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Parenting: A Social Science Perspective

recommended by Nate G. Hilger

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis by Nate G. Hilger

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis
by Nate G. Hilger


We think of parenting as a level playing field because loving your kids and doing everything you can for them comes naturally and isn't determined by socio-economic status. The problem is that it may not be enough, says economist Nate G. Hilger. Here, he argues for a more activist approach so that kids across society have an equal opportunity to do well in life.

Interview by Benedict King

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis by Nate G. Hilger

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis
by Nate G. Hilger


Before we get to the books, does looking at parenting through the lens of an economist tell us something about the role of parenting that is significantly at variance with what has traditionally been understood as good parenting?

Yes, absolutely. Parenting is typically viewed as the most egalitarian of activities. On some level, it is an activity that everybody is naturally qualified to do, and most people are able to excel at on a level playing field. That is true for some core aspects of parenting like loving children, comforting them, making them smile and laugh. But in terms of building all the complex skills that can really benefit kids in adulthood, that process is very complicated and expensive and time-consuming. That is not a level playing field and I think economics can reframe that part of parenting as a place where more people could benefit from greater assistance, and where the public has a big role to play because this is a very high-stakes problem that markets and private initiative can’t solve on their own. We need the public to build roads and armies, and we need the public to help build people, too.

Let’s explore this in more detail by looking at the books you’ve chosen. First up is Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life by Annette Lareau. Tell us about this book and why you’ve chosen it.

This is one of the best books I have ever read, period. The author managed to convince dozens of regular families from all socio-economic backgrounds to let her and her research team hang out in their homes and observe them in the course of their normal day-to-day activities. This meant researchers were in your living room, watching TV with you and your kids. They were in your dining room as you tried to help your kid with homework. They were accompanying you to your parent-teacher conference, the dentist, the grocery store. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more bizarre and awkward than what Lareau pulled off to do this research.

She found that higher-income and lower-income families make radically different kinds of investments and choices related to their children. It has nothing to do with love or devotion. It has to do with the kinds of expertise and resources that upper-class parents are able to bring to this problem. You cannot read her book and come away with any other view than that child skill development—making the most of children’s potential contributions—is very hard, and is not an egalitarian activity. It is something that requires immense skill and wealth to really pull off confidently. And I think it’s an incredible contribution to make that fact so tangible and vivid in these minute-by-minute experiences that families shared with her and her research team. I found it profoundly absorbing and profoundly important. It’s rare to see both those things in the same book. It’s one of the greatest social science achievements of all time.

Did she find that the rich were very clearly aware of the benefits that they were conferring on their children? And similarly, were the poorer people she observed clearly aware of the benefits they could bring to their children if they had more money?

The more affluent families were doing things quite deliberately to try to benefit their children. They were making choices to put their kids in all kinds of extracurricular activities and to manage their health and education very carefully. Through the lens of their professional skills and attitudes, they thought this was bringing value to their children. The lower-income parents were not really symmetric. There were exceptions of course, but they were often not fully aware of the implications of their parenting style, and the opportunities that their children were missing. Part of my goal in my book was to bring greater awareness of the importance of these missed opportunities so that lower-income parents can start to get a little bit angry that their children are being denied some of these opportunities.

Let’s move on to the next book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. What does this book tell us about parenting?

This is a beautifully written book. It’s a joy to read because Paul Tough is such a masterful storyteller, and it makes a powerful point. He focuses on what economists call ‘non-cognitive skills’. These are skills beyond just IQ or academic achievement. They’re things like self-discipline and tenacity, emotional empathy and things that help you thrive in a collaborative, modern, professional environment. These kinds of skills, Tough argues in the book, are a very important part of success, which is consistent with what a lot of conservatives argue when they talk about the importance of personal responsibility and discipline and patience. So it’s interesting that there’s a nod to a lot of what conservatives are saying.

“Our failure to support parents is really damaging our entire society and economy”

But the book shows that these skills don’t come from a vacuum. They come from access to opportunities to build and practice and develop these skills, and these opportunities are distributed very unequally. He argues that if we want more kids to have the kind of so-called personal responsibility that does indeed contribute to success, we need to broaden access to the opportunities that help build these skills and develop these kinds of children.

What sort of things are those opportunities that help to build those skills and those kinds of children?

Right now we provide K12 public education. We view that as our attempt to level the playing field in terms of skill development. But when you add up the hours, that’s just 10% of childhood! We need to go far beyond traditional K12 schooling to help more kids feel that they are set up for success. We would begin with early education so that lower-income kids don’t enter kindergarten already way behind their higher-income peers. If you’re already behind, your identity doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards taking school seriously, or toward feeling confident about your own worth.

