Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.
Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.
Follow the Money
In a just-published paper in the journal Demography, Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg report their analyses of how much money American parents spent on children between 1972 and 2007. The authors use the most comprehensive available survey of spending patterns, the Consumer Expenditure Survey. They calculate the average spending of households per child, per year, for children up to the age of 24 on childcare and babysitting; on education, which includes, books lessons, and tuition; and on everything else, which includes clothes, sports equipment, and toys. The authors adjust the dollar amounts for inflation; these are 2008 dollars. Their basic findings are in this figure (adapted from their table 1):
Spending has sharply increased, overall from about $1,310 to $2,200 per child. The major drivers were childcare, up from about $180 to about $540, and education, up from about $620 to about $1,190. (It does not seem to be about the toys.) In percentage terms, American households’ spending on children rose from 3.1 to 3.6 percent of all their spending. If the survey had counted education costs for children over age 24, the upward trend would probably have been yet stronger, given rapidly rising tuition costs.
Finding the Time
But are today’s parents just buying out their guilt with nannies and after-school programs? It seems not. A few studies suggest that American children, on average, are getting as much or more one-on-one with their parents as those parents did when they were children (see 1, 2 and 3, 4, 5). The patterns are complex, given that more moms are out of the home more hours now than in the 1970s (see this post) and kids are doing more after-school activities. But, through a variety of means – such as fathers taking more responsibility, couples juggling night schedules, parents doing a lot less housekeeping, and women sleeping less – American parents are, on average, working harder at being parents.
But Not All Succeed
As with most things, however, the trend toward widening class inequality in the U.S. shows that these averages mask quite different fates for different children
On the money front, Kornrich and Furstenberg show that affluent households – that is, those in the top half of income (adjusting income for the number in the household) – increased their spending on children from 1972-73 to 2006-07 by about $1,600 per child per year; $3,700 for households in the top ten percent. The rest of American households increased their spending on children by only about $200. Yet, because of widening income inequality, that $200 for the less affluent entailed a greater increase in the proportion of their total spending than the $1,600 did for the higher-income households. (Numbers calculated from report, table 2.) That is, Americans in the bottom half had to stretch themselves more for their kids than higher income parents did even if the dollar amounts were far, far less.
Moreover, setting aside income, the gap in spending between kids of college-educated parents and kids of other parents also grew, pointing to the widening educational inequality the nation has been undergoing (see this post).
On the time front, the data are murkier, but it appears that here, too, children of the college-educated are doing increasingly better than the children of the less educated. Certainly, children of single moms, who tend to be of low education and low income, lose contact time when their mothers go to work.
Why would today’s parents seemingly press themselves harder to nurture their children? One possibility is that they increasingly subscribe to a child-centered ideology that has been developing for the last several decades, one involving what sociologist Annette Lareau describes as the “concerted cultivation” of children by what historian Peter Stearns labels Anxious Parents. Another is that today’s parents, like those of earlier eras of economic transitions (see, e.g., here), feel the pressure to prepare their children for an uncertain future, to get a head start on the competition.