American parents are often told that they should be more like Scandinavians, that they should encourage free play, self-determination and discovery. That while it’s important for children to do lots of enriching activities, as is the American way, it’s also important to let them alone to dream, wonder and create, like the Swedes and Finns and the rest do. That in fact American children are hounded by the specter of not getting into a good college, and that intensive focus can prevent them from finding what they really love. People point to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, college dropouts who rebelled against the American system and then went on to find success once they followed their interests.
And the impression that the more relaxed, Northern way of life improves wellbeing is supported by the evidence: Northern Europeans rank consistently at the top of the Gallup World Happiness Ranking, where the U.S. comes in only 14th. Their children thrive, too: Northern European countries (together with the Netherlands) also top the UNICEF ranking of child wellbeing (which includes measures of material conditions, health, safety, education, risk, housing and the environment), far ahead of the U.S. at 26th.
But as economists, we believe that mimicking the Scandinavians is an unreasonable expectation, directed at parents who may not realize how little can be in their control. What many parents do not recognize is that a lot of the way they raise their children is dictated by economics. As important as personal preferences and values may be, how we raise our kids is deeply influenced by the institutions and economic conditions of the society in which we live.
Consider the challenge of raising a child in the United States today. We live in an extraordinarily competitive society with high economic inequality. Within the industrialized world, the United States is the country with the highest income inequality. A big part of this inequality is about education: college-educated workers now make about twice as much on average as less educated workers. And even within the college-educated crowd, which school you went to and which major you chose now matters a lot for economic prospects. On average, getting high-quality education leads to economic success, in spite of the oft-mentioned illustrious examples of Jobs & Co. In today’s America, kids who slack off at school even a little bit risk losing a lot. Colleges vary widely in quality, and to get into a top institution a near-perfect resume is required. The average high school GPA of students admitted to top colleges is now above 4.0 (only possible through extra credit for advanced classes).
It is no surprise, then, that American parents have become more “intense” over time. Since the 1970s, the time that parents spend on interacting with their kids has almost doubled, even as the average number of children per family has declined. Parents are also ever more focused on making sure that their kids succeed in school: In the 1970s, average parents spent less than 20 minutes per week helping kids with homework. The same task takes almost two hours per week now.
Compare this to what it is like to be a parent in a country like Sweden, where economic inequality is much lower. In Sweden, college-educated workers earn only 25% more on average than workers who did not go to college, compared to twice as much as in the United States. Sweden has good universities, but they are of fairly uniform quality, and university admission is far less competitive than in the United States. So the educational stakes are much lower. Hand in hand with this goes a more relaxed parenting culture and educational institutions that put less pressure on students to perform. Most young kids attend preschool, which is voluntary but highly subsidized, but these are all about play rather than formal learning (and also almost free of charge). Children enter first grade at age 7, they do not receive grades until sixth grade, and there is little homework.
One of us raised his daughter in Sweden until she was 7 and experienced firsthand that Swedish parents emphasize the importance of independence and free play for children and frown upon parents who push their small children to work hard for school. The other is raising three boys in the U.S., where even 2-year-olds face admission tests for preschools, and kids start learning about letters and math starting at age 3. In fact, data from the World Values Survey shows that in Sweden only 10% of parents think it is important to teach to kids the value of hard work, compared to about two-thirds in the United States. Conversely, 60% of Swedish parents praise the value of fostering children’s imagination — a share twice as large as in the United States.
This suggests that parents (consciously or not) simply do the best they can in raising their children, weighing the pros and cons of different approaches, and responding to the different incentives they face in different societies. If some of the choices of today’s parents in the U.S. seem extreme or overly invasive compared to earlier generations, this merely reflects that the world we live in has changed.
America should ask itself bigger questions, such as whether parenting choices that make sense for individual families make sense for society as a whole. In the extreme, parenting can turn into an “arms race” in which each family tries to push their kid ahead of others, leaving everyone exhausted. We may even be putting mental health at risk – teenagers have been suffering from depression at increasing rates in recent years.
The kids aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a different approach. For parents, more relaxed parenting would be less stressful and more fun. For the economy as whole, there is a real risk that in a system that compels teens to organize their life choices around impressing college admission officers, we will end up with fewer truly creative and original adults. Notably, low-pressure Sweden is a highly innovative society, including a tech sector that has spawned Skype, Spotify, Minecraft, and Candy Crush Saga, a remarkable feat for a country of less than 10 million people. Of course, the U.S. is also an innovative country, driven in part by a dynamic business sector and the advantages of scale that clusters such as Silicon Valley offer. But the example of Sweden suggests that slowing down the rug rat race to make room for more intrinsic motivation could also contribute to technological dynamism, while sparing children and parents some of the pressure of the current arrangement.
To effect change, Americans should stop critiquing parents, and instead, parents should pressure politicians. They can press policymakers to change the policies that have created the current high-stress environment for families. Broad access to high-quality preschool would provide children from all backgrounds with similar starting conditions. More equal funding of schools, more government support for public universities, and investments in vocational training would provide more paths to success for our children. And economic policies that push back directly against the rise in inequality, such as more progressive taxation and more financial support for struggling families, can help, too. If we succeed in changing policies and institutions, the stakes in the parenting race will be reduced, and parents will be able to embrace a more relaxed approach to raising their children.
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