I’m fuming a little today over an article I read in the New York Times yesterday on “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting.” The essay purports to explain how parenting has become increasingly difficult due to the increasing cost of child-raising and the demands on parents time, yet I couldn’t help feel throughout that the author kept undercutting her own argument. The graphs and underlying data didn’t necessarily make the points intended, the expert quotes didn’t arise out of the studies cited, and the underlying premise itself seemed misguided. In short, the argument was like a caricature of itself, and, like many articles that seem to sympathize with modern readers, did more to stoke the flames of anxiety than to soothe them.
Whose Kids Are We Talking About, Anyway?
The gist of the article by Claire Cain Miller can be summed up in the header quote:
Raising children has become significantly more time-consuming and expensive, amid a sense that opportunity has grown more elusive.
–“The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” NYT 12/25/2018
This is illustrated by a graph that shows annual spending on children childcare, education,&c). For those in the top income quintile, spending has almost doubled in the last 35 years. Obviously, spending on children has become prohibitively expensive–practically unaffordable–and the ROI for this top fifth of households is apparently insufficient. They’re spending so much more money and not having enough to show for it!
First of all, let’s assume that three decades is enough data to prove a point; realistically, I’d want to go back to at least 1960 to draw large conclusions about such massive social change, but let’s say that the trends hold. Still, the claim of a “significant” increase doesn’t seem to hold for the second quintile group, which saw a modest 10% increase, while the remaining 60% of the population experienced a decrease in spending. Does that mean the entire article is aimed only at the top income quintile, the ones with a pre-tax income somewhere in the neighborhood between $250 and $300,000? Should I even keep reading it then?
Bless this Mess
Parents are spending more time with their children, across all the income quintiles. I did poke around in the studies cited because I love me some data, and several, like this one cited by The Washington Post, support the notion that both men and women have increased time spent with children.
The interesting part of this trend is that mothers in the 1970s dropped time spent when they moved out of their roles as primarily homemakers and into roles as working parents. Yet forty years later, they’ve made up the time with their children and then some. Fathers, as well, have dramatically increased their time. So the author was correct on this point–people are spending more time with their kids.
However time, unlike income, is a finite resource; it has to come from somewhere else. Where’s it coming from? The multiple studies that show time redirected to children are clear on this point–it’s coming from housework. Working parents are hiring housekeepers, using labor-improvement tools that allow housework to take less time, or multi-tasking by doing housework with their kids. I don’t know about you, but the thought of people spending more time on their children and less on housework doesn’t seem like a negative trend to me.
This look at data also suffers from what I think of as graphical myopia. If we focus just on parenting, the increase in time seems worthy of alarm. If we look at data of the entire distribution of people’s time, a different story emerges, as in this Wall Street Journal review of Labor Department data on how Americans spend their time. While “Caring for Family” may have increased, it’s still a pretty small portion of time, especially compared with the “TV/leisure” category.
The Theoretical Crash of the American Dream
What about the need to ensure that our children are better off? The other underlying theme of the article is that parents are no longer able to experience the American Dream, that their children will not be able to be better off than they are.
For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.–“The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting”
Now, it’s true that income disparity is at an all-time high and getting worse, so it’s natural for people to feel like they lack what other people have, at least some other people (that top quintile). We also have only recently emerged from the Great Recession and there are structural economic reasons to feel that some things easy for earlier generations will not be so easy. Education–specifically college education–is relatively more expensive and more necessary than ever before. But it doesn’t seem this adds up to gloom and doom and the death of the American Dream.
First off, the data about children becoming less prosperous takes a very limited viewpoint. The study referenced here showed that while people born in the 1940s had a high percent of surpassing the income of their parents, those born in subsequent decades were less and less likely to do so. Again, this is statistically short-sighted. For those born in the 1980s or 1990s, it’s not the “first time” that they might be less prosperous than parents–it’s happened every decade since the 1940s. Who was born in the 1940s? Children born right after the Depression or during World War II, during times of privation and poverty. Is it a surprise that those children did economically better than their parents?
In addition, I’m bothered by measurements that are only economic or even only based on income. Of course, we want our children to have the best life we can provide. I don’t know that it necessarily always means higher income. There are some grains of truth here. My children will not be able to buy a house the size of the one they grew up in, certainly not as easily. That does make me sad. But I’m not sure they want a big house; I know they don’t want big cars. They care more about the environment than I did at their age and are much happier about getting high gas mileage and not eating meat.
Great, Now I Can Worry about How Much I Worry
The problem at heart, aside from whether these data sets mean what they’re described to mean, is in the underlying premise. Parents feel stressed because they are spending time and resources to help their children “get ahead” and feel pressure from advertisers and sociologist recommendations that they should be doing more of something. But what’s the goal line anyway? Get ahead, by definition, is beating somebody else. Is that the right goal? Do they need to have more income than we did? Do they need to have more than someone else, or just enough?
Maybe I’m overstating the case if the main point of this essay was to make parents feel better that they’re not alone in their concern that they’re not doing enough, no matter what they do. Yet, this reminds of all those articles aimed at working women about how no matter how hard they try, they can’t “have it all.” Such analyses always seem like more of a criticism than not–bad enough that you want to try to have it all–now you should feel bad for trying. Parents who are so concerned at spending all this time and money (without, it is assumed, achieving enough of a payoff) can now also be worried that they are obsessing about it.
Anecdotal Is Not Statistical, But It Is Powerful
Much of the article also references anecdotal data, quotes by parents expressing frustration and concern that they feel pressure to keep up, without knowing exactly how or whether the efforts will pay off. Anecdotal examples always bother me a little, especially when people’s feelings are substituted for data. But I can play the anecdote game, too.
I have two college-age children. Like the stressed, working parents quoted by the Times, I fretted about providing enough opportunities for them. I definitely wanted them to do things my parents couldn’t afford or didn’t have available for me, whether it was horseback riding, karate lessons, science camps, and middle school wrestling. Yet, for all the educational-themed camps I pushed them towards, they benefited most in the summer from those programs that made them run around all day and play non-educational games.
My son spent much of high school skateboarding, without math tutors, science fair projects, or statewide competitions. I probably would have pushed him, if I thought he wouldn’t be kicking and screaming all the way. He’s now working on a graduate degree in science, despite not being hip-deep in it at school. Home for Christmas break this week, he’s been hanging with his high school skater buddies, and those friendships seem like they’ll now be decades-long.
My daughter was academically strong but loved choir so much that she’s now aiming for a career in music education. Her first private music lesson was to help her pass her college auditions. This is what I gleaned from all the focus on providing the “extras.” The kids don’t go where you aim them anyway.
Kids will grow like weeds on a fence…they look to the light and they try to make sense…
–Suzanne Vega, “Iron Bound Fancy Poultry”
That’s the saddest part of reading about others’ stress, cost, and anxiety. My grandparents didn’t follow their parents, and my parents didn’t follow them. My brother and I forged paths different than what our parents seemed to expect, although we did absorb their appreciation for the values of a good education, hard work, and support for the community.
Real long-term longitudinal studies would likely show that rebellion is as likely as anything. We try to fine-tune and tinker with the lives of our children, but they’ll go where they’re destined to go. If you can provide a sufficient upbringing and add your love and sense of values, then they’ll thrive, whether they have horseback riding or not, private music lessons, swim teams, or intensive parenting. Or not.