A slew of new books treats child-raising like another branch of economics that only the fittest will survive
Should we raise children the way we run businesses? I say we, though I have no idea how to run a business. Yet the number of books on the market that discuss parenting in terms one might use to discuss maximising an investment – to approach one’s child as one might any other product launch – is simultaneously completely depressing and almost impossible to resist. Why wouldn’t one want to turn out successful children? On the other hand: stuffing them from the age of three with skills best suited to careers in corporate law is surely an expensive and self-defeating insanity.
In a new book, Love, Money and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, two economists try to untangle the long-term impact of what has come to be known as “helicopter parenting” – the high-investment, high-involvement approach that, on the evidence of the book, increases test scores and the likelihood of kids graduating from college, even as other data suggests it stresses kids out.
The research, by Fabrizio Zilibotti and Matthias Doepke, economists at, respectively, Yale and Northwestern,, shouldn’t be surprising: when you stand over kids and make sure they perform, those who don’t burn out will do better, in conventional terms, than those with parents who just let them get on with it. As middle-class parents throw more and more resources at their smaller and smaller families it is also, predictably, widening the inequality gap.
The question, of course, is one of happiness and how we define “success”. It’s a key word in all child-rearing tracts, yet for all the window-dressing about kindness and flexibility, it most commonly correlates with earnings. I would quite like it if my kids weren’t still clogging up the family home when they’re 30, and I’ll be happy if they don’t drop out of college. If one of them should say that happiness, to her, means training as a mime artist or a performance poet, I wonder how enthusiastic I’ll manage to be.
This question is a particularly heavy one in America, where the cost of health insurance keeps people in unhappy corporate jobs for years. It also flushes out all one’s liberal hypocrisy. I recently went on a tour of a progressive private school in Manhattan, in which prospective parents thrilled at the freedoms afforded the kids while discreetly checking to make sure everyone still got into the Ivy League.
For a moment, I considered myself resistant to this urge: let children be children, I thought smugly. At four, my kids are already in what feels like a rat race and the idea of tethering them to standardised tests for the next decade makes progressive school look wonderfully inviting.
Then we went on a tour of the upper school and, showing us around the gym,, and the parent tour-guide informed us, “We don’t believe in competitive sports.” I nearly tipped over with the force of my eye roll. Good God, these children will sink when they get out into this horrible world and when the seas rise, they’ll be last to the lifeboats. I’ve recalibrated since then. The more one thinks, the more wrong-headed my response seems. It’s the kind of Darwinian thinking that will bring about the very disaster we are prepping our kids to survive.