In Conversation

Economist Fabrizio Zilibotti on how economics shapes parenting

With an international eye, Zilibotti and co-author Matthias Doepke explore how economics influence family dynamics in their new book, “Love, Money & Parenting.”

Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti’s career has taken him across the globe. Born and raised in Italy, he has lived in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Switzerland before arriving in New Haven. He regularly travels to China. Over the years, he says, he has observed that parents in different countries tend to take different approaches to raising children.

Swedish parents tend to be relaxed and give their children ample freedom, Zilibotti noted. Switzerland is more rule-oriented than Sweden while Chinese parents are generally very strict, he said. In the United States, helicopter parents closely monitor their children’s schooling and activities, hoping to best position them for success.  

In a new book, “Love, Money & Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids,” Zilibotti and co-author Matthias Doepke, a professor of economics at Northwestern University, make the case that economic forces play an important role in shaping approaches to raising children.  

Zilibotti, the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale, spoke with YaleNews about their findings. An edited version of the conversation follows:  

Fabrizio Zilibotti
Fabrizio Zilibotti

How does economics shed light on parents’ choices?

We argue that economic conditions, and how they change over time, affect parenting styles and what people consider good parenting. We draw distinctions among three styles that were identified by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind: an authoritarian style, in which parents demand obedience and assert strict control; a permissive style that gives children a lot of freedom; and an authoritative style — the middle ground — by which parents strive to influence their children’s choices and shape their values, not by demanding obedience, but through reasoning and persuasion.

Our new angle is the idea that the interaction of economic incentives and constraints affects parents’ choices. We take the view that parents adopt child-rearing strategies that seem best suited for the socio-economic conditions in which their children are growing up. For example, if you are in a highly competitive society — where future success hinges on getting into a good university — parents have an incentive to be less permissive and more authoritative.

Parents also face constraints. They may have limited amounts of time and money to spend on their children and that may affect their decisions. For instance, their children may not be able to participate in certain extracurricular activities because the family budget does not allow it. In the end, the interaction between incentives and constraints determines, or at least co-determines, the choice of parenting style.

How does inequality influence parenting styles?

It affects both the incentives and the constraints. Inequality and intergenerational mobility — the possibility of moving upward in society — can be very important in determining parents’ incentives. If you live in a society that is essentially egalitarian, it may be a good idea to let your children find their own way, follow their instincts, and make their own mistakes. In the end, mistakes will not be very consequential. They might even help children to better appreciate life or discover new talents. If you think of a less egalitarian society where future success can depend heavily on getting accepted to elite universities like Yale, getting good grades and achieving high test scores is very important. Parents will respond to that incentive by emphasizing values conducive to academic success and by paying very close attention to their children’s choices and activities.

Inequality also affects people’s access to opportunities. If there are some groups that feel excluded from a set of opportunities, they may be less responsive to incentives. What we observed over time is the fact that approaches to parenting may become more diverse in a society as inequality grows. In a more unequal society, you might see some parts of the middle class or upper-middle class where parents work very hard for their children to succeed and get into the best universities while lower-income parents abandon those goals as impractical or unrealistic.

Does inequality account for differences in parenting styles between countries?

In highly competitive societies with more inequality, parents tend to be systematically less permissive and more authoritative. The extreme example is China where parents are highly authoritative and even authoritarian. A less extreme, but also clear example is the United States where many parents define themselves as authoritative or emphasize the value of hard work. The emphasis on independence and creativity is less than, say, in Sweden or in Norway, which are countries with a lower level of inequality where parents tend to adopt more permissive parenting styles.

What kinds of data are your findings based upon?

There is data available at the international level and for individual countries that demonstrates the values that parents think are important for child rearing. We looked at the World Values Survey, which asks parents around the globe to choose what they consider the five most important values to instill in their children. We identify permissive parenting with an emphasis on the value of creativity and independence. We associate authoritative parenting style with an emphasis on hard work without a specific emphasis on obedience. Authoritarian parents are those who emphasize the value and importance of obedience.

We used some data specific to the United States to corroborate the World Values Survey data, including the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which incorporates questions related to parenting style. We found the same pattern. We also looked at data concerning the amount of time parents spend with their children, which we think can be taken as an alternative measure of intensity of parenting. What we see now is that across all countries, and more so in countries where inequality has grown faster, the number of hours that parents spend with their children has increased. That time is often associated with homework or education-related activities.

It’s important to note that we do not consider this a measure of how much parents love their children. When I grew up, my parents would let me spend a lot of time on my own. I don’t think it was because they were less concerned or didn’t love me. They probably viewed it as a healthy way to let us discover more of the world.

Do economic factors influence people’s decisions about having children?

