How Wealth Inequality Created The Culture of Helicopter Parenting


Parents spend more hours than ever interacting with children. Unfortunately, this is to their detriment. But the origin of helicopter parenting might surprise you:

Over-parenting is the product of wealth inequality.

The definition of helicopter parenting

Hyper-parenting or “helicopter” parenting is a type of overly involved management of your child’s life. A helicopter parent is defined as one who “takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.”

This typically shows itself as parents being over-involved in their child’s schedule, academics, extra-curricular activities, and personal lives. From birth to early adulthood, mom and dad are involved in or outright control every aspect of their child’s life.

It starts when children are young as maintaining vigilance over developmental milestones. It then progresses through micromanaging their homework and sports and culminates in as atrocious behavior as accompanying adult children to job interviews

I’ve had friends whose parents had access to their bank accounts. Many also gave up passwords to email or allowed parents to check their school grades. Often it seemed the parents cared more than the kids did about the information they were given access to. And why wouldn’t they? If something was wrong, mom & dad would see it and fix it. That’s why they know the PIN.

Like most good intentions, this ultimately backfires.

Over-parenting leads to depression and anxiety

As well-intentioned as these parents are in hoping to give their child a hand at establishing themselves in a competitive world, the results are disastrous. Children of helicopter parents are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. They assume the pressure to perform, and it results in self-critical perfectionism. 

It was previously believed that helicopter parenting came from the desire of parents to be “best friends” with their children. Or even the desire of washed-up parents to relive their glory days of youth through their children. But it turns out the origin has more to do with a nation’s wealth gap than anything else. 

We don’t want our children to be our best friends, we just want them to be rich.

How the wealth gap gave rise to helicopter parents

Parenting is largely influenced by culture, and it turns out the root of it resides in economic equality. The bigger the gap between a nation’s rich and poor, the more likely it is to display a culture of competitive, hyper-involved parenting.

In the USA, where the top 20% of households earn almost 9x as much as the bottom 20%, two-thirds of parents say “hard work” is one of the most important values to instill in children. Compare this to Sweden, where the top 20% of households earn only 4.3 times more than the bottom, and only 11% of parents say the same.

helicopter parents income inequality
source: The Washington Post

This makes sense. In countries lacking adequate social safety nets, you need to “make it” to ensure mere survival. The pressure to do so will be communicated at home.

Parents teach children how to navigate the society and culture they will occupy as adults, so it’s natural this includes climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Or in a world with an ever-widening wealth gap, simply holding ground.

Do we all want our children to value wealth and status above all else? Probably not. But we do want them to be able to live in relative comfort, so we groom them for competitiveness anyway.

And if you want to have a dark laugh about it…

One of my favorite reads this year has been Bare Minimum Parenting by James Breakwell. In one chapter he outlines why it’s useless to throw all your effort and time into your child’s sports or academics because they’re going to come out average anyway (he’s right). 

Bare Minimum Parenting

But he also identifies the real root as to why you care about picking the best preschool so your child will get into the best college and get the best career: money.

“Overbearing moms and dads think if they spend more money on their kid’s education upfront, their child will be directly rewarded with a higher pay grade later in life. Education is just a long con so your kid can buy you stuff.” – Bare Minimum Parenting, pg 133

He continues,

“Overachieving parents deny this money obsession. They claim they just want their kid to be happy, but that excuse doesn’t hold up. Harvard isn’t known for producing cheerful graduates, just rich ones.” – Bare Minimum Parenting, pg 133

We know he’s right.

Is there an upside?

Turns out, there is. And it’s a big one: The Funnel of Financial Privilege.

Gifting your kids a down payment for a house or paying for their wedding isn’t necessarily the same thing as helicopter parenting, but the two often go hand in hand. After all, if you’re going to ensure your kid succeeds financially, the easiest way is to do it for them.

Children of parents who constantly remove roadblocks and obstacles from their lives can and do go further faster. But eventually, they hit a wall their parents can’t remove, and they don’t know how to climb it. This is where the depression and anxiety set in.

Do it for the kids

It seems then the secret to reducing the number of helicopter parents (and reducing childhood anxiety and depression) lies in closing the wealth gap.

If we shift our focus on lifting the most vulnerable populations out of poverty, we lower the risk of what can possibly happen if you “lose everything”. Things like universal healthcare, education, and childcare can reduce the economic impact of these things on families. Likewise, ensuring everyone has affordable housing, transportation, and nutrition can further relieve the pressure to “make it” from birth.

We can do a lot better than trying to choose the best preschool in terms of academics so a child is on the right “career trajectory” by age 3.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • The strength of connection between wealth inequality and how much a society values “hard work” is telling and interesting, but this article did not even attempt to give an explanation for the equivalency of “instilling a value of hard work” and “helicopter parenting”. A lot of helicopter parenting involves doing things for one’s child, which does the opposite of teaching them to value hard work. If a parent does their homework for them, it teaches them that getting the right answer, by any means necessary, is more important than actually trying their best on their own. Going to a job interview with a newly adult child, or paying for a downpayment, or bribing a college entry official, reinforces that they don’t have to do anything on their own – someone else will do it for them.
    It has nothing to do with “hard work”; it really isn’t even about “success” by any objective metric. The goal is for one’s children to be relatively more successful than everyone else’s kids. It’s an extreme “keeping up with the Jones’ [kids]”

    We can tell helicopter parenting isn’t a result of income equality – or at least not in the way or for the reasons this article suggests – because it is increasingly prevalent the higher the income of the parents. The wealthy engage in it at least as much as the middle class, the middle class more than the working class, and the poor helicopter less than anyone else. If it were about survival, the pattern would be the exact opposite.

    All that said, a more egalitarian society would probably help – but it may require more than just a bare minimum safety net. It may also require something unthinkable to most Americans: policy to reign in some of the excess at the top as well.
    Sweden, the comparison country in the article, has a top tax rate of around 60% which kicks in at just over $68k (US dollars), only slightly higher than the US median income – an income level at which American’s are only taxed 12%, or 5 times less. The capital gains tax, which applies much more generously, is twice as high on average as it is in the US.
    Tax policy alone goes a long way to accounting for wealth gap.
    Without fantasies of their kids becoming a billionaire, maybe parents would be able to focus a little more on defining successful parenting as raising kids who are happy and healthy and ethical, and make enough to survive and raise a modest family of their own someday.

    • Hi thank you for the comment. I wasn’t actually trying to give an explanation, as that was done in the Washington Post article where the data came from! They did a better job breaking it down, and this post was merely to share those findings not rewrite the piece =)


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