Fabrizio Zilibotti talks about helicopter parenting, fostering innovation in education and society, and the economic returns on education around the world.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Your book “Love, Money and Parenting” is a phenomenon: So many readers and reviewers seem to see it as confirmation of their own way of doing things. Did this surprise you?
Fabrizio Zilibotti: The biggest misinterpretation we faced is that we wrote a book that says “helicopter parenting is good for kids”. But that is not what the book is about.
Most people who recognize themselves in the book have more of an international perspective. When I go back to my own country (Italy), parenting is what it is and they don’t think there might be different ways to do things. When I tell them about the US, and how frenzied it is, it is completely foreign to them.
CSG: In your book, you note that as economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years, the returns on education rise. As an economist, do you think this trend will continue? As education costs, especially in the US, rise, doesn’t that flatten the cost-benefit ratio?
FZ: The future labor market is about jobs that need to be performed by people, as opposed to machines, and all those jobs will require a high degree of literacy. It’s true this will also push up the costs of education in general, but it’s up to society to decide how much of these costs will be borne by individuals or by families or by society altogether.
In the US, costs of higher education are very high, which is a barrier. Further, there are a lot of colleges and universities in the US that do not provide a quality education. It’s important to get into a good school, because the second tier is not so good and the third tier is not good at all. In Europe, apart from being less expensive, the quality is broad-based. In Switzerland, where my daughter studies, all universities are providing a good education.
“A good universal school system is a way of equalizing opportunities. I see the type of parenting more as complementary to what the schools do than as a substitution.”
CSG: You found that the parenting style was more important for school success than the educational level of the parents. Can parenting style compensate for an inadequate school system?
FZ: To some extent, low-quality schools for children could be compensated for by parents, but it puts an additional burden on the parents. Not all parents are trained teachers, for one. And aside from capability constraints, I don’t think this works for most people because of time constraints.
A good universal school system is a way of equalizing opportunities. I see the type of parenting more as complementary to what the schools do than as a substitution.
CSG: Another finding in your book was that societies with a more relaxed school system also showed more innovation in adult work culture. “Teaching innovation” is a buzzword these days, but does innovation have more to do with the culture than the teaching?
FZ: There are different ways to achieve an innovative society. In the US culture, there is a lot of selection through competition, and there are a few institutions that promote innovation and having an innovative mind. The US system is also very good at promoting the ability to take risks. But when one looks at a country like Sweden, or Switzerland, the drive is somehow different. For instance, Sweden has a lot of emphasis on teamwork. And a lot of innovation in companies is related to the ability to work in teams, and of teams to work well together.
“One of the big problems in southern Europe is children’s ambition to become a lawyer, a notary, or a government employee: these are very much last-century jobs.”
Learning how to carry out independent projects and encouraging independent-minded children to discover seems to foster innovation. When my daughter was in school in Switzerland, they were often working on projects that sometimes led to unexpected and interesting outcomes.
What does not seem to work is a system that is very traditional in its teaching structure and at the same time does not promote the individual drive for success. When I speak to people in southern Europe, there is still a traditional approach to teaching with a lot of rote learning. This makes children associate learning with absorbing information and repeating it. One of the big problems in southern Europe is children’s ambition to become a lawyer, a notary, or a government employee: these are very much last-century jobs.
CSG: In high-inequality countries, parents emphasize hard work as the way to get ahead, while in low-inequality countries, parents emphasize independence and imagination. As societies around the world change, how far away are we from a levelling out?
FZ: Some parts of the world have found a path to stable economic growth, while others are still struggling. One common element in developing societies is the decline in fertility and the growing involvement of women in the formal labor market. This is going to change the structure of the family; the trend is toward smaller families with more investment in children’s education. I think there’s a complementarity between the school system, the labor market, and what happens in the family. In Asia there is a lot of social and economic change happening fast; and in Latin America, too, though with more ups and downs. Africa is still at the beginning of this process.
My expectation is that the world will begin to look more and more similar. Even 30 years ago, there was much more cultural diversity: China was a country of limited economic significance, and parts of southeast Asia had just finished a devastating war. But travel has opened up so many places and we have more common habits. Some traditional cultural elements are getting lost, which is a pity, but in general I think it’s a positive process.
“Pre-school is about making the transition easier for children from the family to the society.”
Well-educated immigrants from the Middle East to Western Europe also fit well into this narrative. The more people see a gradient in social ascent, the more they will invest. Overall, immigrants have a stronger drive to succeed through education.
CSG: Policies that can alter the economic and educational environment have the power to mitigate the pressures families currently face in their lives, according to Giuseppe Sorrenti, who wrote a paper with you and Mathias Doepke. What kind of policies?
FZ: Concretely, to have better opportunities in the system of public education, especially at the beginning and at the end.
In Europe, admission to universities is not a stressful event. In some cases, like for medical schools, you may have to take an exam for entrance because places are limited. The US system with its high pressure is more backward than the European one.
One thing that works very well in Germany and Switzerland is the system of vocational training. Many countries perceive this dual educational system as discriminatory, because it directs children away from higher education. But what is more discriminatory than turning out young people who have received no training to face a market with no demand for any of the skills they have?
Another area to relieve parents of some of their burden is pre-school. Very few countries have pushed hard in this direction. My daughter started school in Sweden, and we had a wonderful experience. It’s an opportunity for children to learn to interact, which I think is a very important feature of the Scandinavian system. It also creates more equality in opportunities, since poor children spend more time with an educator.
“Learning how to organize your own time, how to get together with others, is part of positive development.”
In the US, however, the idea of mandatory pre-school is perceived as almost crazy. Even by liberal parents, who perceive it as a service to help the poor, but that’s not the right concept. It’s about making the transition easier for children from the family to the society.
Switzerland has a very conservative concept. They believe that small children should stay with their families as long as possible, especially with their mothers. This is one of the most absurd aspects of the organization of society in Switzerland.
CSG: What are some of the pressures parents face from the economic or socioeconomic side that make parenting difficult?
FZ: If parents encourage activities because they are supposed to signal something for the future, that may also damage the child’s intrinsic motivation. All these children in China who spend so many hours practicing the violin – some probably love playing the violin, but when these activities are about achieving a goal, they become more an element of stress than one of pleasure. It’s like when I was reading certain Italian literature in school: we were told to read it to get a good grade, but you forget that you are reading a very good book.
Comparing our experience as children with that of children today, one big difference is the amount of time children have to just be on their own. We had much more unplanned time, which is not necessarily a terrible thing. Learning how to organize your own time, how to get together with others, is part of positive development. Nowadays every hour is organized: at 3 p.m. there is soccer, at 6 p.m. is music, then homework and this and that. It makes for a frantic schedule that does not necessarily lead to better development.
Fabrizio Zilibotti is an Italian economist and the Tuntex Professor of International and Developmental Economics at Yale University. Together with the Northwestern University economics professor Mathias Doepke, he co-authored Love, Money and Parenting: How Economics Shapes the Way We Raise Our Kids, published in January 2019.