Monday, July 24, 2006

Are Parents Today More Worried?

Frequently, when I look at my young cousins and reflect back on my own childhood, I am shocked at how much independence I had growing up. As a young child (3-4 year old), I tagged along with the “older” (i.e., 6-9 year olds) in the neighborhood as we roamed the small area around my house. By the time I was 5, I was walking unaccompanied further away to meet up with friends from school, and most of my weekends and summers from age 7-11 were spent climbing the mountain behind my house for hours on end, again, only with other kids my age. When I look at my cousins or other kids at these ages growing up in the same town I did, I cannot imagine them being allowed the same amount of unsupervised activity.

Over the weekend, I was discussing this phenomenon with a friend who grew up half-a-world away in Portugal, and he felt the same way. Together we reminisced about the long list of activities that were common kid behaviors that are typically unacceptable today (many of which were clearly stupid); e.g., riding in the front seat of cars (without seatbelts) or in the back of pickup trucks, riding bicycles without helmets, playing (particularly swimming) far from the watchful eyes of trusted adults, playing with things like BB guns or wrist-rockets, and on and on.

Maybe we are imagining things, but it seemed to us that there has been a substantial and fairly rapid shift in parenting norms. I am curious about two things: (1) what drives these changes (assuming they are real) and (2) what effects, if any, do these changes have on individuals’ human and social capital acquisition?

I think that much of the growth in parents’ safety consciousness is a natural part of the quantity-quality tradeoff. As parents have fewer kids and invest more time, money, and effort in each of them they worry more about protecting their investments. I am one of 4 children, so perhaps my parents’ tolerance was due to the fact that they had 3 spare kids should anything have happened to me. Today, social norms may have responded to the fact that parents are less likely to have several spare children. (Update -- ok, spare is clearly a poor choice of words -- it implies a certain amount of disuse and substitutability that is clearly not present in this case. I am merely trying to, inartfully, point out that additional children provide parents with some measure of distraction and comfort that is not available to parents who lose their only child).

However, even if the value of keeping one’s children alive increased, given the massive changes in the survival probabilities from advances in health care and “safety” technology (e.g., auto safety), it is somewhat surprising that parents still feel the need to expend great deals of effort protecting their children from some very low probability bad outcomes. Other technologies have reduced the risks associatied with their raising kids, why are parents continuing to expend effort trying to marginally increase their child's safety?

Growth in parent safety consciousness may result from changes in parents’ beliefs about dangers. Parents today have more information about potential dangers. Information provided by the media may caution among parents either by providing them with a more accurate sense of the distribution of dangers or by inflating their sense of potential dangers (by making them seem much more likely than they actually are). Further, it is possible the cost of losing children has increased. As child death has become less common, perhaps, it is now harder for parents to cope with the loss of a child because it is more unexpected and there are fewer people in their close social network who can relate to their loss.

Finally, to evaluate and understand this (hypothetical) trend, we want to also understand how more freedom during childhood affects children’s long term outcomes. I am not even sure what I expect, but I thought this was an interesting question, so I pose it to you.

An interesting topic. In an information age "Stranger Danger", whether real or imagined, is constantly in front of parents. Amber Alerts, children being snatched on video surveillance cameras provide parents with a chilling picture. You grew up much more as Dad and I did with freedom to venture beyond the boundaries of the back yard. The small town and close proximity of many families we knew provided a safe atmosphere and someone knew where you were or when you would return.

Freedom is a relative term. Children still wander the streets, ride bikes and climb around in the woods. Or watch TV and use the internet unsupervised. I think the whole thing boils down to how the parents set up the boundaries and freedoms that allow children to develop "normally" for the time they live in.

Safety evolved over a long period of time. We grew up in cars with mental dash boards, no seat belts and speed limits in the 70's or 80's. The news after a holiday weekend contained the death toll. They were enormous. Government programs created safety standards for everything from cars to cribs. Recall became a regular part of the news. Safety concerns were much more on everyones minds.

I really doubt the idea of spare children coming into play. By the way, I'm not clear as to whether you or your siblings were "spare".
Bryce is clearly the spare one, being one of the middle ones. Neither the first, nor the baby....

In all seriousness, I also disagree that parents are valuing their children more because they have fewer. On the other hand, I certainly would agree that because child-deaths are rarer now, they are much more costly. Not just because of the reasons you mentioned, but because of the social stigma that would be associated with it: if something bad happens to your child, you surely should have known better. She shouldn't have been playing unsupervised, should have had a bike helmet, should have been in the car seat, etc.... Knowledge of all these risks (this must be especially true for parents of white, blonde children, since bad things that happen to them stay on cable news for weeks) make it very socially costly should one of those risks, unfortunately, be realized.
I agree with both of these comments. First, I really like Tony V's social stigma explanation. Now, child death is seen less as a matter of tragic bad luck and more as a matter of parental negligence. Second, teri does a nice job of essentially explaining in more detail the point I was trying to make about how more publicity of child tragedies makes parents more afraid (regardless of whether the underlying probabilities of bad outcomes have changed).

Since neither of you like my lower fertility explanation (perhaps because I jokingly referred to spare kids), let me try and clarify. I am merely stating that I imagine that there is a large emotional difference between losing your only child versus losing one of your children. I, thankfully, cannot speak from experience on this matter, but this makes sense to me. Parents who have several children can find some measure of comfort and distraction in their other children. I can imagine how much of the growth in safety consciousness and the stigmatization of parents who "lose" children would be a natural byproduct of a society with large numbers of families with few children, but they could be merely the result of greater publicity about child dangers and tradgedies as you argue.

I wonder if there is a way to use the one child policy in China to test these hypotheses.
Ah, good point. I certainly agree that parents "value" a only child more than one of many. I'll even probably be willing to admit that there is a diminishing marginal utility to children. (Not that you necessarily like the first one better than the last, but that the average utility of all your children diminishes with more children.) But I don't think that these differences are driving the protection issues we are seeing.

Maybe I'm wrong. I'm not sure you could identify it, but I bet that "only" parents are more protective than "multiple" parents. But I wonder if that's more of a first child effect than an only child effect. (Plenty of anecdotal evidence that subsequent children are given more freedom than firstborns.)
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