Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti on Love, Money, and Parenting

Doepke & ZilibottiParents everywhere want their children to be happy and do well. Yet how parents seek to achieve this ambition varies enormously. For instance, American and Chinese parents are increasingly authoritative and authoritarian, whereas Scandinavian parents tend to be more permissive. Why? Love, Money, and Parenting investigates how economic forces and growing inequality shape how parents raise their children. From medieval times to the present, and from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden to China and Japan, Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti look at how economic incentives and constraints—such as money, knowledge, and time—influence parenting practices and what is considered good parenting in different countries. Love, Money, and Parenting presents an engrossing look at the economics of the family in the modern world.

What led you to write this book?

Everything started when we realized that two of our experiences had crossed paths: as researchers and as parents. As economists we have always been interested in inequality and human capital formation. Our work studies how the economy influences the transmission of values, preferences, and skills within families. The way in which parents interact with their children is a focal point of our recent research.

We have dealt with the same issues in our own families. We grew up in Italy and Germany, but our academic careers have brought us to live in several other countries. Fabrizio’s daughter was born in Stockholm, and has lived in Sweden, the UK, Italy, and Switzerland. Her parents are now in the US and she often visits Spain (her mother is Spanish). Matthias had his three sons in the US, but his family spends a lot of time in Germany and currently lives in Spain. We both have also frequent contacts with East Asian cultures, especially China and Japan.

We have been struck by the differences in parenting practices across countries and over time, such as the contrast between the liberal parenting that we experienced as children in Europe compared to the high-pressure parenting culture in the US today. At some point, we realized that the differences we observed in our own lives line up well with broader patterns in the data for many countries and time periods, and that all of this variation conforms surprisingly well with the predictions of our own economic theories. So, we decided to focus on parenting through the double lens of parents and social scientists. Having published most of our earlier work in academic journals that only few experts read, we felt the urge to communicate our findings and ideas to a larger public. We believe we have something novel to tell to parents and general readers.

How do you account for the difference in parenting between European, American and Chinese parents as exemplified in books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?

We love Amy Chua’s book. It is fun to read, well-written, full of self-irony—we recommend it. But our book takes a different tack. We do not believe that the main explanation for differences in parenting styles is limited to cultural factors. For instance, we do not think that Chinese parents are different just because they are Chinese or because of the Confucian heritage. Rather, we think that parents in different parts of the world behave differently because they respond to different economic incentives.

In today’s China, children grow up under enormous pressure to achieve at the highest level in academics. Grades determine which university they can attend, and Chinese universities vary widely in quality of education. Making it into Peking University or Tsinghua or Fudan is a ticket to a brilliant future. For those who fail, life can instead be tough. The US is less extreme, but also has large quality differences across schools and high income inequality. In both countries, parents emphasize the importance of children working hard and becoming achievers; even more so in China than in the US, because getting good grades and doing well in exams is even more important in China.

European countries (especially Scandinavian countries) are in comparison much less unequal. There, parents can afford to be more relaxed and let their children discover the world at their own speed and according to their own inclination. Excelling at school is less important; there are many second opportunities to do well in life, and safety nets are more robust. It is interesting to observe that parents in Japan (a country that has closer historical and cultural ties with China than with Western Europe) report some parenting values that are similar to those of parents in the Netherlands. What do the Dutch and the Japanese have in common? Culturally, very little, but they both have low income inequality. Amy Chua also emphasizes that the experience of being an immigrant has an impact on parenting. In our view, there are good economic reasons for that. Immigrants typically lack strong local connections that can help with getting ahead. So, school achievement is the best strategy for success.

Does your research lead you to draw value judgments on certain kinds of parenting over others? Or is it more the case that the type of parenting that is directly related to economic conditions is best suited to those very conditions?

We stay away from value judgments. Our book does not tell parents that a particular parenting style is better than another. This sets our book apart from many existing parenting guides, where experts try to teach “good parenting.” Experts often disagree, and so the market offers titles for any taste; there are books praising achievement-oriented (authoritative, as we call it) parenting, and other books that make the case for “free-range” (permissive) parenting. In contrast, we take the view that parents, by and large, know what they are doing. And so we don’t come out of the ivory tower to teach a more enlightened way to be a parent.

Our goal is to explain how parents respond to the environment in which they and their children live. Going back to China, the Chinese parenting style is an adaptation to the incentives of that society. Parents push their children hard, because this is what it takes to do well in China. Switching to free-range parenting might be a bad idea for them. Conversely, helicopter parenting would not work well in Scandinavia. That society rewards independence and teamwork; rampant individualism is not viewed as an asset and is not even especially appreciated by employers.

To be clear, we are not saying that parents around the world sit down and consider the different options and tradeoffs with scientific precision. They just try to do what feels right to them, but exactly what this means inevitably depends on the economic environment. Many of these mechanisms are subconscious and become part of what we informally call the local culture or parenting norms. These norms change over time and adapt to evolving economic conditions, something we document in detail in the book. When we were children in the 1970s, inequality was far lower, and our parents were much more relaxed about our upbringing. With our own children, we have adopted a more intensive, achievement-oriented parenting style, and certainly not because we are better parents. Rather, because the economic conditions have changed.

