Are we setting parents up to fail?
Setting children up for success in today’s world is incredibly hard. In our culture, it’s especially difficult because the job of giving kids everything they need largely falls to parents. And even if you’re the most attentive and loving parent in the world, it’s not enough.
If they’re going to succeed in this society, they need to learn certain kinds of skills. And they need certain kinds of people to teach them those skills. Schools are supposed to do this, but kids spend the vast majority of their time outside school — and the most crucial period of development for kids occurs before they even get to public school. The gaps that emerge during this time are one of the great drivers of inequality in our country.
Economist Nate Hilger thinks of children as the largest disenfranchised group in America, and that parents are being failed along with their children. His new book, called The Parent Trap, argues that it doesn’t have to be this way — and that we can change it. I invited Hilger to join me for an episode of Vox Conversations.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
What exactly is the parent trap?
The parent trap is, at its most basic level, the egregiously unrealistic expectation that we place on parents to build a huge range of important skills in children, early in their life.
The consequences of that unrealistic expectation are a lot of social problems that cost us both emotionally and economically.
The other aspect of the parent trap beyond these unrealistic expectations is the difficulty we have talking about that basic trap, because once we start saying that some parents are struggling in certain ways, and it’s correlated with race and class, it sounds so threatening and it just shuts down the conversation.
And that is also, I think, an important part of what keeps the status quo in place.
What are those unrealistic expectations?
Well, to begin life, children have to pick up not just academic skills like literacy and numeracy, but they have to get this wide range of other skills — social, emotional, behavioral skills, things like self-discipline, tenacity, financial skills, how to take care of yourself mentally and physically.
There is a wide range of these skills that really are the foundation of children’s independence and success in adulthood. And building those skills turns out to be a lot more complicated and difficult than we have assumed for hundreds of years. And that makes it really hard for individual parents to do it successfully on a level playing field in their spare time.
You identify two different kinds of parental responsibilities in the book. One of them is caring, and the other one is skill building. These are different things, but we’ve combined them under this common umbrella of parenting.
Pull these things apart for me. What is the difference between the two?
The main difference between these two jobs that all parents have, caring and skill building, is that most of us can do a pretty good job at caring. Caring has this egalitarian feature. Caring I think about as loving kids and feeling personally invested in their success, and being there for them when they’re sick or when they’re unhappy. Helping them laugh and grow and navigate life as best you can.
There’s this other job of parents: skill development. Skill development I think of as the set of things that is quite hard for a large share of parents to do successfully on their own. This involves reading and math. But it also involves a lot of these other skills, the emotional, social, and behavioral skills that will set kids up to thrive independently in adulthood. This stuff is complicated and we only get a small part of this from our existing K-12 school system.
What kinds of parents are more equipped to build these sorts of skills in their kids? I mean, is it about money? Is it about knowledge or education? Is it about having more time? Is it all of the above?
The first thing I would say is that it’s pretty idiosyncratic, meaning that it’s not like monolithically, this group can do it, and this group can’t do it. In every group, there are some parents who are gonna excel at this, and some parents who are gonna struggle with it.
That said, there are a number of things that correlate with capacity for this kind of skill development.
Income is one. If you have income, you’re more likely to be able to take care of this on your own. And your own skills, your own professional skills as a parent, often are correlated with educational attainment and professional experience. So if you’re a high-income manager, you’re more likely to have the tools involved that help you do a more successful job at child skill development.
If we think of child skill development like a complicated professional activity, something like being a lawyer or practicing medicine, or managing a team at a company, some of those general skills will carry over into the other complicated professional domain of child skill development.
You talk in the book about how the trap you’re talking about really does reinforce a lot of the inequalities in our society. And you also point out that a child raised by the top 25 percent richest parents will end up earning about $50,000 more per year than a child raised by the bottom 25 percent poorest parents.
That’s pretty startling. Is the idea that we live in anything like a meritocracy bullshit?
Yeah, I do think it’s bullshit. It’s not that there’s no return to effort and self initiative and risk in our society. I really do think there is, so it’s not total bullshit. I think sometimes progressives go way too far out on that ledge.
People look around them and they know people who work hard and people who don’t work hard and often the people who work hard get better lives for themselves. And it just falsifies that idea that the structural obstacles to making your life better are so overwhelmingly suffocating that there’s no such thing as effort or initiative. I don’t think that’s bullshit.
But when we talk about the average differences by class and race, then I think we do get into this idea that our meritocratic ideals are not really where we would hope they would be. This gap you mentioned is due to the different opportunities that these kids get in childhood. And so that is just directly in contradiction with our American ideals of meritocracy.
Yeah, I really do agree with you there, right? There’s an overly deterministic way of talking about it that strips people of their agency, when in reality you actually can do quite a bit to overcome that through hard work and effort and all that — these things do matter.
But where you start goes a long way in determining where you end up. And that matters too. These things are both true at the same time, and they interact in very complicated ways. And they have to be addressed in a way that doesn’t blot out these distinctions or minimize any of them.
Yeah, one way I try to talk about this is in terms of the class difference. I talk about the skills that you wind up with through the opportunities that your parents largely make available to you in childhood. I talk about that skill portfolio as a trust fund.
