The economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti explain that the turn to intensive parenting was, in part, a reaction to rising economic inequality. In their book, Love, Money and Parenting, they argue that in countries with high social inequality, such as the U.S. and China, parents are required to do far more to support and prepare their children, because business and government do so little. This reality stands in contrast to low-social-inequality countries that have more family-friendly policies, such as Germany and Sweden. Looked at another way: If I don’t have to worry about paying for good-quality preschool, high school, or college; if I know that my child will be okay even without a college degree, because there are plenty of decent jobs when they leave home; if I know I won’t be bankrupted by my child’s illness—let alone my own—then it’s easier for me to relax and hang out with my friends.
According to one study, the average number of close relationships that adults had with friends, co-workers, and neighbors decreased by a third from 1985 to 2004. Meanwhile, the number of hours they spent with children skyrocketed. From 1965 to 2011, married fathers nearly tripled their time (from 2.6 hours to 7.2 hours a week) with children, while married mothers increased their time by almost a third (from 10.6 hours to 14.3 hours a week) in the same time period, according to a 2013 report by Pew. In that time, single mothers almost doubled the amount of time spent with their children, from 5.8 hours a week in 1985 to 11.3 hours a week in 2011, while single fathers went from less than one hour a week in 1985 to about eight hours a week in 2011.
Spending more time with children has been a trend over the past half century, not just in the U.S. but in other wealthy Western countries. However, many of those societies have social policies that don’t force parents to create this time by giving up their social lives. Instead “many Scandinavian and Western European countries have obtained shorter standard work weeks through legislation or collective bargaining,” according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution.
Friendships matter. Although countless studies report their value in maintaining physical and emotional well-being, it seems that when American parents feel crunched, their friendships tend to get sacrificed. In many ways, today’s parents seem to hope their children will provide the meaning and support prior generations of parents received from adult friends, hobbies, and organizational memberships. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, nearly three-quarters of parents of school-age children said they hoped to be best friends with their children when they’re grown. This hope is being fulfilled, to some degree. Studies show that parents and their adult children have far more frequent and affectionate contact than they did only four decades before.
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