference really comes from being able to complete college as opposed to the decision to enroll in the first place. And so it’s really about these skills that you’ve acquired during childhood to apply yourself to work on your own behalf to pull through this demanding program that you’ve placed yourself in, which makes a big difference for success. And so authoritative parenting, if done right, should actually help get to that.

Fabrizio: If I may add something on this…By having changed countries so often I have seen probably more of the cross-country variation and I don’t know how teaching was done twenty years ago—I wasn’t there—but I can say something. In Sweden, there is this very strong element of independence. This is a very cardinal value in parenting. And when you see undergraduate students, you notice that they are somehow more adult in a sense. They have their own personality and it was very pleasant to interact with them in a sense. It is because they would ask questions based on some genuine motivation. It was much harder to induce them to do a lot of work. [LAUGHTER] So requests of doing this by the following week would often be ignored, but not in that confrontational way. You know. It’s kind of: “It’s too much, and then we don’t do.” So if I compare with the students I have at Yale—who are awesome students as you can expect—they have also the same genuinel desire to learn, and at the same time, I would never hear students tell me, “No this is too much, you are too demanding,” it will just not come to their mind that it would probably be something they would never want to say in front of a teacher or other students. On the less positive side, there is this obsession for grades, students spend a lot of time to talk about that. So there is a lot of interaction and you have to explain—which of course, I’m happy always to do—again, when I was in Sweden or in other countries, this was not the case. I rarely remember having a discussion with students about the way that the grades they took, and it’s because they didn’t think it was overall so important. And that’s again, part of the society that is very competitive in which students, I think they have a genuine desire to learn, but they also think this is where it’s very important that what type of signal it provides for the future.

John: I’ve also seen this a bit in my classes with international students. Korean students, for example, appear to be used to a more authoritarian type of instruction where it’s generally lecture based, and they tend to be very uncomfortable in questioning the teacher or challenging concepts. They come from a background where that’s perhaps less common. I think your model explains quite a bit here. In terms of the shift from a more authoritarian to a more authoritative parent, might this be tied to the whole demographic transition and the changing fertility across countries in terms of parental investments in children?

Matthias: So we generally think that the most important reason for more prevalent authoritative parenting—the decline of authoritarian parenting—is that the key decisions children are expected to make now take place relatively late. Think back to 200 years ago, kids would be living with their parents, there would be no school, and so kids would be under the control of their parents all the time, and they would probably also adopt the same occupation their parent was. Most children of farmers would also be in agriculture so the parents would really know what they have to know. So you would be in an environment where the parents know what the kids need to know, they can teach them directly, and they have the control, that makes being authoritarian very easy. So what has changed is that now most important decisions for kids take place outside of the home in school, later in university. So in a way kind of functioning on your own, having the right values on your own is more important. And in addition, there’s also this fact, there’s more occupational mobility, so children are relatively unlikely to do exactly the same thing as their parents were doing and that makes it valuable to have more independence and more ability to acquire knowledge on your own without being fed directly by your parents. So these are broad economic trends that are relatively independent of population. But what you’re mentioning is the population growth, I think, also plays into that because the other important factor is that the authoritative style—so the more argumentative style—is much more time intensive. It’s just much quicker to just tell the kid, “Don’t do this, don’t touch this, don’t go there,” as opposed to really explaining every time the reason for every particular decision. And so if you think about the change in family size that people used to have four, five, six kids in the family, you just wouldn’t have had the time. It would have been impossible to teach each and every kid in great detail the reasons behind every decision. Even in my own family we have three kids—which is really small by historical standards—but we certainly in a way are more authoritarian with the last child, with the third child, because we just don’t have enough time. We don’t have the same time to explain each and every step to the third one who’s competing for time with the older ones, as opposed to the first child who you can really take the time to explain everything in great detail. You would think there’s a broader economic trend, but it’s really reinforced by the decline in family size, which now means that the time that parents have available for each and every child has gone up by a lot, and so there’s more explanation based or argumentative approach of the authoritative parenting style. It’s really much more feasible than it used to be.

Rebecca: What’s the relationship of changing gender roles? So more women in the workforce in relationship to parenting styles?