How do money, knowledge, and time come together to influence parenting?

The first word in the title of the book is ‘love,’ because we believe love to be the main motive of parenting. First and foremost, parents want their children to be happy in life. This premise is important to understand our book, especially because people often perceive economists as being fixated on a restricted set of financial objectives. Having said that, we do believe that money matters for a happy life. This is not our bias: dozens of empirical studies on subjective well-being point at a strong correlation between economic success and self-reported happiness.  Our argument is that when inequality is low, economic success is less salient in parenting, because stakes are lower. In contrast, in more unequal societies, parents become more concerned with how their children do economically. Being a mediocre artist may be sad on its own, but it is much worse in a society without safety nets where professional failure can lead to poverty and social exclusion. At the same time, if nobody tries, no talented artist will ever emerge.

Knowledge (or education) matters too, for two reasons. First, it is a vehicle to economic and social success—so parents typically push their children to do well in school. Second, education is an asset for parents; it sharpens their tools to influence and motivate their children. This might explain why we observe that less educated parents are more often authoritarian and prone to punish their children rather than to motivate them. Time is a crucial ingredient because much of parenting is about interacting directly with the child. But time and money are not independent; for example, richer parents often pay other people for doing basic housework tasks (such as cleaning) to make room for “quality time” with their children. Others do not have the same luxury.

Is it possible to track changes in permissiveness in parents over decades and see that those changes correlate with economic forces?

Let us first clarify that we use the term ‘permissive’ without any negative connotation. We do not mean ‘indulgent’ or, worse, ‘disengaged.’ We could as well label this style liberal or even free-range parenting (We borrow the term ‘permissive’ from child psychology literature). With this clarification in mind, we see that parents were much more permissive in the 1960s and 1970s than they are today. They were altogether less obsessed with supervising and guiding their children, and spent many fewer hours per week (as we see from time diaries) interacting with them. American parents half a century ago were more similar to the Swedish parents of today than to the frantic generation of American helicopter parents of the 21st century. Why? Fifty years ago inequality reached a historical trough. In a more equal society, there was less of a need to push children hard.

Another interesting observation is that the permissive mood of the 1960s came together with the rejection of the authoritarian methods that had been prevalent for centuries both at home and in school. We argue that this is due to the combination of declining inequality and increasing social mobility. Until the early 20th century, a large proportion of families lived in rural areas, and many children inherited their parents’ occupation and position in society. Most learning and education took place within the family, and the past, present, and future looked very much alike. In this society, parents perceived it as their duty to guide their children, forcing them if necessary, in their own footsteps, pretty much in the fashion as their own parents had done with them.

Since then, society has changed. Children learn most of what is useful for their future professional activity in schools, where parents cannot easily monitor their effort. Parents must then motivate their children. In addition, technological change has increased occupational mobility and caused old jobs to disappear and new jobs to take their place. Being like your father or your mother is often not an option. The old-style traditional parenting has then lost its appeal. Now, children must make independent choices and the best parents can do is shape their attitudes.

How do more financially privileged parents respond to the same economic forces differently from less privileged parents?

Both economic incentives and constraints matter. The rug rat race, namely the competition among frenetic parents in fostering their children’s success, imposes growing demands on families. Only some of them can live up to the daunting task. Driving children from music class to sports to an art exhibition requires lot of time and money. Many families cannot afford it. Take a single mother living in a disadvantaged area. She will have neither the time nor the financial resources to offer her children such luxuries. Moreover, her children will be around other children who suffer the same relative deprivation.

What’s worse, neighborhoods have become increasingly socially segregated. The result is that a large share of the population is excluded from the race. Helicopter parenting is the root of what we call a growing “parenting gap.” A gap between rich and poor families has of course always existed but it has been exacerbated by the intense overparenting of the upper middle class.

Blaming middle-class parents for overparenting is futile; they are simply responding to changing economic incentives. They try to be good parents in the competitive society in which their children live. This is why in the book we advocate policy interventions aimed at changing incentives and equalizing opportunities. We also discuss how the parenting gap can turn into a parenting trap, whereby disadvantaged families simply give up, and their children face ever-growing barriers to get out of poverty. This may be a channel behind the recent decline in social mobility in the lower echelons of society.   

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

We are often asked which parenting style is the best. On that, we are happy to share our subjective experiences and beliefs as parents, but as social scientists we cannot give any definite answer. However, when it comes to the society as a whole, we are more assertive. We think that the overparenting frenzy is taking a toll on the happiness of families. Parents and children engage in a race with the main goal of getting ahead of others, rather than just building useful skills. Moreover, this frenzy is a barrier against equal opportunities.

Rather than educating parents about the virtue of free-range parenting, which will not work if economic incentives are unchanged, we advocate policies that change economic incentives, that reduce the stakes in parenting, and that open up new opportunities for disadvantaged families. Fabrizio’s daughter grew up in a free-range Swedish daycare with a mix of children from a wide range of social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. When the family moved to London for one year, she attended a posh exclusive (and expensive) nursery school. She was a happier child in Stockholm than in London. Some wealthy parents may be skeptical that their children can be happier in a more inclusive society. We hope we can open some cracks in those views.

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.