The Economics of Parenting Style

I’ve written before about the four parenting styles, about other parenting labels like helicopter parents, free range, and tiger moms, and how parenting style might affect how we handle choices in our families.

Yesterday, there was an article in the NY Times called Is Education No Longer the Great Equalizer, and it quoted extensively from “The Economics of Parenting,” by Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zilibotti, that is a fascinating way to think about parenting through an economists’ lens. They say the “basic parent-child conflict is that the parent attaches a higher weight to the future utility of the child” versus the child places a higher weight on their “full enjoyment” of the moment.

They say that parenting styles “come down to whether, and how, parents interfere with the child’s choice.” The permissive parent lets the child have their way, and may go out of their way to offer a wide range of choices. The authoritative parent attempts to shape the child’s preferences, by offering choices but also educating about why they believe particular choices are the best ones for the child’s long-term well-being. The authoritarian parent offers few choices, dictating what will be done. Their emphasis is on what children do, not what they think, so there’s no need to persuade them that it’s the right option… it’s the only option.

They also state that permissive parents value either independence or imagination, authoritative parents value hard work, and authoritarian parents value obedience.

Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zillibotti then look at the interaction between the economy and parenting styles. In societies with a wide array of career opportunities and a low degree of income inequality, “the gap between the top and the bottom is small… Parents are less concerned about children’s effort, and thus there is little scope for disagreement between parents and children. Therefore, most parents adopt a permissive parenting style, namely, they keep young children happy and foster their sense of independence so that they can discover what they are good at in their adult life.” If parents believe that their child can be financially successful no matter what, it’s easy to let them pursue their talents and their joys.

In societies where there’s little social mobility, where most children will have the same profession as their parents, the parents have little incentive to be permissive and let their children discover something they’re good at (they may see talent as irrelevant in a world where there aren’t career choices available) and or to be authoritative and convince their child of anything. If the parents’ experience is that you need to do whatever work that is available to survive, they tend to be authoritarian – conveying ideas like “you just have to follow the rules – you don’t have to like it.”

In a society with a high degree of income inequality, the choices a child makes could have a big impact on their economic well-being. The parents know their children have a wide array of job opportunities and want to persuade them to choose the one that will give them the best chance of success. So, a larger share of parents are authoritative. They also tend to be highly involved, ensuring that the child is taking the best advantage of any available opportunity and learning to make “good choices” (as the parent defines them). The authors acknowledge that authoritative parenting requires more effort on the parents’ part than the other options.

The parents’ current economic status also influences parenting style. “richer parents can use monetary rewards to persuade their children to comply with their wishes. Poor parents lack the resources… and may be more likely to resort to authoritarian methods such as corporal punishment.”

Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zillibotti were discussing how this might be see on a country by country basis, but it clearly also comes into play in micro-societies of neighborhoods – for example, a neighborhood with few economic opportunities might tend toward authoritarian values.

For parent educators and others who work with families, I think these ideas add to a deeper understanding of influences on parenting style. Understanding a family’s culture and socioeconomic class, especially if it is different from our own, increases our empathy and ability to communicate.

Parent Educators, here’s a handout you can share to introduce parenting style.

1 thought on “The Economics of Parenting Style

  1. Pingback: Parenting Style – Offering Choices | More Good Days – Parenting Blog

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