Fabrizio: Our general scheme is that parents want to prepare children for the world in which they are expected to grow as adults. So we think that gender role is very influenced by these principles. So in a society where women are heavily discriminated in the labor market, that tends to create in parents the incentive to prepare women for a different type of life than in a society like the one in which we live where this is hopefully more and more gender neutral. So we think that today because the opportunity of education for instance (actually, girls take more education than boys on average. Well that fosters a motive to parents to grow boys and girls according to the same principles, but in the earlier days where the measure of success for a woman was mostly through the marriage market and through the opportunities of moving up the social ladder by marrying someone richer, well then it was a completely different situation in which different type of values that were emphasized. So somehow we think that there is an interdependence between some type of cultural prejudice in the way labor markets and institutions function, and the way parents grow their children. Even parents who may not be heavily prejudiced about gender roles in the past may have emphasized more of a different type of upbringing because that’s the way in which the society would reward them. Now of course, this is an average pattern. There are always some exceptions, parents (probably mothers) who could actually push their girls against this type of prejudice and fight. We think that there is this type of, we could call it the multiplier effect. If you have some type of institution that distorts the behavior of some people, then parenting would tend to emphasize its importance.

Matthias: And so we look at some surveys both in the United States and international data where people were asked about particular gender-based attitudes, for example, this view. You might ask people, “Do you think that the men and women have different work and they shouldn’t do each other’s? And there’s separate spheres that’s appropriate for women and men to keep.” And people who agree with those values that there’s really a strict separation between genders, they’re also much more likely to apply strict separation how they raise boys and how they raise girls, and have different parenting styles to both. Often they’re more authoritarian with the girls, trying to put them into a particular gender role. So you see very clearly a mapping from people’s views of what the role is like and whether it’s appropriate for men and women to be separate into the kind of education or the kind of parenting that they apply to their own children. Interestingly, once you take account these attitudes about gender, it doesn’t actually matter whether you’re looking at the mother or the father. So mothers who have these views are just as likely to be emphasizing different gender roles as fathers are. So it’s not really about the gender of the parents; it’s about their views about gender roles. And in the data of course, these things have changed a lot, we think to a large extent because of technological change, because nowadays, in an economy where it’s easy to run the household with very little time, we have appliances, we have also ready-made food restaurants and grocery stores, so it isn’t really necessary from an economic perspective anymore to have a strict separation of gender roles. This has over time also become reflected in parenting, which now is really much more gender equal than it used to be.

Rebecca: We talked a lot about different value systems that influence the parenting style. Do those same value systems impact the values that the children ultimately adopt?

Matthias: It’s an interesting relationship because we do think that broad technological changes have a lot to do with how these changes come about in the first place, but there’s also very clear evidence that these other immediate changes, there’s some persistence in the values that children are exposed to as children and the values that are taken to their own adulthood. So we do think technology is important, but culture and technology and economic change ultimately interact in interesting ways. Just to give one example of this, there is a study done by another economist who looks at gender attitudes based on how you were raised as a child yourself. And so the study finds that if you look at men today whose mothers were working when they were children…so go back thirty, forty years when the current adults were little and see if their moms were working, which would have been in the 50s and 60s, would have been a relatively small fraction of mothers back then. So if you look at those boys and men today, you find they will be much more likely to be married to a woman who’s in the labor force also. There seems to be some kind of transmission of values that if your own mom was working, that you find the setup of having two working parents just the normal thing, you’re much more likely to end up in that kind of family yourself. Now, this is not that you’re subject to different technology, it’s really just that you had a certain experience as a child that formed your own expectations and that goes then to express your own life choices later on.

Fabrizio: Our work is also related to Nobel Laureate James Heckman from University of Chicago. Heckman has this view—that tested also in a number of empirical studies—that there is a process of skill formation that takes different stages and it’s like our mind and our set of values is very malleable at an early stage. So when children are small, they are very much subject to the influence of parents and of other peers, then this malleability decreases with age. There is still some influence that parents and the environment—perhaps even more so the environment—have on teenagers, and then somehow the set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills becomes more or less fixed when a person reaches 16, 17 years. And that’s a way which we think—and actually we are doing currently research in this direction—that’s the way in which we think the process how these values stick with children. So some of the choices parents have made may turn out exposed to be the wrong ones because it’s not so easy to forecast entirely what will happen in the future, but this will be part of the personality and the set of skills that children have.

John: Now, with income inequality growing and with the returns to education being relatively high, that persistence from generation to generation can make income inequality worse in terms of educational investment. One of the things you talk about in your book is how investment in education is tending to magnify the gaps in income. Could you talk perhaps a little bit about that?

