Income Inequality and the Rise of Helicopter Parenting

Children at play-- under the supervision of the playground monitor-- in New York's Seward Park, the city's first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Children at play– under the supervision of the playground monitor– in New York’s Seward Park, the city’s first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

A friend posted Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg article “Seven Reasons We Hate Free-Range Parenting” on my Facebook feed today, and as I wrote my comments, it quickly became apparent that my response was just far too long for a Facebook comment. So I’m putting it here. This isn’t meant to be especially thought out or carefully researched, but since the topic overlaps somewhat with some areas of my research, I felt it might be worthwhile to share my scattered thoughts.

I think that “reasons” 3 and 7– about women’s move to the workplace and increasing national wealth– are especially compelling. Along with number 7’s unspoken converse of sorts– “many of us are wealthier, but the haves and have-nots are getting farther apart.”

The free-range parenting being so idyllically recalled, we must remember, is the result of a specific historical moment– the mid-twentieth century, when income disparity was at a historic low.

If we look to the Gilded Age, it’s a different story, as urban children were heavily supervised either by parents or domestics– or they were working themselves. Rural children often enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, but they were often bound to the farm, part of the production model of their family.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the middle class and merchants were beginning to move to streetcar suburbs and immigration was at an historic high, the playground movement began in cities like NYC as a response to the number of tenement children unsupervised in the streets, raising themselves. Middle class reformers began calling for playgrounds– which at the time included indoor spaces as well as outdoor and were strictly monitored and supervised by Playground Attendants. The idea was that too many working class kids were out on the streets, and we need to pin them in and supervise them… For their own good, of course.

As America cut off immigration after WWI and began to homogenize economically, the idea of supervising playground play began to lose favor. It is the children of the Depression through the early 1980s who remember fondly a sprawling world of urban and suburban play and childhood that often included interacting with children of different backgrounds, class, etc.

The new age of helicopter parenting coincides with a growth in economic disparity, which creates more clashes over what McArdle describes as “generally accepted child-rearing practices.” Class disparity usually leads to schisms in “generally accepted behavior.” People facing different concerns, different worries, and different economic realities usually don’t agree on everything. Disparity in income brings about conflicts about acceptable behavior.

Wealthier parents supervise more closely, because they can afford to, and because of the pressures McArdle discusses to build a good college application. Poorer parents are forced to cut corners, perhaps give less supervision. For middle-class and wealthy parents, the world is more and more filled with danger, in the form of creeping poverty— something that is very real as the middle class shrinks.

With our cultural gospel of a college degree as the path to the middle class, more privileged parents look more and more carefully at other parents’ choices in child rearing, as they don’t want their children’s friends to hold them back. The parenting practices of the working class and poor are held under ever-higher scrutiny, and when their choices are not like those of parents of more means, those parents are less likely to be sympathetic, because they fundamentally don’t understand the economic reality poorer families face.

Parenting practices are often cyclical, like so many other things, and the pendulum continues to swing. But if the last thirty years seems like the world getting more and more out of whack, that might be because the pendulum has been thrown wildly out of its regular back and forth motion by a rise in income disparity unlike any since the Progressive Era.