Middle-class parents should give their children more freedom
IN 1693 the philosopher John Locke warned that children should not be given too much “unwholesome fruit” to eat. Three centuries later, misguided ideas about child-rearing are still rife. Many parents fret that their offspring will die unless ceaselessly watched. In America the law can be equally paranoid. In South Carolina this month Debra Harrell was jailed for letting her nine-year-old daughter play in a park unsupervised. The child, who had a mobile phone and had not been harmed in any way, was briefly taken into custody of the social services.
Ms Harrell’s draconian punishment reflects the rich world’s angst about parenting. By most objective measures, modern parents are far more conscientious than previous generations. Since 1965 labour-saving devices such as washing machines and ready meals have freed eight hours a week for the average American couple, but slightly more than all of that time has been swallowed up by childcare. Dads are far more hands-on than their fathers were, and working mothers spend more time nurturing their sprogs than the housewives of the 1960s did. This works for both sides: children need love and stimulation; and for the parents, reading to a child or playing ball games in the garden is more fulfilling than washing dishes.
The second problem, less easy to prove, occurs at the other end of the income scale, and may even apply to otherwise rationalEconomistreaders: well-educated, rich parents try to do too much (seearticle). Safety is part of it: they fear that if they are not constantly vigilant their children may break their necks or eat a cupcake that has fallen on the floor. Over-coaching is another symptom. Parents fear that unless they drive their offspring to Mandarin classes, violin lessons and fencing practice six times a week, they will not get into the right university. The streets of Palo Alto and Chelsea are clogged with people-carriers hauling children from one educational event to another.There are two blots in this picture, connected to class. One is at the lower end. Even if poor parents spend more time with their children than they once did, they spend less than rich parents do—and they struggle to provide enough support, especially in the crucial early years (see article). America is a laggard here; its government spends abundantly on school-age kids but much less than other rich countries on the first two or three years of life. As this newspaper has pointed out before, if America did more to help poor parents with young children, it would yield huge returns.
The fear about safety is the least rational. Despite the impression you get from watching crime dramas, children in rich countries are mind-bogglingly safe, so long as they look both ways before crossing the road. Kids in the 1950s—that golden era so often evoked by conservative politicians—were in fact five times likelier to die before the age of five. Yet their parents thought nothing of letting them roam free. In those days, most American children walked or biked to school; now barely 10% do, prevented by jittery parents. Children learn how to handle risks by taking a few, such as climbing trees or taking the train, even if that means scraped knees and seeing the occasional weirdo. Freedom is exhilarating. It also fosters self-reliance.
Get out of that helicopter
The other popular parental fear—that your children might not get into an Ivy League college—is more rational. Academic success matters more than ever before. But beyond a certain point, parenting makes less difference than many parents imagine. Studies in Minnesota and Sweden, for example, found that identical twins grew up equally intelligent whether they were raised together or apart. A study in Colorado found that children adopted and raised by brainy parents ended up no brainier than those adopted by average parents. Genes appear to matter more than upbringing in the jobs market, too. In a big study of Korean children adopted in America, those raised by the richest families grew up to earn no more than those adopted by the poorest families.
This does not mean that parenting is irrelevant. The families who adopt children are carefully screened, so they tend to be warm, capable and middle-class. But the twin and adoption studies indicate that any child given a loving home and adequate stimulation is likely to fulfil her potential. Put another way, better-off parents can afford to relax a bit. Your kids will be fine if you hover over them less and let them frolic in the sun from time to time. You may be happier, too, if you spend the extra time indulging your own hobbies—or sleeping. And if you are less stressed, your children will appreciate it, even if you still make them eat their fruit and vegetables.