Intensive (often impossible) parenting is all the rage

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Regardless of their education, income, or race, most parents say a child-centered, time-intensive approach to parenting is the best way to raise their kids, researchers report.

The findings suggest intensive parenting has become the dominant model for how parents across the socioeconomic spectrum feel they should raise their children—regardless of whether the parent has the resources to actually do so.

“This points to exceptionally high standards for how parents should raise their kids. It suggests that parents are experiencing significant pressure to spend great amounts of both time and money on children,” says Patrick Ishizuka, a fellow at the Cornell University Population Center.

Most parents also say intensive parenting is the ideal approach for both mothers and fathers, and applies to parenting boys and girls, according to the study.

“It’s remarkable just how widespread support is for intensive parenting, in terms of social class and gender,” adds Ishizuka.

What parents expect from themselves

Researchers in the field have known that parents with low incomes and less education tend to spend less time and money on children than parents with higher incomes and more education. But it hadn’t been clear whether that’s because they lack resources or because they prefer a different approach to childrearing. Ishizuka’s study is the first to directly address the question using a nationally representative survey, by asking parents of different social classes what they consider “good parenting.”

Ishizuka analyzed data from more than 3,600 study participants who were parents. The participants read about various scenarios in which a mother or father interacts with a child between the ages of 8 and 10. The vignettes focused on the child’s leisure activities, how the parent speaks to the child, and how the family interacts with professionals in institutions like schools or a doctor’s office. The participants then ranked the parent’s behavior from “excellent” to “poor.”

Each scenario described one of two approaches to parenting: concerted cultivation (an intensive parenting approach) or natural growth (a non-intensive parenting approach). In concerted cultivation, parents facilitate their child’s participation in extracurricular activities, play with them at home, ask them about their thoughts and feelings, and respond to misbehavior with discussion and explanations.

In contrast, parents taking the natural growth approach set rules for their children’s safety but give them flexibility to play on their own or with friends. Parents are less involved in the children’s activities and give them clear directives with little room for negotiation.

In one vignette, a child complains about being bored after school. In the concerted cultivation condition, the parent suggests they can sign the child up for a sports team or music lessons. In the natural growth condition, the parent suggests the child go outside and play with her friends.

Ishizuka also analyzed whether the participants answered questions differently when the parent was a woman or a man and if the child was a boy or a girl.

The vast majority—75 percent—of college graduates and non-college graduates rated the concerted cultivation approach as “very good” or “excellent.” But only 32 percent of college graduates and 38 percent of non-college graduates rated the natural growth parenting style “very good” or “excellent.”

Ideals vs. reality

The findings imply that parents may struggle to meet these ideals—especially if they have low incomes and education levels.

“These high standards are less compatible with some parents’ resources,” Ishizuka says.

“Even though parents with a lower socioeconomic status have these ideals, we know that they’re not, on average, engaging in these parenting behaviors as often as college graduates. A lack of time and money could be a factor in shaping their behaviors, given that they have very similar ideals.”

The National Science Foundation, Mathematica Policy Research, Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences, and the Cornell Population Center funded the research.

The research appears in the journal Social Forces.

Source: Cornell University