Fabrizio: Let me start with one remark. What we emphasize is that the nature of parenting itself can actually create additional barriers for the poor. So somehow in a society which parents are more relaxed and somehow they are more withdrawn, then children will be subject to the effect of the environment, to the effect of schools, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, segregation across different neighborhoods was much less strong. So children were exposed to more similar types of environment, even children coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Nowadays on the one hand we have more segregation at the residential level. So educated people tend to live in neighborhoods where there are other educated people, tend to marry among themselves, and in addition, parents put a lot of emphasis in trying to guide their children. As the result, the barriers for the most advantaged becomes bigger because this type of intensive parenting requires time, it requires financial resources, it requires soft skills that they may be in short supply. So there are barriers that are part of the educational process because acquiring high-quality education is, of course, expensive—that’s a traditional argument for why segregation across neighborhoods… also the fact that schools are locally funded create barriers—but there is also an additional hurdle that is imposed, which is by the changing nature of parenting. It’s somehow in a race in which the disadvantaged groups tend to be more and more disadvantaged because the demand for parents grow and it’s very hard for people who don’t have the resources to keep up.

Matthias: So the big question is, does an increase in inequality increase inequality in parenting also or does it lower inequality in parenting? What we find in the data is that the increase in inequality makes everybody try harder. So we certainly do see across the entire population that, for example, the time that parents devote to parenting, doing things like doing homework with the kids, it goes up for everybody. There’s a sense in which all different groups are subject to this general change. The question is for whom is this impact larger? You might argue that it could in fact, be reducing inequality, if for example, if the rich and well educated households felt very secure that even if they don’t try very hard their kids will do well— as a tend to in the data— and it would be then the maybe less educated or somewhat poorer households who try harder to catch up with them. And what we’ll see in the data is the opposite, that as inequality has gone up, increases in the parenting effort has been actually the strongest for the ones who start with high advantages to begin with. So if you look at time use, you see that the more educated households have increased their time devoted to parenting more than the average households. You see with spending even more clearly that the spending on parenting tasks, including spending on extracurricular activities, on private school, on tutoring, those have gone up a little bit for everybody, but much faster for the richer households. So the data is very clear that the increase in inequality has increased inequality in parenting also, I think to a large extent for the reasons Fabrizio mentions. And that rising inequality has made constraints more binding for those who have less to begin with. And this is where the concern for the evolution of inequality comes into play. Because if inequality in parenting goes up, it means for the next generation, the difference will be even larger. So if you look at parenting 45 years from now when today’s kids are going to be the parents, the differences in starting positions for that generation will be amplified compared to what we have today. So this really creates this risk of a spiral where high inequality breeds more inequality in parenting and more inequality of parenting breeds more inequality in starting conditions down the road.

John: If we’d like to see a society where everyone had more equal opportunity to rise in the income distribution, what could we do to provide more equal opportunities for all children in society in terms of changing the structure of education and so on?

Matthias: So there’s really a lot of different angles you could start but I think there’s two that are the most important ones. The first angle is the one of early childhood education because we have learned from other research—Fabrizio already mentioned Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman and his co-authors who have done a lot of work on this—we’ve looked at this research that the first three years of life are really a crucial time of skill formation. A lot of the skills that will help you later on are formed. It’s not so much cognitive skills, it’s not that you’re supposed to learn to read and write and do arithmetic from zero to four but it’s more noncognitive skills such as patience, conscientiousness, perseverance in a task, trying to trust your own ability to do things, so basic abilities which are really very useful for your education career later on. And right now, we have a huge inequality in this because some households invest tremendously in those first few years, or pay for expensive private preschools to provide those skills versus others just don’t have the same possibility. As to providing more equal and perhaps free access to high quality early education I think would be the most important single thing you could do to lower inequality. And by the way, we talked a lot about international evidence. We do see that countries that have lower inequality in parenting and then income inequality overall, such as Scandinavia or such as Netherlands, Belgium, France that do have this infrastructure. So that’s really the place to start. I think the other end of education—what happens when you finish with school—is also important. So I think one of the challenges for the United States right now is that college has become more and more the only option for success. We don’t really have a clearly defined path to success that doesn’t go through college right now. And there used to be other ways of doing this, there used to be more vocational training, for example, in high school. Other countries such as the German speaking countries have apprenticeship systems where kids can do a combined program of learning a more practical skill at a business and also getting some schooling from a state-run school to have a broader skill set at the beginning of their career without going through this one bottleneck of college, which right now has become really the one thing that everybody worries about. So improving education at the beginning and the end of the schooling career, those we think are the most promising approaches. Of course, there’s other directions you can take too, but those would be good ones to start.