Other kinds of resources would be extra-curricular activities like art and science after school and over summer breaks, tutoring to make sure kids don’t fall behind if they’re struggling with Algebra 1 at a critical juncture in their development, and mental health resources to help children deal with trauma. All these things are really common for affluent kids. But if you’re a lower-income family, it’s hard to access mental health specialists who will accept Medicaid because Medicaid is very stingy compared to Medicare.

Things like college counseling, career development services and apprenticeships: there are a whole range of programs that would help kids stay on track and feel they are invested in their personal and professional growth because they think success is a possibility for them and want to make the most of it.

Next up, we’ve got Intelligence and How To Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count by Richard E. Nisbett.

This book is a bit like Paul Tough’s book in that it really highlights the malleability of child skills, and how broadening access to opportunity can transform where children wind up when they enter adulthood and start having to contribute and be independent. Nisbett’s book, unlike Tough’s book, focuses on traditional cognitive skills, things like IQ and academic achievement.

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There is a long tradition in psychology arguing that it is very hard to change cognitive skills but it turns out that is a bad interpretation of the existing evidence. This book is making that case in detail. It’s definitely more scholarly than Tough’s book, but it’s a good read and the author conveys his passion between the lines. So, if you want to know if trying to make your kid smarter is a fool’s errand, you can read this book and conclude that no, it’s not a fool’s errand. It’s a worthwhile endeavour for many parents and for our society. We can endow whole generations of children with richer cognitive and non-cognitive skills through the right kinds of investments.

What kinds of investments are we talking about here? Is the book looking at similar things to those you were talking about earlier, namely tutoring and all those things that rich parents will provide as a matter of course?

A lot of the things we talked about will target cognitive skills, like tutoring and good early education, while also simultaneously targeting non-cognitive skills by helping kids form healthier identities. In the non-cognitive skill domain there are social and emotional skill programs that help you, say, work through conflict and give you new tools to tap into that more patient part of your brain, allowing you to empathize with people and realize that there could be interesting reasons for conflict that don’t require aggression, that can be resolved with more effective strategies. Crafting and scaling up these kinds of interventions is a big exciting area. So it’s a very overlapping set of tools that we’re talking about here.

Let’s move on to Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas.

This book is captivating for some of the same reasons that Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods, really pulls you in. Reading this book you get to be a fly on the wall for really intimate conversations between the researchers and dozens of lower-income women who became mothers early in their lives, without husbands and without a lot of economic independence in many cases. These women who became teen mothers represent a puzzle to some people in America. They wonder why anyone would choose to become a teen mother. There’s this widespread idea that it reflects poor decision-making in the heat of the moment, when you don’t want to think about the consequences. You just want to have fun, or you just want to feel close to your partner. So you make a mistake.

Through all these deep conversations with dozens of mothers, who the authors were able to get to trust them and share their stories, we learn that the explanation is more nuanced. It is not typically about crazy, heat-of-the-moment, passionate mistakes. It is really about these young women—older girls, really, some of them are 14, 15, 16—not having a sense of something better and more meaningful to do with their lives at that juncture, as they reach adulthood.

“We need the public to build roads and armies, and we need the public to help build people, too”

These women typically don’t have good potential husbands who they feel they can marry. They don’t feel like they can excel in school, they don’t feel like they can get a job that seems meaningful or lucrative. And so to them, motherhood is viewed in some conscious or semi-conscious way as their best career option. The implication is that there’s no point in just shaming these kinds of women or insisting that they should have more personal responsibility. If we want to see more stable, two-parent, married households having children, we have to make sure that more young women and men enter adulthood feeling like they’re on track to have strong educational and career options and feel motivated by those opportunities to postpone parenthood until later in life. If we give people better options, then lo and behold, they will make better choices.

And are poor single-parent households generally worse for children than two-parent households when considered within the sort of frameworks that you’re thinking about? Or is that largely an irrelevance and is it poverty that is the central problem either way?

The best research on that is pretty interesting. It suggests that, yes, there is a strong correlation between lower-income single parenthood and bad child outcomes. However, that correlation is not so much due to the young single parenthood itself, but to the same factors that caused these people to become young single parents in the first place, which is a lack of early opportunity, and the same kinds of constraints that caused these parents to feel that they had no better options. Those constraints, rather than single parenthood itself, are also going to cause disadvantages for their children. In other words, poverty is the problem, and even more fundamental is the lack of earlier skill development opportunities that lead these people not to have any career options that can help them escape poverty. So it’s this cycle where people don’t get enough childhood opportunity and that sets them up to enter parenthood without the skills and resources required to set up their own children for success.

Let’s move on to the last of your parenting books, Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster. Tell us about this one.

This is the only book on my list that is a self-help book. It’s not about how we need to improve our systems to give all children the kinds of opportunities they’ll need to thrive in adulthood, which is by far the most important problem facing parents today. But I love this book and her other books, because they’re fun and useful and they’re doing something profound in a low-key way. You feel like you’re talking to your brilliant older sister who has taken you under her wing and is giving you all her best advice. Oster brings to the table three ingredients that have been missing from parent advice books for a long time, but that are common in good research by economists.

