Why Affluent Parents Worry About All The Wrong Things

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Psychologist Alison Gopnik says that when it comes to children, we’re concerned about all the wrong things. On the website Edge.org, she writes:

“As a scientist as well as a mother, I worry that much of our current worry about children is misdirected. We worry a lot about the wrong things and we don’t worry nearly enough about the right ones.

Much modern middle-class worry stems from a fundamentally misguided picture of how children develop. It’s the picture implicit in the peculiar but now ubiquitous concept of ‘parenting.’ As long as there have been homo sapiens there have been parents—human mothers and fathers, and others as well, have taken special care of children. But the word ‘parenting’ first emerged in America in the twentieth century, and only became common in the 1970s.

This particular word comes with a picture, a vision of how we should understand the relations between grown-ups and children. ‘To parent’ is a goal-directed verb. It describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to shape your child into a particular kind of adult—smarter or happier or more successful than others. And the idea is that there is some set of strategies or techniques that will accomplish this. So contemporary parents worry endlessly about whether they are using the right techniques and spend millions of dollars on books or programs that are supposed to provide them.

This picture is empirically misguided. ‘Parenting’ worries focus on relatively small variations in what parents and children do —co-sleeping or crying it out, playing with one kind of toy rather than another, more homework or less. There is very little evidence that any of this make much difference to the way that children turn out in the long run. There is even less evidence that there is any magic formula for making one well-loved and financially supported child any smarter or happier or more successful as an adult than another.

The picture is even more profoundly misguided from an evolutionary perspective. Childhood itself is one of the most distinctive evolutionary features of human beings—we have a much longer childhood than any other primate. This extended childhood seems, at least in part, to be an adaptation to the radically increased variability and unpredictability of human environments. The period of protected immaturity we call childhood gives humans a chance to learn, explore, and innovate without having to plan, act and take care of themselves at the same time. And empirically, we’ve discovered that even the youngest children have truly extraordinary abilities to learn and imagine, quite independent of any conscious parental shaping. Our long protected childhood, arguably, allows our distinctive human cognitive achievements.

The evolutionary emergence of our extended childhood went hand in hand with changes in the depth and breadth of human care for children. Humans developed a ‘triple threat’ when it comes to care. Unlike our closest primate relatives, human fathers began to invest substantially in their children’s care, women lived on past menopause to take care of their grand-children, and unrelated adults—’alloparents’—kicked in care, too. In turn, children could learn a variety of skills, attitudes, knowledge and cultural traditions from all those caregivers. This seems to have given human children a varied and multifaceted cognitive tool-kit that they could combine, revise, and refine to face the variable and unpredictable challenges of the next generation.

So the evolutionary picture is that a community of caregivers provide children with two essential ingredients that allow them to thrive. First, adults provide an unconditionally nurturing and stable context, a guarantee that children will be safe and cared for as children. That secure base allows children to venture out to play, explore, and learn, and to shape their own futures. Second, adults provide children with a wide range of models of acting in the world, even mutually contradictory models of acting. Children can exploit this repertoire to create effective ways of acting in often unpredictable and variable environments, and eventually to create new environments. This is very different from the ‘parenting’ picture, where particular parental actions are supposed to shape children’s adult characteristics.

This leads me to the stuff that we don’t worry about enough. While upper middle-class parents are worrying about whether to put their children in forward or backward facing strollers, more than 1 in 5 children in the United States are growing up below the poverty line, and nearly half the children in America grow up in low-income households. Children, and especially young children, are more likely to live in poverty than any other age group. This number has actually increased substantially during the past decade.

More significantly, these children not only face poverty but a more crippling isolation and instability. It’s not just that many children grow up without fathers, they grow up without grandparents or alloparents either, and with parents who are forced to spend long hours at unreliable jobs that don’t pay enough in the first place. Institutions haven’t stepped in to fill the gap—we still provide almost no public support for childcare, we pay parents nothing, and child-care workers next to nothing.

Of course, we’ve felt the moral intuition that neglecting children is wrong for a long time. But, more recently research into epigenetics has helped demonstrate just how the mechanisms of care and neglect work. Research in sociology and economics has shown empirically just how significant the consequences of early experience actually can be. The small variations in middle-class ‘parenting’ make very little difference. But providing high-quality early childhood care to children who would otherwise not receive it makes an enormous and continuing difference up through adulthood.

In fact, the evidence suggests that this isn’t just a matter of teaching children particular skills or kinds of knowledge—a sort of broader institutional version of ‘parenting.’ Instead, children who have a stable, nurturing, varied early environment thrive in a wide range of ways, from better health to less crime to more successful marriages. That’s just what we’d expect from the evolutionary story. I worry more and more about what will happen to the generations of children who don’t have the uniquely human gift of a long, protected, stable childhood.” (Read more here.)

There’s so much richness here, but one small piece I want to seize on is Gopnik’s remark that one function of adults is to “provide children with a wide range of models of acting in the world.” This seems to me to bear on the question of the work parents (and I’m thinking especially here of mothers) do in addition to caring for their children.

If working moms think less about whether they’re “parenting” in exactly the right way (which, as Gopnik notes, is a largely misplaced concern), and more about the “model of acting in the world” they’re providing for their children, a lot of unnecessary guilt and worry could be avoided. The model of an adult who is challenged and fulfilled by her work is surely a positive one for children to have in their lives, and ultimately of far more import than the style of stroller they occupy.