Fabrizio: Actually, if I can emphasize something that Mathias has already hinted at, I think the provision of free daycare would make a huge effect. And people don’t understand this, but it would not be so expensive. Free daycare means—of course, this has to be paid out of tax money—but people can work more hours when there is daycare and that’s somehow one the miracles of Scandinavian society, and that creates tax revenue so people are going to pay for a large part of the service. So it’s not so expensive as many times that American voters perceive it. It’s feasible, it’s reasonable, and it’s also possible to provide a high quality service that satisfies and serves a very large constituency of society. So when we were in Sweden—my daughter was in preschool—we found that the quality of the service extremely good. Then we moved to London where this is provided on a private basis, and so we had to spend a lot of money, but we searched for something that was referenced to us as the absolute top quality place—or one of those—and we did not find that the quality of the service was higher. And one of the things that is important that happens in daycare—actually I presented the book yesterday here in Norway, and that was the subject of a lengthy discussion—as people are telling me, “Well, all these activities that you talk about that parents do with their small children bringing them here in a public place or another, well, to a large extent are provided in our daycare centers.” And so parents at that point, they do not feel the responsibility for that because they know they are provided. Now, this sometimes sounds a little suspicious to Americans, “Why should people not have the possibility to choose?” Of course, they can always complement that with activities of their own choice, but somehow it’s also a very strong mechanism of equalizing opportunities. Because if it turns out that instead of doing it in the public daycare, I do things in some type of private club, well that private club will only be accessible to certain people and not to other people. And so, this is a way in which if opportunities are strongly equalized, and again, not at a very high financial costs for society overall. Other types of interventions at a later age are also useful, but they are comparatively speaking more expensive. So I think that this would be something where it would be very important to open a debate in American society and understanding that this can be done without having a huge blow on the tax-cost for taxpayers.

Rebecca: It seems like it can be a really valuable opportunity to help develop a growth mindset in kids because it would happen really early on, which would give them an advantage because they wouldn’t see themselves as having a fixed limitation on skill sets or possibilities. They might troubleshoot better, they might be more imaginative in solutions, and things like that. I could see a lot of power in doing that, especially as someone who has a toddler in daycare right now. [LAUGHTER] So as a parent of a small child, I’m always wondering, where’s the trend of parenting going? Where should I be at? What should I be doing?

Fabrizio: Well in this book—some parents may find this disappointing, but I hope not too much—we don’t try to teach parents to do good parenting, but we’re trying to understand how parents behave. I think along the way, one can also learn some lessons and in many cases, we ourselves behave in a certain way because that’s the common norm and we don’t think much about. We think that economic factors first affect those norms, but perhaps, there are ways in which we can slightly deviate from the norms. And in terms of recommendation, I would say there is an element of rationality in these trends, perhaps there is also an element of fancy, and I think that probably the same results sometimes can be achieved with being intensive parents, but avoiding the excesses of stress that in the end sometimes may end up into disappointments. I heard a story of someone I don’t know personally (but it was relayed to me that someone was reading the book) of a child who did extremely well in high school and at some point after getting admission in some of the top universities, he decided to drop out from one of those places and to move to a less ambitious one because he felt so stressed after so many years of intensity in high school that in the end, this was too much. So I think that somehow taking a break every now and then is a good idea. Now, where is more generally parenting heading for the future? It’s a question that we also address in the book. We see the trend to growing inequality, it’s actually continuing, and there are also some new tendencies that we observed in the last 10 or 15 years that should perhaps be taken into account. So a lot of jobs that used to be relatively good jobs are disappearing, we expect the speed of automation for instance to increase. So somehow people perhaps should think about that, and it may not be so important which school one takes, but rather which major is chosen. Sometimes people just, like in the recent days, the debate was about parents who are cheating to entering some of the top universities [LAUGHTER] and this was something that is closely related also to what we discussed, because it shows how crazy this can get and the parents who are really willing to pay all their money and also to indulge in illegal activities. But somehow we think that the direction of technical change could be guessed better. And even the empirical evidence shows that majoring in some subject more math oriented in a good college may actually lead to a higher income than majoring in some other subjects for which the demand will be lower in a higher rated college. So I think that this is going to be important because we see many jobs that are disappearing and so there is a lot of concentration on demands in some sectors. The people who will be able to control and direct the process of further automation and generation of new technologies, I think, will have an edge. I really hope that we’ll continue to be also a culture of humanistic knowledge. Originally I started as a student majoring in history—so I have it very much in my heart—but I think that the number of jobs produced in that area will continue to shrink. So perhaps it would be better to have a few and very good historians rather than a large number of people who major in history, but then they have to take jobs that have nothing to do with what they learn through their formal education. So we think that there is a scope for looking at and maybe many times when we look at what society we live today, and we just project these towards the future, but the society which our children are going to grow is not the same in which we live today.

