By Florencia López-Boo.
Inequality is one of the biggest challenges facing Latin America. We’ve discussed this topic several times from different perspectives here on the blog. Inequality perpetuates poverty and, as the British economist Tony Atkinson says, inequality of income, wealth, or education in one generation leads to inequality of opportunity in the next.
An extremely interesting article published recently shows that inequality is one of the determinants of parenting style. In economies or environments where inequality is high, the chances of being extremely rich or extremely poor are greater than in economies with low inequality, where less income disparity exists. Specifically, the authors found that parents are more relaxed and permissive in environments with low inequality, where the chances of ending up as either a beggar or a billionaire are low.
By contrast, in more unequal environments—where the returns on higher levels of education and effort are big—parents, especially the most educated, are more anxious, and they tend to involve their children in all types of activities that increase their chances of success in the labor market in the future. It seems that parents with a stricter or controlling parenting style feel that they can influence where their child will fall on the income distribution later in life.
The authors define three parenting styles in their article:
- Relaxed or permissive: parents who allow their children to freely choose their activities according to their natural inclinations
- Authoritative: parents who attempt to mold their children’s preferences, with the aim of inducing choices that the parents view as conducive to future success (e.g., helicopter parents)
- Authoritarian: parents who restrict their children’s choices, i.e., they directly impose their will rather than trying to mold their children’s preferences (as in the authoritative style)
The authors of this study argue that the historical trend in parenting styles shows a decline in the authoritarian approach due to increased economic returns on independence. In fact, U.S. data shows that a more relaxed and permissive parenting style emerged during the post-war era, which coincided with an era of lower economic inequality.
Yet as the gap between the rich and the poor began widening once more—not just in the U.S., as Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century demonstrates, but around the world—more authoritative and intrusive parenting styles returned. For example, although American parents work more hours now than they did in the past, the hours they spend taking care of their children have increased dramatically since the 1980s.
All of this data reminds me of other posts published on this blog, which offer up data from the U.S. and the region showing that it’s poor, vulnerable or economically marginalized parents who demonstrate more hostile and intrusive attitudes toward their children, attitudes that prevailed in ancestral societies.
If parenting attitudes, beliefs and preferences are linked to the level of inequality in one’s society, it’s not surprising then that levels of childhood development also display more pronounced socioeconomic gradients in highly unequal societies.
What is the parenting style like in your country, intrusive or relaxed? Do you think it’s related to the level of inequality? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or on Twitter.
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Florencia López-Boo is a senior social protection economist with the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).