I like that.
I think we all recognize that when a really high income kid reaches adulthood with a bank account with $5 million in it that their parents gave them, that’s a really unfair advantage. We don’t necessarily resent it. We think parents might have a right to do that. We have ongoing debates about the fairness of that. But most of us don’t have a $5 million bank account trust fund to help us take risks.
The same thing is happening [with skills]. It’s just invisible for regular upper middle class kids. It’s just that bank account is in the form of our skill portfolio, which comes from the same kinds of parental advantages that drive the trust fund.
Okay. So if parents can’t reliably handle teaching the necessary skills to their children, who should do that and who’s gonna pay for it?
And I ask because when you describe skill building, most people immediately think of school. Schools have teachers and coaches and counselors. School seems like precisely the kind of skill building institution you’re advocating.
So what’s wrong about this assumption that this is what schools are for?
That’s a great instinct and you’re right. School does have a lot of the elements that are necessary to help building skills.
The problem is that our K-12 education system is kind of a fig leaf on the real scope of the problem here.
We talked earlier about how the way kids build skills is, they spend time, they learn, they practice, they imitate. They don’t just buy them. So if skills happen in the medium of time, it really matters who is controlling children’s time.
Our K-12 education system only controls about 10 percent of children’s time.
Is it really that low? That seems really low.
Let’s go through where that comes from.
The K-12 school system only starts at age five. So the first five years of childhood, [there’s] no public support, except in some limited ways. Once school starts, it’s only operating about half of all days each year. There are weekends, spring break, winter break, summer break, all those professional training days. When you’re a parent, you’re often thinking like, geez, another day off. And yeah, it adds up — only 50 percent of calendar days are in school, typically.
And then even on those days, when school is operating, it’s only covering about a third of the day.
If you’re a parent, you feel this very viscerally when you learn you have to pick up your kid at 2:30 and you’re like, wait, what? I have to figure out the rest of this afternoon myself while I have a full-time job?
So when you add up all those numbers, our K-12 education system is providing the right kinds of services, but only for a small fraction of childhood.
That is an important point, right? I mean, kids do spend the majority of their time outside school. And that time is structured and governed by parents. And if parents don’t have the time to maximize those windows, or if they don’t have the skills, that’s a problem.
That is a big part of the unrealistic expectation that we place on parents. And that leads to these huge gaps between rich kids and poor kids, when they transition to adulthood.
Something you wrote in the book that surprised me and maybe it shouldn’t have: You write that the skill gaps, children’s skill gaps by class and race, don’t really grow that much during the time they spend in K through 12 schools. That the large skill gap really emerges almost entirely before they enter the K through 12 system.
That’s right. I think we’ve had this assumption for a long time, that early childhood doesn’t have a lot going on, and parents can kind of figure it out and the stakes are low. And for decades now, we’ve known that’s just not the case. And the fact that our public education system starts at kindergarten when these massive gaps by class and race have already emerged in both academic and non-academic skills, as far as we can measure them, that just seems like we’re sabotaging ourselves as a country. It seems like we’re wasting a lot of talent by delaying that level of public support for so long.
What you’re saying is no matter how you look at it, the real divide, the divides that really matter long-term, happen outside of school within families. And it remains untouched by all this funding and all these efforts to bolster public schools.
And that’s something we haven’t reckoned with.
That’s right. Why would we let kids show up to kindergarten with huge gaps and deficits and disadvantages, and then start trying to address that? Why wouldn’t we level the playing field from age zero to five by providing universal access to high quality learning environments, so that these gaps aren’t something that we have to address and remediate with progressive funding formulas, after that age, much less successfully?
Why would we focus entirely on within-school problems when kids have long summer breaks, where radical inequality reemerges, where kids have afternoons where radical inequality reemerges? We really need to be filling in those gaps where inequality is enormous rather than fixating on what is currently our quite narrow tool of the K-12 system.
Well, one thing you do say is that schools, K through 12 schools, could be much more effective in building skills. You know, teachers and coaches and counselors could do a whole lot more. But they need more access to children’s time.
What would that look like, longer school days? Fewer breaks? Smaller class sizes?
There is a long tradition in America of calling for schools to manage a larger share of children’s time. It’s called the community school movement. And it’s arguing that kids should go to school and have a happy, enriching place to be for basically the full work day, nine to five.
This doesn’t mean that kids will just be doing extra homework or cramming more, or getting exhausted when they’re at school all day. We have to really take that concern into account. That is a real problem.
It might be that kids need to be able to rest quietly and do their own thing in a safe environment for a period of time, and then recharge and do something more structured. It might be that some kids get tutoring in that extra time. It might be that some kids do something that they love, like they learn how to do audio engineering, or they do band, or they practice design or something that just interests them and doesn’t tire them out.
The key thing is that parents shouldn’t have to do a lot of research and show a lot of proactive initiative and weed out the bad providers from the good providers with a lot of insight. It should just be, parents kind of automatically sign their kids up for educational institutions, and schools can manage a much larger share of children’s time in productive, healthy, happy ways.