Matthias: So a lightly more daring thought in the same direction. When you think of the technology of, the history of technological change, you can think of what has happened in the last 30 years or so as really the replacement of manual skills, of just strength, by automation. That has really increased a lot, the return to cognitive skills such as math skills, which are now in very high demand. And so to predict the future, you have to take a stand on what skills are going to be replaced by the next wave of technological advances and which are still going to be there. Just one possibility I want to mention is that technological change may also increase or replace at least some of the more cognitive skills. We see now that some jobs in the legal profession are now being replaced by artificial intelligence or even some jobs that used to be relatively well protected—or considered well protected—are now under threat. And so from this perspective, I want to put the spotlight on the third main area of skills, which is social skills: being able to work with other people, to relate to others, to build relationships, and that’s a skill that already has gone up quite a lot over time in how important it is for expanding wages. And from my perspective, at least, I think it might be one of the skills that is the best protected from automation, at least in the short-term. So one could also make the argument that there is for safety, some argument to be made to maybe try to teach your kid not to be too hyper-competitive and just be focused on being the best in class, but also to develop those social skills of working in groups, working with others, and being social. That’s certainly something that’s nice to have in general, but I think there’s also at least some reasons to think that the economy will keep rewarding those skills over some of the others.

Fabrizio: If I can bring in a concrete example of this again, a cross-country comparison. While my daughter was in high school in Switzerland, where math skills are very heavily emphasized. So she was working very hard toward math—and I’m in Norway at this moment, I’m visiting University of Olso—so I have friends I was asking, “What are your children doing?” Actually they have the same age as my daughter, and he says, “Well, you know, you will laugh. They they have to come home and to bake some cakes.”

I said, “What are you talking about? Are you talking about school?” he said “No no no, this is considered a task to be done in school.” And at first I thought, “Okay, this is again another little piece of evidence that ignores the school children. Rather than learning they have fun,” [LAUGHTER] but it was explained to me that it’s not so easy because people have to run this project that they don’t have to quarrel along the way. And somehow this is viewed as something very formative and this is very much ingrained in Scandinavian society. People are somehow told to cooperate and I think that in in other societies the ability to cooperate is, you know, competition somehow can harm the ability to cooperate. To be clear, I’m not saying competition is all bad. To the opposite I think that sometimes I feel that Scandinavians are too averse to competition and I think that the desire to improve oneself is an important drive in the process of economic growth, but there may be excess on that.

Rebecca: I think that that gives us a lot of thought as educators to think about where our curriculum might go, what we want to emphasize as teachers, and then also just understanding our students better by understanding who their parents are. It’s been really interesting.

John: And with artificial intelligence, it’s very difficult to predict what types of jobs and what types of skills will be replaced. So perhaps one thing we should focus on is preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Matthias: That’s right.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what next?

Matthias: So Fabrizio already hinted at this—that we are working on a new project along the same lines, which really has to do with the direct environment in the sense of the peers or the neighborhoods in which kids grow up in. My oldest child is 11 years old so about to turn into a teenager and I’m already now wrestling with the reality that once they become teenagers, kids really are much less dependent on their parents. It’s known from a lot of research that in early years, kids really do like their parents a lot, they do listen to them, but at some point that stops and that from teenage years on, the peer group is much more important than the direct influence of the parent. But of course, it doesn’t mean the parenting stops, but it means that parenting now works a different way. That for the older kids, really the key choices that parents have to make is choices that form what the environment is for the peer groups. I think parents think a lot about, for example, which neighborhood to move into based on how good the school is but also about what the other families are there. Are there other families? Are there other kids? Are they going to share values that are going to be a good environment for my kid to interact? There’s actually a lot of data on this. We have empirical studies that gather a lot of detailed information on what parents do. For example, do they allow the kids to only play with certain kids to try to form who their friends are allowed to be? Do they make a choice on which particular class or which particular school to go and do they give more independence to the kids to make their own choices here? And we have all this information in these same data sets on who these peers are. Are they in trouble? What are their grades? Are they going to be productive companions for these kids? We see a lot of interactions—very interesting interactions there—between what the peer group is like and how the parents interact. So I think for understanding how parenting evolves from the early years to the teenage years, really understanding how parents work to shape the peer group and influence these other influences on the children, this is a key challenge for the economics of parenting which we are trying to explore next.

John: Well we’re looking forward to seeing more of this research.

Rebecca: Yeah thank you so much for joining us today.

John: Thank you.

Matthias: Thanks for having us.

Fabrizio: It’s been a pleasure.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.