Modern Parenting Is a Scam on America’s Middle-Class Families

Long a noun, “parent” didn’t become the English language verb “parenting” until 1956. Even then it didn’t enter common usage until the late 1970s. Some 50 years later, the word is ubiquitous. But if “parenting” is a poster child for linguistic flux, its proliferation is also indicative of massive cultural changes and the shift of economic burdens from the government and corporations onto mothers and fathers. The word was popularized by religious zealots like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, author of the Old Testament–inspired, spare-the-rod parenting book Dare to Discipline, and well-meaning educators like Penelope Leach, author of the 1977 blockbuster Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five. Ultimately, however, the idea of parenting — the notion that mom and dad are uniquely responsible for their child’s care and outcomes and that this should make them very nervous indeed — was made trenchant to Americans by economic instability.

A graph of usage of the word “parenting” over time looks like a steep slope moving up and to the right from the 1960s through the early part of the 2000s before plateauing. Lay that slope over a graph American income inequality over the same period and you’ll be looking at an almost perfect X. This inverse correlation indicates — though causality is obviously difficult to pin down — the degree to which modern notions of parenting were popularized in the context of a widening gap between the middle and upper classes. The bigger that gap gets, the more relevant parenting seems to be. And this is unlikely to be a coincidence. There’s plenty of reason to believe parenting and income inequality are inextricably linked.

And this evidence suggests not only that modern parenting has evolved represents a reaction to inequality, but also that it is, in the broadest sense possible, a scam on the middle class.

Like all scams, parenting is about the allocation of capital. The USDA, which issues regular reports on the cost of raising kids, estimates that adjusted for inflation, the modern cost of raising a kid to the age of 17 increased 16 percent over the past 59 years, from $202,000 to $233,610. That doesn’t sound extreme until you consider the fact that time is also money.

And parenting as a pursuit is becoming more time-consuming, and therefore even more costly. A 2006 time-diary survey found that mothers employed outside the home spent the same amount of time on parenting duties as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. That’s despite the fact that a 2015 Pew Research study reported that fathers have increased time spent on child-rearing duties three-fold since 1965. The cost of that unpaid labor? According to a recent analysis that used market replacement costs to place value on unpaid labor, mothers should be paid the equivalent of $70,000 a year for their duties at home. For fathers, the figure is $26,000. Given that middle-class households earn between $45,000 and $139,999, it’s safe to say that American parents are dumping value into a less than remunerative activity.

What does this say about parenting as an expressly modern phenomenon? It says that middle-class parents have been persuaded to invest all they have in the service of keeping their kids in the ever-shrinking middle class or providing them with an increasingly slim shot at social or economic mobility. It says that parents have been persuaded to take on the work of building what may be the world’s greatest labor force for free as corporations have steadily divested from American families. Modern parents take responsibility for the success of their children. This seems, on a sentimental level, desirable but has unintended effects. Parents are strained for time and convinced that they can manufacture success even as the odds tilt further and further against them.

So, how did we get here: a country full of over-scheduled, over-parenting, and overwhelmed mothers and fathers who never-the-less feel they’re doing the right thing? It helps to know that it wasn’t always this way. Raising kids became parenting thanks to a series of cultural and economic shifts which lead to the parenting industrial complex.

In the early part of the 20th century, childhood changed drastically for kids in America. For most of the history of the United States, children had been essential to a family’s economy. They contributed either by working in the home or as wage-earners. Many children took on child-care duties to relieve the pressure on their mothers.

But as the century progressed, middle-class childhoods became longer and less about physical labor. It was increasingly a child’s job to learn and grow. This removed them from the household economy, increasing the burden on mothers — many of whom had lost built-in child care. This increased the cost of unpaid labor in the home, but primarily for women.

As childhood became longer, increasing mothers’ contacts with kids, Americans were also becoming increasingly enamored with science as a solution to the world’s ills. Soon mothers were being encouraged to raise children based on research rather than maternal instincts or inter-generational knowledge passed from grandmothers. This increased maternal anxiety. How could their child thrive if they weren’t being raised with the best knowledge? Child-rearing books became popular, Parents Magazine was launched in the 1930s, and business started getting into the game too.

In 1941, the Ivory soap company released a book called Bathing Your Baby the Right Way. The book given to new mothers in the hospital and extolled physician and expert advice on everything from holding a baby to protecting it from diseases. Of course, along with this advice was the claim that doctors recommended Ivory soap. Marketing, expert advice, and paternal anxiety over how to raise kids were becoming entwined.

But “parenting” was yet to emerge. Why? Up through the years immediately following World War II, the primary parent was, by and large, mothers. Yes, women’s unpaid labor had increased, but it was considered to be compensated by the father’s salary. And, to a large degree, it was. (Not that women got to control the balance.) This was the era of the family income.

But employers weren’t offering a family income because they were somehow more altruistic in the late 1950s. At the time, organized labor was the rule. Union membership hit an all-time high in America and workers could use their collective bargaining rights to shame employers into a family wage. At the height of the family wage, 35 percent of working Americans were represented by a union. Today that number is around 10 percent and falling precipitously.

Make no mistake, motherhood was becoming an increasingly hard and anxious endeavor, but for a huge population of middle-class families, motherhood was a vocation. This can be seen in the literature of the time. During the early and middle part of the 20th century, the word “mothering” was seeing a slow, steady climb in usage. But by 1977, “parenting” had surpassed “mothering” in common usage.

There were a handful of significant changes that triggered the shift. For one thing, forces of globalization and deregulation hobbled manufacturing. Low-paid, non-union, service industry jobs began to dominate the employment market for individuals with high school educations. By the mid-1970s wages for those with only a high school diploma began a slow and steady decline, while those with college degrees saw their wages climb. The top 20 percent of earners saw income increase 97 percent between 1976 and 2014 leaving behind middle-class workers, who saw moderate income growth of just 40 percent.

