Last year, two economists, one at Northwestern University and the other at the University of Zurich, compiled a set of data that explains the rise of the helicopter parent. In short: Rising income inequality over the last 40 years, combined with the increasing returns on education, have made a “helicopter” parenting style a rational choice.
Yes, we are more involved with our kids’ education than our own parents were with ours, largely because the penalty for failure—for not getting into a good college, thereby ensuring a financially secure future—is much more severe than when we were kids. A precarious economy means people lost their homes, jobs and retirement funds in the recession. Millennials are saddled with debt for college degrees, that, depending on the prestige of the college, may be meaningless in terms of job prospects. (Some of us Gen-Xers are still saddled with debt too.)
The woman who wrote the Slate article? She’s a dean at Stanford. She’s reporting on depression and anxiety in Stanford students. In other words, the helicopter parenting works: The kids she’s studied have a spot at a college that is ranked fifth for highest mid-career salaries.
What this article is saying, as are the roughly 9 million other helicopter parent stories, is that overly involved parenting is harmful. We all agree that it is. But they all place the blame on parents, especially mothers, while the larger story goes unremarked upon: Sure, children with anxious parents are harmed. But the source of the anxiety is living in a culture in which there is very little room for meandering exploration, for experimentation, for failure. We wake them up for tests because for high school students, one bad grade affects college acceptance—and when college is the key to a middle-class life, you can bet parents are going to do anything they can to bolster their kid’s chances. The question is not “Why are parents so pushy and egotistical,” the question is “Why is success reserved for so few people in this country?”
Parents are anxious for good reason: Jobs are hard to come by, housing is expensive, schools vary wildly in quality, and student loans can be predatory. Instead of blaming parents for being anxious, perhaps we could work toward eliminating the sources of anxiety! Instead of saying, “Parents, don’t be so high-strung! Let your children fail,” perhaps we should be saying, “What can we be doing, as a society, to make sure that failure is not so catastrophic for individuals?” What if a cheap community college meant job prospects as promising as those for Ivy Leaguers? What if state schools were free, jobs were plentiful, and lousy health insurance policies didn’t mean bankruptcy?
I’d be a lot more willing to let my kids risk failure if failure didn’t mean they might end up living in a refrigerator box. Only the most privileged feel free enough to let their kids find their own way, to explore, to stumble. The rest of us are driving our kids for robot camp and hoping they have an affinity for STEM subjects.
In other words, we handicap our kids in the short term in order to scratch out some security for them down the line. That’s a lousy bargain. That’s what we should be talking about.