As the skill premium and the economic cost of failing to ascend the education ladder rise in tandem, scholars find that adults are adopting differing parental styles — a crucial form of investment in the human capital of their children — and these differing styles appear to be further entrenching inequality.
Such key factors as the level of inequality, the degree to which higher education is rewarded and the strength of the welfare state are shaping parental strategies in raising children.
In their paper “The Economics of Parenting,” three economists, Matthias Doepke at Northwestern, Giuseppe Sorrenti at University of Zurich and Fabrizio Zilibotti at Yale, describe three basic forms of child rearing:
The permissive parenting style is the scenario where the parent lets the child have her way and refrains from interfering in the choices. The authoritarian style is one where the parent imposes her will through coercion. In the model above, coercion is captured through the notion of restricting the choice set. An authoritarian parent chooses a small set that leaves little or no leeway to the child. The third parenting style, authoritative parenting, is also one where the parent aims to affect the child’s choice. However, rather than using coercion, an authoritative parent uses persuasion: she shapes the child’s preferences through investments in the first period of life. For example, such a parent may preach the virtues of patience or the dangers of risk during when the child is little, so that the child ends up with more adultlike preferences when the child’s own decisions matter during adolescence.
There is an “interaction between economic conditions and parenting styles,” Doepke and his colleagues write, resulting in the following patterns:
Consider, first, a low inequality society, where the gap between the top and the bottom is small. In such a society, there is limited incentive for children to put effort into education. Parents are also 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.
The authors cite the Scandinavian countries as key examples of this approach.
Authoritarian parenting, in turn, is most common in less-developed, traditional societies where there is little social mobility and children have the same jobs as their parents:
Parents have little incentive to be permissive in order to let children discover what they are good at. Nor do they need to spend effort in socializing children into adultlike values (i.e., to be authoritative) since they can achieve the same result by simply monitoring them.
Finally, they continue, consider “a high-inequality society”:
There, the disagreement between parents and children is more salient, because parents would like to see their children work hard in school and choose professions with a high return to human capital. In this society, a larger share of parents will be authoritative, and fewer will be permissive.
This model, the authors write, fits the United States and China.
There are some clear downsides to this approach:
Because of the comparative advantage of rich and educated parents in authoritative parenting, there will be a stronger socioeconomic sorting into parenting styles. Since an authoritative parenting style is conducive to more economic success, this sorting will hamper social mobility.
Sorrenti elaborated in an email:
In neighborhoods with higher inequality and with less affluent families, parents tend to be, on average, more authoritarian. Our models and additional analyses show that parents tend to be more authoritarian in response to a social environment perceived as more risky or less inspiring for children. On the other hand, the authoritative parenting styles, aimed at molding child preferences, is a typical parenting style gaining more and more consensus in the U.S., also in more affluent families.
What do these analyses suggest for policies designed to raise those on the lowest tiers of income and educational attainment? Doepke, Sorrenti and Zilibotti agree that major investments in training, socialization and preparation for schooling of very young (4 and under) poor children along the lines of proposals by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist, can prove effective.
In an October 2020 paper, Fryer and three colleagues described
a novel early childhood intervention in which disadvantaged 3-4-year-old children were randomized to receive a new preschool and parent education program focused on cognitive and noncognitive skills or to a control group that did not receive preschool education. In addition to a typical academic year program, we also evaluated a shortened summer version of the program in which children were treated immediately prior to the start of kindergarten. Both programs, including the shortened version, significantly improved cognitive test scores by about one quarter of a standard deviation relative to the control group at the end of the year.
Heckman, in turn, recently wrote on his website:
A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age five, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability — the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.
In the U.S., the big achievement gaps across lines of race or social class open up very early, before kindergarten, rather than during college. So for reducing overall human capital inequality, building high quality early child care and preschool would be the first place to start.
Zilibotti, in turn, wrote in an email:
We view our work as complementary to Heckman’s work. First, one of the tenets of his analysis is that preferences and attitudes are “malleable,” especially so at an early age. This is against the view that people’s success or failure is largely determined by genes. A fundamental part of these early age investments is parental investment. Our work adds the dimension of “how?” to the traditional perspective of “how much?” That said, what we call “authoritative parenting style” is relative to Heckman’s emphasis on noncognitive skills.
The expansion of the Heckman $13,500-per-child test pilot program to a universal national program received strong support in an economic analysis of its costs and benefits by Diego Daruich, an economist at the University of Southern California. He argues in his 2019 paper “The Macroeconomic Consequences of Early Childhood Development Policies” that such an enormous government expenditure would produce substantial gains in social welfare, “an income inequality reduction of 7 percent and an increase in intergenerational mobility of 34 percent.”
As the debate over the effectiveness of education in reducing class and racial income differences continues, the Moving to Opportunity project stresses how children under the age of 13 benefit when they and their families move out of neighborhoods of high poverty concentration into more middle-class communities.
Moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents. The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31 percent) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties.
There is a long and daunting history of enduring gaps in scholastic achievement correlated with socioeconomic status in the United States that should temper optimism.