As the economy changed, women went back to work. Much of the return was spurred on by women seeking independence, but many families felt it was necessary to have both parents earning in order to stay afloat. The problem? Dual-income families earn more than single-income families (by up to 75 percent), but they have 25 percent less money to spend than single-income families. That’s because spending on housing, child care, and medical expenses increased.

As work hours grow for parents, employers wind up paying less for more. The family wage evaporated and the labor at home didn’t. Parents work constantly. Some of that labor is paid. Some of that labor isn’t paid. But, in essence, middle-class parents get a pay cut.

At the same time, government spending on programs to benefit children was outpaced by massive increases in spending on adult programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While the share of spending for kids has increased as a percentage of gross domestic product, that growth is minimal and sporadic. And shrinkage is coming. It is also broadly irrelevant because of climbing higher education costs.

While spending on children has crept along, the government’s support for higher education has all but disappeared. In the post-war years, college was cheap. The government was in the business of offering grants, rather than loans, and state funding ensured tuition remained affordable. But as state budgets began to shrink, there was less money for public universities which passed the cost on to students. When compared to the rate of inflation in the cost of living since the late 1970s, the rate of inflation in tuition is four times higher. That represents a tuition increase of nearly four percent every year.

At the same time, the government began pushing loans rather than grants. Students had to take on massive amounts of debt in order to get a higher education that would lead to higher wages. But higher costs and more applicants made college more expensive and more competitive, closing off a path to success for the middle class.

Parents might have urged kids to forego college, seeing a bad deal, but as college prices climbed the importance of secondary education became impossible to dispute. During the years of the family wage, income inequality between the top earners and bottom earners was at a historic low. There were a variety of paths to the middle class and as a result, less for parents to be concerned about. By the 1980s, it was becoming difficult to maintain a middle-class lifestyle without a college degree. Now, it’s nearly impossible. And getting ahead is difficult without a degree from a hyper-competitive elite school. This puts parents in the position of not only taking on some of the costs of college but taking on the costs of preparing kids to compete to get into college — think of all those extracurriculars.

And this is how parenting explodes. An increased economic burden on parents is coupled with competition for access to opportunity. Anxiety becomes a given. And that anxiety changes social norms at speed, giving rise to the youth sports-industrial complex, the test prep industry, and all that homework. So much for disorganized games of stickball.

The youth sports industry rakes in $5 billion every year from parents. Private music instruction can run about $50 an hour. For $80 a private academic tutor will help in specialized subjects and a professional coach in certain youth sports can cost up to $100 an hour.

An example of the downstream effects of this cultural shift is apparent in toy stores. The past decade has seen an explosion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) toys meant to boost a children’s ability to think like scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians, which is to say, white-collar workers. According to a Toy Association industry survey related to STEM toys, parents buying into this trend felt children should start training for a career around the age of 5. Additionally, 85 percent of parents planned to encourage their kid to learn to code at 7 years old. In short, parents seem to implicitly understand that they are shouldering the burden of training workers. (Though it’s worth noting that the benefits of the STEM approach are entirely unclear.)

And almost every business that operates around parents or children winds up advocating for modern parenting despite the fact that it may not be a sustainable practice. The information published by Fatherly is expert and exhaustive. We take great pains to source all advice from researchers and people in the know. This means that the library of advice we’ve created should have real value for parents. But any parent trying to do parenting right and follow all the advice we’ve published will surely die of exhaustion. It is simply not possible — nor ultimately advisable — to follow all the correct parenting advice. Parenting in our current conception is simply not sustainable on that high level.

Which, naturally, leads to more stress.

And that stress is absolutely growing for parents. As the public and private sectors slink away from their accountability to the American family, being a parent gets harder. But parents buy the scam that their efforts will compensate. This is unlikely. Hitting milestones early doesn’t mean a child will be exceptional. A STEM toy does not guarantee a lucrative career. And over-parenting and anxiety might be hurting kids. A recent study from Lehigh University found that as long as parents respond to babies cues for attention at least 50 percent of the time, children develop secure attachments. However, if a parent interrupts a baby while they are exploring the world it’s likely a baby can develop an insecure attachment. More parenting is, in short, not better. Returns diminish rapidly.

It has become clear that demands for unpaid labor have thrown parents off balance. As anxieties over our children’s future economic success are exploited, family life has become a crucible of stress and striving. In the midst of all the parenting, children are losing their ability to develop autonomy and explore their world. In turn, they are growing into increasingly unhappy adults. The children produced by peak parenting have higher rates of mental health problems, suicide, and feelings of loneliness.

This is not to say that being a parent who participates in a child’s life is a bad thing. One very good thing about the changes in parenting since the early 20th century is that parents are differently invested in the outcome of their children’s lives. The problem is that we have very good reasons to be concerned.

Modern parenting is not so much motivated by forging loving bonds with our kids that help them become good people. Modern parenting is far more concerned with building good employees from birth. And that’s completely backward.

If parenting as we know it is a scam, the question becomes how middle-class parents can extricate themselves. There are ways this can be done on a personal level — strategically standing up to pressures around certain pursuits — but it’s not as simple as opting out because the potential consequences of righteous action will fall on children with more limited opportunities. More plausibly, the solution has to do with government policies designed to support parents. These are increasingly part of Democrats political platforms and seem to be gaining some momentum with Republicans as well. Whether or not what has become a vicious cycle can be broken by government intervention remains to be seen, but it’s something parents might do well to advocate for in the absence of other clear solutions.

Ultimately, it’s clear that there needs to be a more open conversation about parenting and what can reasonably be expected of the people doing that work.

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