In modern society, many aspects of life have become increasingly similar around the world – one of the rare exceptions to this is probably the way we parent our children. In the United States, there is some truth to the stereotype of “helicopter parents” who monitor and guide every step of their children’s lives. Scandinavian parents tend to be the opposite. They are more interested in having their children develop imagination, independence, and a sense of discovery, and they generally interfere much less with their children’s choices.

Why are Americans and Scandinavians so different when it comes to child rearing? What drives the current boom of overparenting in countries like the US?

Inspired by behavioral psychology and sociology, my research with Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti uses an economics approach to explain differences in parenting styles. Parents love their children and want them to be happy. But parents and children often disagree on the best course.

“Our perceptions about the surrounding world shape how we parent our children.”

Parents want to prepare their children for the world that awaits them, and whether a parent chooses to be more relaxed (in keeping with the Scandinavian model) or more controlling (the US model) depends at least in part on the prevailing socioeconomic environment. Our perceptions about the surrounding world shape how we parent our children.

Take the case of inequality. With high levels of inequality in a society, and given the high returns to education, parents feel threatened by the possibility that their children might take the wrong path and fail to succeed in school. In response, they turn into controlling parents who do everything in their power to prevent their children from straying from the “right” path. In contrast, the low levels of inequality found in today’s Scandinavian countries encourage a more relaxed parenting style. The “wrong path,” if it even exists, is not so risky. Parents can relax.

It is not surprisingly that in many countries, the trend toward increasing income inequality that has been observed in recent decades has led to a rise in more intensive parenting practices. American parents are much more involved in their children’s lives today than they were in the past. The average American parent now spends three times as much time on education-related childcare activities as parents did in the mid-70s.

“Policies that can alter the economic and educational environment have the power to mitigate the pressures families currently face in their lives.”

Other data paint the same picture. The World Values Survey shows that in the US, a highly unequal country, roughly 80 percent of parents believe that hard work and obedience are the most important principles to be instilled in children. In Sweden, however, where inequality is particularly low, only 26 percent of parents agree with their American counterparts, while three out of four think that independence and imagination are the most important values to transmit to their children.

What, then, is the best way to prepare our children for life and its challenges? It all depends. By and large, intensive parenting is neither “right” nor “wrong.” However, there are ways to avoid the kinds of excessive overparenting that end up stifling our children’s individual talents, for example. Sometimes the “wrong path” may in fact lead to incredible opportunities. What do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Brad Pitt, and John Lennon have in common? They have all been incredibly successful – and they all dropped out of school!

Policies that can alter the economic and educational environment have the power to mitigate the pressures families currently face in their lives. As a result, parents might feel freer to embrace more relaxed parenting strategies and kids might have more room to discover their true passions – and this might well translate into more joy for our children.

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