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7 Responses to “Why Affluent Parents Worry About All The Wrong Things”

  1. anniempaul says:

    From Michele Banks (carried over from Facebook): “I guess I just have a negative reaction to an article that tells me I fundamentally misunderstand something that’s been central to my life for over a decade. It’s like those articles saying 80% of us install our car seats wrong or are wearing the wrong size bra. Thanks for letting me know! Also, I think it skates right by the (well established by science) that all people care more about how their own families fare than society in general. I guess also I have worked way too hard to cling to the edge of the middle class to give up any of the benefits for my kid. Anyway, it made me angry, and then cry, so there’s probably something to it.
    Um, and here is an article by Alison Gopnik crediting her parents for providing those opportunities that made her and her siblings all famous writers.”

  2. anniempaul says:

    Michele, I understand your intense reaction to Gopnik’s piece. But I think her message is actually a positive one to parents–that as long as you’re providing a stable and loving home for your children, the little details that we often obsess over don’t matter very much. But providing that stable and loving home is a HUGE task, not at all easy, and very, very worthwhile.

  3. anniempaul says:

    From Courtney Ostaff, carried over from Facebook: “Y’know, I’m all for liberal attitudes, and calls to worry about our society as a whole, but to suggest that since your parenting is good enough to be so much better than “low-income households” that it’s irrelevant is both patently contradictory and, yes, offensive. If I didn’t care intensely about my child’s wellbeing, I probably wouldn’t read anything by Alison Gopnik. Way to alienate your readers who “spend millions of dollars on books” like hers. I guess we were “empirically misguided” to buy her books.
    There is always room for improvement, otherwise we’d all be beating our infant children with rubber hoses for their own good. So, uh, yeah, those small incremental “profoundly misguided” decisions that add up to ” an unconditionally nurturing and stable context” with “a wide range of models of acting in the world” are important, because she tells us later “how significant the consequences of early experience actually can be.”
    You know, giving yourself permission to work, and have your mom take care of the kid because “women lived on past menopause to take care of their grand-children.” Or giving yourself permission to use a good babysitter on a regular basis–AKA when “unrelated adults—’alloparents’—kicked in care.” Or deciding to support it when “fathers began to invest substantially”–AKA, being supportive of your husband when he wants to be involved with the baby instead of dismissing him with “it’s not your responsibility.” All those little, “misguided” decisions that don’t “make much difference.”
    I think she’s confused about “The small variations in middle-class ‘parenting’.” That’s everything from beating our infant children with rubber hoses for their own good, to those “empirically misguided” readers who “spend millions of dollars on books” like hers. Yes, I will admit that statistically speaking, low SES kids are unlikely to have a “a stable, nurturing, varied early environment” but I would argue that the cultural implications here are unlikely to be resolved with half of the country arguing about the “47%” of shiftless parasites. If she really cares, go into politics. Don’t preach to the choir and play guilt on the heartstrings of those “empirically misguided” readers who “spend millions of dollars on books” like hers.”

  4. Ian H says:

    Wow, I am really surprised by the vehemence of these comments! I’m a new parent, thrust centrally into the middle of the upper-middle working class, and I read this and thought “Whew… so you’re telling me I don’t have to worry whether the Sophie Giraffe is the best toy for my 3mo? I don’t need to worry if I’m not already teaching her to memorize colors with a chart in her bedroom?”

    I guess, since I’m new at this, I haven’t invested lots of money into this yet (full disclosure… we did just buy Babywise and we own several other “parenting books”), so don’t feel so cheated?

    But lets be honest, no one held a gun to your head and said BUY THIS STUFF!! Also, if each family dynamic is different, what does it matter what Ms. Gopnik says? If you feel you’ve achieved success thus far with your current strategy, great! If you want to be relieved/reassured that perhaps you are worrying a bit too much whether the socks for your daughter should have letters or numbers on them to influence her long-term career goals, good deal.

    Some people need to take their foot off the peddle, maybe ease off the coffee a bit and consider doing some yoga or something. Don’t let Ms. Gopnik’s findings ruin your day.

  5. John P Mills says:

    I really found the author’s observations on today’s parents accurate in many ways. I’m not simply throwing stones as I have three kids under 10. I see parents worry about the superficial or misguided but I don’t necessarily see it in evolutionary terms. I think that in our materialistic and hedonistic society we all suffer under the weight of unrealistic expectations of a life complete and perfect. We feel the we should be the perfect parent (is there such a thing?) And that we must raise ubdr-children who excel in academics, sports, music and are universally admired by all they encounter. It is a recipe for disappointment, disillusionment and depression. I think American parents to be become more familiar with other parenting pparadigms–watch the documentary “Babies” to comprehend the diversity of child-rearing techniques exist. One might better understand how trying to be the perfect parent can be damaging to the child and parent alike.

  6. anniempaul says:

    From Dennise O’Grady (carried over from Facebook): Part of the obsession may, in fact, be around the thinking about our babies as “philosophical” or as “scientists in the crib.” How can we not pay closer attention and do better, differently given all that we know that we didn’t know before? Who wants to miss this opportunity? That said, I find myself worrying about all the wrong things when I look most like the woman who is “having it all.”

  7. I often find arguments from evolutional psychology a bit post hoc, like Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” but I think anything that encourages middle-class parents to take a chill pill and remember that billions of people have been raised perfectly well without the sage wisdom of the parenting industrial complex. I have a feeling that telling helicopter parents to ‘think about the starving children in…your own city’ might be a hard sell, though Dr. Gopnik is right to point out the recent evidence that the chronic trauma of poverty can do life-long damage to the emotional and economic prospects of these children. It may help for the more privileged parents to realize that the overall character of the world their children will live in as adults is also deeply entwined is the overall character of the world the poorest children find themselves in now.

    Neuroscientist, blogger, ne’er-do-well
    Twitter: @nucAmbiguous

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