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When parenting goes too far

Upper-middle class parents in the USA invest huge amounts of time and money in their children’s school and recreational activities. The aim is to pave the path leading to a good education and a rosy future. And even though we Danes have free and equal access to education, examples of intensive parenting are not unknown here – particularly in wealthy families. The question is whether this is too much of a good thing. Or is being a parent simply more demanding these days?

When the German professor of economics Matthias Doepke was living in Los Angeles with his American wife, they had to decide which school their two-year old son would attend when he was old enough. The state schools in their district were of a very poor standard; so even though the private schools were both expensive and difficult to get into, they were prepared initially to find a private school for their son. However, Doepke and his wife realised that if they wanted their son to attend one of the reputable and popular private schools, their two-year-old boy would have to take an entrance exam involving a test and a session with a psychologist to find out if he was suitable. The parents felt that this was simply crazy. And in the end it proved unnecessary because the family moved to Chicago, where the state schools had better standards.

Doepke is now a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, and he feels that the story illustrates the kind of situation that leads to intensive parenting.

“This concept is very widespread in the USA, where parents from the upper-middle class in particular focus a great deal on ensuring that their children get a good education. They do this by getting thoroughly involved in their children’s schoolwork and recreational activities. For instance, they help their children a great deal with their homework, as well as driving them to a wide range of sport clubs and other interest groups,” says Doepke.

He explains that this kind of parental devotion is caused by the fact that middle-class parents today have to work hard and keep a clear focus simply to maintain the standard of living which their own parents enjoyed. And it’s the first time in recent history – not just American, but also European history – that one generation cannot look forward to achieving a better and more prosperous life than the generation before them.

Money makes the world go round  

In 2018 Matthias Doepke and his Italian co-author Fabrizio Zilibotti wrote a book entitled Love, Money and Parenting (2019), in which they present the reader with stories from around the world showing how parenting ideals and practices vary depending on the culture and society in question. But parenthood also depends a good deal on money:

“The vast majority of all parents want the best for their children, and their motivation for supporting them is based on love. But the simple truth is that your financial situation makes a big difference in terms of the opportunities that you can actually offer your children.”

He calls this difference ‘the parenting gap’, with the size of this gap depending on the level of inequality in the society concerned. The more unequal a society is, the more widespread intensive parenting becomes. This is because social structures create a fear in middle-class parents in particular that their children will not do well enough in school, as well as motivating them to constantly push their children in the right direction: towards a good education that will help them get a good, well-paid job.

According to Matthias Doepke, these parents often have full-time jobs – but they have no recreational time of their own, and they pay other people to look after the garden and clean the house so they can spend more time being parents. Even though it’s the mothers who are primarily involved in the lives of their children, American fathers and mothers both spend far more time with their children than they used to 30-40 years ago.

Sports and recreation are important, too

The level of intensive parenting increases throughout primary and lower-secondary school – particularly in the upper portion of the American middle class. It’s not just about supporting and motivating your children to do well in school. Sports and recreational activities are also part of the equation which should hopefully give children an entrance ticket to good educational opportunities and a secure future. Recreational activities sometimes give direct access to education (a sports scholarship to college, for instance). But they can also provide an indirect route to success:

“You don’t just go to basketball for fun. You also do it to improve your teamwork skills. And playing the violin doesn’t only help to develop your child’s musicality. It often takes a couple of years of practice to produce harmonious sounds from a violin. But practising the violin improves a child’s concentration – and not least their ability to persevere with the task in hand. So indirectly it also improves a child’s performance in school,” explains Doepke.

Stifling creativity

Although intensive parents are found most commonly in the USA, they exist all over the world, says Matthias Doepke. Countries like South Korea and China base their school systems on high-stakes testing. A single test can potentially decide your entire future, because a high score leads to additional educational opportunities. Step by step, these will pave the path leading to a good, well-paid job. But if you perform poorly in these tests, doors close in front of you and dreams will be extinguished. The fear of this happening makes parents commit themselves deeply to the school lives of their children and put them under pressure to study hard to prepare for these tests. This has resulted in the appearance of an entire industry known as shadow education, with private mentors offering help with homework and exam preparations in return for payment. The phenomenon has also spread to both the USA and Europe.

According to Matthias Doepke, the fact that education is approached so seriously is a positive sign in the sense that it contributes to a hard-working society. But this does not compensate for the negative implications which he can see on the other side of the coin. For one thing, there is the issue of inequality:

“In a society in which money and education already determine your level of success in life, the fact that some parents invest so many resources in their children while others are unable to do the same simply increases the degree of inequality.”

But there are also negative consequences for children on a more emotional/creative level.

