Yet Another Reason Parents Are Miserable


It’s become conventional wisdom now that having kids won’t make you happy — in America, it might even make you sadder. There are a lot of possible reasons, but one is particularly interesting: inequality.

Most coverage of child-rearing in America focuses on one of two very disparate issues: the “helicopter” craziness of middle- and upper-middle-class moms and dads, or the serious struggles faced by parents less financially fortunate. Sometimes these two groups seem to come from different universes, as articles written about one fail to even acknowledge the existence of the other. But now, M.S. at The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog brings them together. Apropos of a long New York piece by Jennifer Senior, M.S. mulls “the anxiety and over-protectiveness of American parents.” And of data showing that Dutch and French parents may be happier than American ones, M.S. writes,

[I]t’s always seemed to me that this anxiety is also driven in part by high levels of inequality. In a society with a large gap between excellent and inadequate schools, parents face tremendous psychological pressure to raise and educate their kids the “right” way. In societies with a more egalitarian distribution, parents don’t reproach themselves so much for laying off the kids a bit.

It’s an astute observation, especially coming just a few days after a discussion on giftedness testing on the Times Room for Debate blog. There, Clara Hemphill of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School gave this advice:

Do test your child if your regular neighborhood school is inadequate. Don’t test your child if you have a solid neighborhood school.

So basically, parents with means and time should get their kids’ intelligence tested in order to flee “inadequate” neighborhood schools — leaving those schools to kids whose parents can’t navigate the testing process. Hemphill’s not alone — testing to “get out” of neighborhood schools was just as common in Los Angeles in the eighties and nineties as it is in New York now, and my brother and I were both tested partially for this reason. My mom lost a lot of sleep over it, but at the time the general thinking among our parents and their peers was that there was no way they could fix our struggling local schools, at least not within the timeframe of our childhoods. And their first priority was, fortunately or unfortunately, their own kids. But no kid deserves an inadequate school, and the purpose of intelligence testing (if it has a purpose), shouldn’t be to help some kids escape bad schools while others stay behind. The fact that it so often is starkly illustrates the inequality M.S. is talking about.

Maybe if America were less stratified — if it didn’t seem like young people needed some sort of leg up in order to lead a decent life — then middle-class parents would be less stressed out about providing exactly the right opportunities for their kids. And maybe the opportunities they currently jockey for — spots at good schools being conspicuous among them — would actually be available to kids whose parents don’t have the time or money to “helicopter.” And if parents were no longer divided into rich-and-stressed or poor-and-struggling, maybe all of them would be a lot happier.

Image via Jacek Chabraszewski/

Parenting And Happiness [Economist Democracy in America Blog]
All Joy And No Fun [NY Mag]
The Pitfalls In Identifying A Gifted Child [NYT Room For Debate Blog]

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