Don't worry, kid -- your parents are doing it for you.

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What Really Scares Helicopter Parents

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Volumes have been written about the rise of helicopter parenting. We know the symptoms: obsessive hovering, with the aim of making sure that Junior grows up in a well-padded Nerf world where nothing more distressing than a hangnail ever befalls them. The results have also been extensively elaborated: a generation growing up anxious, risk-averse, and generally unable to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Less has been written to explain why the squadrons of Sikorskys have appeared at this particular date and time. Vague noises are made about how the world is more dangerous for kids than it used to be (it isn’t), how parents are more anxious than they used to be (really? More anxious than they were during the pioneer days or the Great Depression?), or how liability makes institutions more attuned to parental worries than they once were (OK, but the parents of 1970 didn’t ask institutions to keep their kids from climbing trees). I grew up in a New York City where kids had a lot more freedom -- and a lot more crime to contend with, a lot more pollution, and a lot less safety gear. What changed?

The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that we got richer, and richer people can expend more effort protecting their kids. This certainly jibes with the observation that the most obsessively overprotected kids are the children of the affluent. Yet even this explanation raises a sort of “yes, but.” We haven’t gotten that much richer in the 30 years since I was in school, and yet parenting has undergone a radical transformation. Despite legions of women going back to work, parents spend more time with their children than they did a few decades ago. Can we really explain this in terms of people getting richer? Intensive parenting is most common among the group of parents who are working more hours than they used to, not fewer; from that fact, and their increasing incomes, I’d predict that they’d be paying other people more to supervise and manage their children, not to hear that they were doing so themselves.

So while the economic explanation rings true, “we got richer” doesn’t seem to be enough. Rather, we have to look at the specific way in which we got richer. Specifically, we need to look at the rise of the extensively educated professional class.

One of the things you might notice about novels from the 1950s and 1960s is how many of the affluent people in them are engaged in trades like selling insurance, manufacturing some dull but necessary article, or running a car lot. These people are rarely the heroes of the novel (even then, writers found it much easier to imagine themselves as doctors or lawyers or, for that matter, as rough-hewn working-class types than as regional office-supplies distributors). But it is telling that those novelists took for granted that the writers and professionals would be intermingled with the makers and sellers, something that comes across as distinctly odd to the residents of the modern coastal corridors. Few of my friends even run a budget outside their own households, much less a profit and loss statement, and very few indeed have ever gone on a sales call.

The change in our novels reflects a change in our economy: the decline of manufacturing; the rise in the number and remuneration of professional jobs; the increase in the size of service firms; and the resulting shift toward salaried positions rather than partnerships or sole proprietorships. As a result of these changes, the upper middle class has found itself in a curious bind. In some ways, its economic fortunes are better than ever: They make more money, more reliably, than they used to. But because they are employees rather than business owners, they have a very limited ability to pass their good fortune onto their children.

A parent who had built a good insurance business in 1950 had a valuable asset that he could hand over to his sons. As long as they put a full day in at the office, they too would be able to take home a good living. That calculation applies across a broad range of manufacturing, retail and service businesses that used to form the economic bulwark of the prosperous middle class.

An MBA, however, is not heritable. Neither is a law degree, a medical degree, or any of the other educational credentials that form the barriers to entry into today’s upper middle class. Those have to be earned by the child, from strangers -- and with inequality rising, the competition for those credentials just keeps getting fiercer.

Of course, parents have always worried about their kids making it; small family firms were often riven by worries about Uncle Rob’s ability to settle down to the business. But those were worries about adults, at an age when people really do settle down and become less wild. These days, we’re trying to force that kind of responsibility onto teenagers in their freshman year of high school. Of course, we don’t tell them that they need to earn a living; we tell them they need to get into a good college. But the professionalization of the American economy means that these are effectively the same thing for large swathes of the middle class.

Many teenagers -- and I include myself at that age -- do not quite have the emotional maturity and long-term planning skills for the high-stakes economic competition they find themselves engaged in. So their parents intervene, managing their lives so intensely that their child doesn’t have much opportunity to, well, act like a child instead of a miniature middle-aged accountant. Since the professional class can’t pass down its credentials, it passes down its ability to navigate the educational system that produces the credentials. The more inequality widens, the more obsessively they will manage their kids through school -- and the more economic mobility will stagnate, since parents outside the professional class will have grave difficulty replicating this feat.

Does this explain all of helicopter parenting? No -- it does not, for example, explain why we as a nation have suddenly and for no apparent reason become convinced that 8-year-old children are in mortal peril when left inside a parked car for a few moments. But it explains the part of helicopter parenting that has been much in the news lately, which is to say the coddling of the American mind. American middle-class parents, and especially parents whose jobs are the result of a degree rather than three generations of familial labor, no longer feel that they can afford their children the luxury of some temporary setbacks. I wrote a whole book on why that’s bad for the kids, bad for the parents and bad for the country. But when you look at the alternatives this country affords to professional-class work, you can hardly blame them.

  1. Leaving a child inside a parked car is indeed very dangerous -- to infants, who can’t get out of the car by themselves. But it is a great mystery how we have come to believe that 12-year-olds are in the same kind of danger.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net