“If we decide that academic skills are the only thing that truly matters, we risk stifling the creativity of an entire generation. We’ll be losing out on the creative potential of some of these children and young people. But my greatest concern is that in the USA at least, the result seems to be a generation of teenagers who are under extreme pressure. They are so busy with their homework and recreational activities that they simply don’t get enough sleep. Some of them even develop anxiety, fearing that they will not succeed in life.”

The Swedes are more relaxed

Matthias Doepke says that Scandinavia is one of the places where parents are in general more relaxed and don’t pressurise their children as much as parents in the USA and certain Asian countries. When collecting data for their book Love, Money and Parenting, the authors visited Sweden to study Swedish parenthood.

“The Swedes are far more relaxed than Americans because the Scandinavian social model is more equal and Swedish culture is less competitive than American culture. And the schools aren’t divided into good and bad schools with very different quality standards,” he says.

In the final chapters of the book, he and his co-author Fabrizio Zilibotti recommend that one way of preventing inequality in societies like the USA is to ensure more equal access to education and invest more public-sector funding in children – including high-quality childcare services which ordinary families can afford. This would give more children a real chance to get a good education and grow up in a society of fair and equal opportunity. In other words, something like the Scandinavian model.

Danish soccer moms

Intensive parenting does exist in Scandinavia, but it takes place on an entirely different scale, says Matthias Doepke. In his view, this is because Scandinavians don’t need to be intensive parents. After all, the level of social inequality in Scandinavia is relatively low – at least when viewed from his office at home in Chicago.

But if we cross the Atlantic to our own little patch of Danish paradise, DPU researcher Dil Bach does actually recognise some of the tendencies that Doepke describes in the USA. In her book Overskudsfamilier (2015), she identifies some of the same tendencies in financially privileged families in Northern Zealand.

“Danish children don’t have to cope with the same amount of pressure to perform well in everything they do as children in the USA, for instance. There’s a clear sense that the situation mustn’t get out of hand. The children need to be in balance, because at the end of the day it’s  about their basic sense of well-being,” says Dil Bach.

She has studied wealthy families living north of Copenhagen. There is a cliché in Denmark that these families don’t care much about their children and simply leave them in the hands of the au pair girl. But Bach has discovered that this is in fact a myth.

“The mothers I met were extremely involved in the lives of their children. They organised play dates and events to help their children enjoy school, and they ferried them to and from recreational activities like soccer moms. They made sausage rolls and pizza bites for a wide range of social events with the class, football club and scout groups,” she says.

Old-fashioned gender roles

She noticed a clear gender difference in parenting practices in Northern Zealand. The mothers were in charge of family life and provided all the service. While the fathers earned the money.

“This helped to confirm some very old-fashioned gender roles. It was as if these families were split into public and private categories. Dad represented the family in the world outside, for instance at parent-teacher meetings and perhaps football matches at the weekend. But mum was in charge of the social diary and dealt with all the coordination and logistics, as well as helping with homework. These women had dedicated their lives to their children. They tended to work part time, and some of them didn’t work at all. This gave them the chance to give their children ‘more mum time’, as one of them put it,” says Dil Bach.

However, there was little indication that this pattern reflected their own childhood experience. Several of the women that Bach interviewed said that their own childhood had been far more loosely structured, and some said that one or both of their parents were simply never there. One mother said ‘I’m doing the opposite of what my mother did.’ She was often left to amuse herself as a child in the 1970s and 1980s, and is now determined that her own children will not experience the same. But as she herself said: ‘I wonder whether my own children will do the opposite of me when they become parents. Will they think I was too much of a helicopter parent?’

Concerted cultivation or natural growth?

Dil Bach derives inspiration from the work of the American researcher Annette Lareau, who wrote the book Unequal Childhoods in 2003. In particular, Lareau’s concept of ‘concerted cultivation’ plays a major role in Bach’s analysis of the highflying families of Northern Zealand. Concerted cultivation is an example of intensive parenting, with the term ‘concerted’ indicating that parents work hard in concert with schools, childcare centres and sports clubs to make sure that their children are moving in what is deemed to be the right direction. The opposite is ‘natural growth’, a form of upbringing that is less controlled by adults and does not focus constantly on future goals.

“According to Lareau, natural growth is a characteristic of working-class families in the USA. Partly because the parents don’t have the financial  resources to focus much on the future, but also because their ideals of upbringing are very different from those of the middle and upper classes, who cultivate a particular form of development in their children,” explains Bach. She continues:

“Natural growth actually dominated most middle-class Danish families until roughly the turn of the millennium – which is why many of the mothers I interviewed had experienced this form of upbringing in their own childhoods. Many of us who are parents today were left to our own devices when we were children. This is far less frequent for children today. And in many ways it was probably easier to be a parent back then,” says Bach.

