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  • Parenting has come to involve a lot more supervision today compared to a generation or more ago. Tweet This
  • Maybe there are other options besides micromanaging kids’ lives in an anxious, zero-sum effort to win one of the dwindling number of spots in elite society. Tweet This
  • If the world is actually getting safer, why are parents getting more protective and anxious about their kids? Tweet This
Category: Parents

One of the richest people I’ve met (outside my job, which occasionally involves interviewing wealthy individuals) is probably my plumber. He’s older and owns his own small plumbing businesses. On top of that, he owns something like 40 rental properties, and manages that many more. I can only guess at his net worth, but based on my knowledge of the local real estate market and his age (being older means he probably has more equity in his properties than a younger person), my guess is he’s worth at least $20 million. But that number could be much higher if he owns his properties outright, and if his plumbing and management businesses are worth any significant amount. If he’s cash-flowing $1,000 a month off each rental—which I think is realistic—he’s making $40,000 per month before even counting his plumbing and management income. Which means he’s probably making around $500,000 per year. 

I’m going to come back to my plumber in a second. 

But first, I recently read this piece in The Atlantic, which argues that parents shouldn’t teach their kids to fear the world. The thesis of the essay is that when it comes to children, “teaching them that the world is dangerous is bad for their health, happiness, and success.” Amen. 

Unfortunately, though, fear seems to be the modus operandi of many parents right now. The Atlantic piece cites a Pew Research poll showing that “parents say children should be at least 10 years old before they should be allowed to play in front of their house unsupervised while an adult is inside.” I tweeted this quote, and I was surprised that more than 100 people either replied or quote-tweeted me, many of them sharing tales of running wild through their neighborhoods at ages much younger than 10. But despite the free-range parenting disposition of my Twitter community, Pew found that parents are on the whole reluctant to cut the umbilical cord: 

Parents say children should be even older before they are allowed to stay home alone for about an hour (12 years old) or to spend time at a public park unsupervised (14 years old). 

To each their own, but it seems apparent from all of this that parenting has come to involve a lot more supervision today compared to a generation or more ago.

The ironic thing is that this phenomenon has happened at the same time that children’s lives have become much safer. The Washington Post did a great piece about this back in 2015, noting that the numbers on things like child mortality, child homicides, and reports of missing children have all been falling significantly for many, many years. And the piece also concluded that improved childhood safety probably isn’t the result of parents becoming more protective: 

Bottom line: If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it's even safer for your own children to do so today.

All of this raises a question: If the world is actually getting safer, why are parents getting more protective and anxious about their kids? Why do a majority of parents, as Pew has shown, favor a degree of intervention in their kids’ lives that when I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s would have seemed insane? 

There are many theories, but the one I find most compelling is that intensive, fear-based helicopter parenting is a symptom of economic anxiety. This is an idea that’s been covered in the New York TimesThe Atlantic and elsewhere, but the gist is that parents perceive that their kids are entering a world that is economically rougher than the one they themselves inherited. And they respond by pushing their kids harder to compete. So, every moment of a kid’s life is supervised and scheduled so they can jump through all the right hoops until they eventually go to Harvard and become a doctor. 

Not everyone actually goes to Harvard, but the idea is that there are fewer financially stable, middle-class career paths than there used to be, so you better do everything right to snag the best position you can. And that struggle creates anxious, helicopter-y parents. Eventually, it also creates a norm that pervades parenting culture generally, whether people are explicitly thinking about their kids’ prospects or not. One of the more interesting things about that tweet I mentioned was that a bunch of people responded saying they don’t like helicopter culture, but fear having Child Protective Services called on them if they, for example, let their kids roam free in the neighborhood. 

In any case, my own field of journalism offers an example of a field where there are a shrinking number of viable career paths. According to Pew, the number of jobs in newsrooms fell 26% between 2008 and 2021. The Columbia Journalism Review also found that 6,150 jobs in the news business were cut during the pandemic alone. Journalism was never an easy or get-rich-quick profession, but a generation ago it was at least a middle-class job.

When I started—I got my first full-time newspaper job in 2010—there were at least enough local papers that I could find an entry-level position that launched me on my way. People starting out now don’t have as many opportunities as I did, and if you live in one of the many cities that lost all its newspapers, there are no options for you at all. 

I’m lucky I got in when I did. But the point is as a dad, when I’m thinking of viable career options I might suggest to my kids, I would no longer put journalism on the list. And as more and more professions get removed from that list, it becomes more difficult to succeed in the ones that remain (tech, medicine, law, etc.). Which brings me back to my plumber.

What’s remarkable to me is that he didn’t follow the same path that I was led to believe was the only option. That’s not to say his field wasn’t competitive, but rather that we competed in a different arena with different rules and (I think this is key) different values. But he’s also doing better than the vast majority of people who have followed the professional class recipe for success. He is, in other words, the perfect example of what I previously described as the gentry-class approach to financial stability; rather than earn high wages, he owns cash-generating assets (rental property, businesses, etc.). 

The point I’m ultimately trying to make is that maybe there are other options besides micromanaging kids’ lives in an anxious, zero-sum effort to win one of the dwindling number of spots in elite society. Personally, I hope my kids go to college so they have a chance to read Shakespeare, learn about art history, and get a basic understanding of science. In other words, the classic liberal education. But when it comes time for them to choose a job, I may end up telling them to ignore my own example and be more like my plumber. 

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribunte.

Editor’s NoteThis essay appeared first in the author’s newsletter, Nuclear Meltdown. It has been lightly edited. *The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.