The first ingredient is a focus on causation versus correlation. Oster doesn’t just look at studies that say, ‘Hey, if you do this with your kids, they tend to have better outcomes.’ She’s more of a connoisseur. She looks to see if certain parental behaviours are not only correlated with child outcomes, but cause those outcomes, and she explains why that changes your perspective so radically. The second ingredient that she brings is cost-benefit analysis. In many parenting books recommendations are based on whether there’s evidence that something is good or bad for kids. But Oster goes another step and says, ‘Well, how good or bad is it? And how does that compare to the costs that I will have to undertake to make this choice?’ The third ingredient is her willingness to say ‘we don’t know, there’s not enough credible evidence.’ I love that because it’s so much more candid, and it highlights the vast gaps in our understanding that we really could fill if we decided to invest more heavily in research on children.

By bringing in these kinds of more rational scientific ingredients, I think Oster’s work resonates with a lot of what female progressives were saying a hundred years ago when it was clear that we didn’t view parenting advice in the same way we viewed agricultural or industrial advice. We basically had a lower standard for parental advice. Even if you don’t agree with all of Oster’s conclusions, I think she’s done parents a great service by improving the terms of the discussion around how to raise children. Now I wish Oster would write these books targeting lower-income parents specifically because they have different constraints and considerations and they also need help navigating the evidence base.

Tell us a bit about your book, The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis. What gap in the market were you trying to fill?

In my book I’m basically trying to shift our attitudes towards parenting, to view the child development aspects of the job more like we view flying airplanes or building houses. There’s no shame in not being able to fly your own airplane or build your own house. That is what we pay professionals to do. If we try to do it ourselves, there will be adverse consequences for ourselves and the people we love and for other people around us who we don’t even know. I argue we need to start viewing certain aspects of parenting in exactly that way so that we are more motivated to help people raise their children to be more successful and independent and happy in adulthood. I think it’s very hard to talk about this stuff—the fact that parenting is not a level playing field and there’s no quick fix, that small amounts of money or information won’t be enough.

We see lower-income parents, in Annette Lereau’s book for instance, behaving quite differently from higher-income parents in terms of how they practice parenthood, and it remains almost impossible to talk about that without making everyone feel threatened or angry or scared. But it’s critical that we learn how to talk about that problem as a fact of life. Our failure to support parents is really damaging our entire society and economy, and it’s causing a lot of pain that serves no purpose. My book is an attempt to clarify inequalities around parenting, to give us a better way to talk about them and address them, and to get more people revved up about what could be possible if we made better collective decisions.

Do you advocate much greater public investment in early years education, or does that already exist? Is it realistic to deliver that sort of policy shift?

I am advocating for a policy that I call ‘Familycare’, which is providing much richer public support throughout childhood, starting from birth, beginning with better early educational opportunities for all children up through college and early career formation. It’s called ‘Familycare’ because it’s akin to Medicare in terms of the scale of the investment. Conceptually, I think it’s doing something quite similar in the sense that Medicare broadens access to complex health services to all Americans and Familycare would broaden access to complex child skill development services to all Americans. Part of the point of the book that I was really excited to write was that the potential of this kind of policy is absolutely enormous.

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It could literally close almost all the gap that we see between rich kids and poor kids. That is what the research has found. It’s not a small shift. It would transform the idea of class in America. Do I think this is realistic? Well, Medicare exists. And this investment is much smaller than Medicare. Many countries have rich early childhood education systems. I think it’s really about a cultural shift in how we view parenting and child development. It’s not going to happen overnight but I don’t think it’s utopian, not at all. It’s something we can do and it’s something America will have to do if it wants to compete with other countries over the next 100 years as human skills become the preeminent currency of nations.

And I suppose, it would be cheap, given the cost of having to look after poorly educated people who are suffering the consequences of a childhood of poverty.

Yes, it is cheap, exactly. I’m glad you raised that point. What the research shows is that if we are able to do these policies well, it’s cheaper to do them than not to do them. In a way, we can’t afford not to do something like Familycare, because of all the adverse consequences that come from throwing this vast child development burden onto individual, isolated, overloaded parents.

Interview by Benedict King

September 9, 2022

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Nate G. Hilger

Nate G. Hilger

Nate Hilger has worked as a professor of economics at Brown University, and is currently an economist and data scientist in Silicon Valley and an affiliate of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown. In 2020 he served as a lead policy consultant for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. His academic research on child development and inequality has been widely published in leading academic and media outlets.

Nate G. Hilger

Nate G. Hilger

Nate Hilger has worked as a professor of economics at Brown University, and is currently an economist and data scientist in Silicon Valley and an affiliate of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown. In 2020 he served as a lead policy consultant for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. His academic research on child development and inequality has been widely published in leading academic and media outlets.