Depending on the experts

Even though these highflying families live mostly in wealthy areas of Northern Zealand and exclusive parts of Denmark’s major cities, intensive parenting is a tendency that trickles down to all social levels and is now gaining a firmer footing in Danish parents. However, the extent to which parents involve themselves in the lives of their children varies, depending on their financial situation and educational background, says Dil Bach. In connection with another more recent research project resulting in the book Parate Børn (2020), she encountered concerted cultivation among a variety of social classes and in several regions of the country.

“I think lots of parents recognise some of these tendencies. You do it because you want your children to succeed. Parents have probably always wanted their children to succeed, but we now tend to perceive children as fragile. This was not the case in the past. The phenomenon is based on a new kind of risk awareness. We now tend to think ‘What might possible go wrong?’ instead of thinking ‘What will probably go wrong?’ It’s true that anything might possible go wrong. But most things probably won’t go wrong,” she says.

30-40 years ago, responsible parents were thinking ‘Things might go wrong. He might fall and hurt himself, or she might not achieve the grades she needs unless she works harder. But these things probably won’t happen.’ So there was no great cause for concern. These days parents tend to focus on risks in a ‘possibilistic’ rather than a ‘probabilistic’ way, as an English research team has suggested (Lee et al: 2014): ‘There is a possibility that things will go wrong. It’s a small chance, but it exists, so there is plenty of cause for concern.’

Like the English researchers, Dil Bach believes that this new kind of risk awareness means that modern parents have made themselves dependent on experts in child upbringing.

“Lots of parents no longer dare to depend on their intuition. They read books and go to lectures on everything from child upbringing to nutrition. Parental determinism is also becoming more common – the notion that parents are solely responsible for the success of their children, even though Danish children spend up to 40 hours a week in childcare centres. This kind of pressure stems partly from childcare centres and schools, and it leads modern parents to feel that their children’s well-being and chance of success in life depend on them alone,” she says.

Understated perfection

According to Matthias Doepke, all the efforts made by parents in the USA clearly serve a single purpose: helping their children to qualify for progress throughout the educational system. But Dil Bach points out that in Denmark the purpose of intensive parenting is far less obvious. Even so, she has registered an interesting shift in Danish families, leading them to resemble American families a little more.

“What are known as ‘soft’ values have toughened up. They now serve a purpose. Danish children learn about teamwork and how to be a good friend when they play handball or join the scouts. And these are skills you need if you want to cope with a course of further education and find a good job. Modern parents are far more aware of this than parents used to be.”

However, she has also noticed that Danes prefer any trace of intensive parenting to be slightly understated. She calls this ‘controlled decontrol’. It’s a tendency that is also evident in mothers who (more or less professionally) exhibit their family lives on social media. She is referring to some of the insights gained by one of her students, who is writing a thesis analysing mothers of young children and their Instagram photos depicting healthy homemade food – and happy children eating it

“It’s important not to overdo this. They don’t want to appear to be too much in control or too perfect. They don’t want to resemble curling parents too much. They want to seem relaxed. But they are still highly aware of what they let the public see. They say they baked their sugar-free, gluten-free banana cake really fast, using the remains of a carton of buttermilk and a few overripe bananas. But there’s just a sprig of light-green mint on top to make the cake look extra tempting,” she says.

She also underlines that she fully understands parents who invest so much of their energy in parenthood – whether they focus on school, recreation or food, or on all three things at once.

“It’s easy to say that these parents are exercising too much control. But in fact they’re only doing what they’ve been asked to do – supporting the school or childcare centre, arranging playgroups and special events, serving healthy food and so on. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place: either they’re accused of neglecting their children, or they’re being seen as over-protective curling parents.”

Personal bios

Matthias Doepke is a professor of economics at Northwestern University in the USA. His research interests include families in a macro-economic perspective.

Dil Bach is an associate professor of educational anthropology at DPU, Aarhus University. Her research focuses on the relationship between family, school and childcare in both Denmark and Singapore. She teaches on the Master’s degree programme in educational anthropology.

Background information

Danish parents spend more time with their children

The amount of time spent by Danish parents on helping their children with their homework, preparing meals, playing or joining in on their children’s activities doubled between 2001 and 2018.

But this figure conceals a large social disparity in terms of the time parents spend with their children. Parents who have completed a long course of further education spend twice as much time with their children as parents with no further education at all.

Source: Rockwool Foundation Research Unit, 2018