Hyper-parenting has many pitfalls. Over-protected and over-praised children may develop an inflated sense of entitlement. Parents who obsess about every detail of child-rearing and orchestrate their children’s “résumés” may run themselves ragged while their own personal identities and adult relationships wither for lack of care.
But are today’s involved parents creating spoiled Peter and Priscilla Pans who refuse to take on grown-up responsibilities? Or are parents and youths simply trying to navigate around new obstacles that make the route to adulthood more circuitous than in the past?
We should recognize that “concerted cultivation,” despite its excesses and absurdities, is not an unreasonable response to new socioeconomic realities. Youths who experience it tend to benefit, although they may be somewhat slower to mature. Today, young people who postpone major transitions are actually more likely to end up with stable marriages and careers than their early-maturing counterparts.
The payoffs for delaying work to get more education and training have never been greater. The same holds true for delaying family obligations. On average, each year that young people postpone marriage, right up into the mid-30s, lowers their chance of divorce, and each year a woman delays motherhood leads to improved test scores for her children.
Parents who provide parental subsidies and guidance also get benefits. Young adults today are close to their parents in ways that astonish men and women who raised children in the 1950s and 1960s. And children who leave home later than average give their parents more material and practical support as they age than do their more self-reliant counterparts. Interestingly, in 2010, 60 percent of youths 18 to 29 believed that children should take in an elderly parent if the parent wishes, while only 40 percent of adults 60 and older held that view. This is not a generation going to hell in a hand basket.
In the 1950s and 1960s, youths tended to move directly from school to a full-time job that, for men, often became a lifetime career. Starting a family early was advantageous because married men, especially with children to support, were considered more responsible employees, who deserved promotions and raises more than single men.
Establishing an independent household was easier then too. By age 30, the average young man, even without a college education, could buy a median-priced home on just 15 to18 percent of his annual income. For most young women, excluded from the postwar rise in men’s real wages, “settling down” to marriage and motherhood was a practical necessity.
Today, by contrast, achieving economic stability requires a college education, which often comes with a debt load unthinkable in the postwar era. After graduation, most youths move through several preparatory jobs or training experiences that may help them establish a career later, but which don’t provide real financial independence in the meantime.
Anxious about the hollowing out of middle-class jobs, many parents double down on efforts to provide their children with skills and resources that improve their competitiveness. To that end they often subsidize their offspring’s accumulation of work and volunteer experience by helping with living expenses or allowing a child to move back home.
Unfortunately, today’s intensive parent techniques continuously up the competitive ante, exacerbating the growing inequality that created this parental anxiety in the first place. The academic achievement gap between low- and high-income children has increased over the past 40 years, as has the gap in rates of college entry and completion. The arms race among high-income parents often does turn their children into winners. But society as a whole loses.