First of all: I have a son. He is the coolest, smartest 9-month-old human baby OF ALL TIME. Proof:
See! He plays with books, not toys! Right after I turned off the camera, he picked up Don Quijote and read a few chapters. For serious!
Of course, Washington, D.C. is full of babies like him with parents like me. Indeed, May’s Washingtonian has an article by Brooke Lea Foster titled “The Type-A Parent Trap” (I’d link, but I can’t find it online). Foster writes:
Much has been written about “helicopter” parents…I don’t see [them] on the playground anymore. The upper-middle-class moms at Washington parks today are cut from a slightly different cloth. They hover, but not too much. They’ve read all about the dangers of overparenting and know it’s important to give kids some space. They’re obsessed with their children’s safety but don’t want them to miss out on anything…Which isn’t to say they’re less involved. Experts tell me that today’s new parents are “enmeshed.” While the helicopter parent is famous for hovering over a child, the enmeshed parent is blurring the line between parent and child altogether.
This is exactly right..and they’re not just in Washington. Most of all, these parents “try to create a perfect environment: educational, fun, structured, hands-on. Who needs to be a pushy helicopter parent if you can give your kid a setting in which to bloom?” They charge hard after the right preschool in order to set up their kid for easier access to elite elementary schools and so on and so forth until their kid is running the Harvard Crimson or the Bowdoin Orient and making partner by 35 and happily married to a Stepford wife or husband, etc. (Irony Alert…last fall the the Washingtonian published a guide titled “How to Get in to Washington Area Private Schools”)
Why would any parent put their kid (and themselves!) through this? Who witnesses childhood and thinks: “I gotta hustle my kid through this quickly?”
One need not be a Marxist—though that’s a particularly useful analytical starting point for this particular case—to recognize that this is the product of the new American meritocracy: 1) American social mobility is now more fiction than fact. 2) In addition, the upper rungs of the social and economic ladder are more distant from the lower rungs than ever. 3) Finally, the top rungs of the economy now gain the lion’s share of American prosperity.
Taken together, those facts suggest that the American economy is stratifying into detached, distant classes—and that never the twain shall meet. The middle class continues to dwindle, which leaves parents with two options for their kids: up or down. Top or bottom. Market winners or market losers. Once you’re sorted into one or the other, your position is probably permanent.
With a bifurcated meritocracy like this, we shouldn’t be surprised to see child rearing becoming a developmental race. If you had the necessary resources, why would you leave your child’s success to chance? If you could give them a leg up with toddler accounting classes, why would you let them play one more minute in the local public sandbox?
You wouldn’t. No one would. And that’s what social immobility does. That’s what economic stratification does.
They subtly adjust Americans’ incentives in ways that discourage certain behaviors and encourage others. In this particular case, they drive American parents towards a less fulfilling, less enjoyable life. Our situation isn’t “natural” or the inevitable product of “free markets.” Quite the contrary. These challenges are directly related to the institutions we have and the rules they set. This style of parenting is arising amongst anxious upper class parents because we’ve built an environment that pushes them in this direction.
I can’t think of a better argument for policies that support more plural economic outcomes: rectifying the shocking imbalance between America’s best and worst public schools, insisting on a fair and democratic tax code, sensible student loan reform to make a college degree accessible to students who might not otherwise be able to afford it, and a good deal more.