Here we borrow some ideas from the Nobel laureate Gary Becker, who introduced the notion of a quality-quantity tradeoff.  When intense child rearing becomes more attractive, it becomes problematic to have very many children because it would require an incredible amount of time to parent them. We see today more stressed parents who have one child and spend huge amounts of time with that child. In the past, when parenting wasn’t so intensive and children were allowed to roam more freely, people had larger families. 

Do economic conditions factor in how parents raise boys and girls?

We look at how parents of daughters have changed their views over time. One view of the world is that cultural values change and so parents emphasize different values at different periods of history. Our view is that there is another channel: Namely, in a society where opportunities are more equal across gender, there is more incentive for parents to emphasize the same values to both their sons and daughters. This was different in earlier generations, when boys and girls often had very different childhoods. At the beginning of the 20th century, women faced strong limitations in the labor market. Encouraging a liberal spirit in those days might produce a very unhappy daughter, who would grow up to find her opportunities limited by her gender. Today, women in industrialized countries have far more opportunities in the labor market than in the past, so parents are raising their children in a more gender-neutral way.

How does public policy affect parenting styles?

Consider policies that promote gender equality. When policies emphasize equal opportunities for men and women, parents will respond by prioritizing education for both sons and daughters. Today, more women than men are obtaining college degrees, but it wasn’t this way in the past. In a society where opportunities are more equal across gender, it is more attractive for parents to emphasize the same values to their sons and daughters and raise their children in a gender-neutral manner.

There are other channels where policies that affect inequality and equal opportunities can influence how parents decide to interact with their children. In a society where there is more distribution and more equality, parents may be less obsessed in engaging in the rat race to get their children into the best schools. At some level, one might think that this would discourage the accumulation of human capital — the knowledge, skills, and talents within a society’s labor force that creates economic value. In the book, we suggest that competition is not always socially desirable because it might induce parents and children into putting forth an enormous amount of effort while vying for a very limited number of positions at the best schools, which generates a lot of wasteful activity. There is also the notion that childhood has become a less joyful and independent stage of life because it is too intensely focused on positioning children for future success. In a society that is less competitive, children have more opportunity to simply enjoy their childhoods. 

Love, Money, and Parenting book cover

We also emphasize the importance of family-oriented policies, especially when considering disadvantaged groups, such as single mothers, who face very difficult challenges in keeping up with this extreme intensity in certain parenting approaches. We emphasize the importance of public provision of childcare at an early age to make it easier for parents in a disadvantaged condition to work and have their children cared for. The general message here is that one wants policies to target both incentives and opportunities. It will not only reduce inequality today, but it will do so for future generations as well.

You have a daughter. How did your experience as a parent influence your approach to this work?

My family is a bit unique in that we had contact with at least five countries. I’m Italian, my wife is Spanish, and my daughter was born in Sweden. Then we spent some time in the United Kingdom before moving to Switzerland. Now we live in the United States, but our daughter is grown up. Moving from one country to another, I realized that there are very different codes of behavior in each country.

In Sweden, we were often pressured not to stress our child. It was clear that we were somehow different from the average Swedish parents. We enrolled our daughter in music school at an early age and the music teacher was from Eastern Europe and very strict. Other parents were shocked that we would do this. Children in Sweden start school at age 7, and we asked if our daughter could start one year earlier. This also generated disapproval. Our daughter was different from the typical Swedish child in the sense that she was more self-disciplined.

When we moved to Switzerland, our 7-year-old daughter found herself in a situation were the codes were more rigid. Switzerland is not China, but it is more rule-oriented than Sweden. There was a much more clearly defined principle of authority. All of a sudden, our daughter found herself on the opposite side of the spectrum. She was the child in class who was not sufficiently formal, and we were a bit under pressure to get her to abide the rules. It was an interesting experience because we were the same parents, just living in a different country.

How will parenting styles evolve if current economic trends continue?

It is hard to see reversion in this trend toward more unequal societies, which makes it hard to forecast a return to more permissive and relaxed parenting in the United States and elsewhere. I think the answer will depend on what path policy takes. I believe investment in public education is a very important vehicle for addressing inequality. You can, of course, redistribute resources on some level, but the emphasis should be focused on providing all children a high-quality public education.

Subsidized daycare would also help to reduce inequality. It’s not incredibly expensive to do because it favors participation in the labor force and could be partly funded by increased tax revenue. It would also make the United States less economically segregated because parents from all social classes could take advantage of it. In Sweden, I observed that children of every societal level attended the public schools and public daycare. Some children’s parents were immigrants and relatively poor while other parents were professionals. There was more mixing and people would get to know each other despite coming from different environments.


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