Most parents say a hands-on approach to parenting is the best way to raise kids, according to a new study. But parents may struggle to meet that time-and-money-intensive ideal, the research suggests.

Hands-on, intensive parenting is best, most parents say

Regardless of their education, income or race, most parents say a child-centered, time-intensive approach to parenting is the best way to raise their kids, a Cornell researcher has found.

The findings suggest intensive parenting has become the dominant model for how parents across the socio-economic spectrum feel children should be raised – regardless of whether the parent has the resources to actually do so.

“This points to exceptionally high standards for how parents should raise their kids. It suggests that parents are experiencing significant pressure to spend great amounts of both time and money on children,” said Patrick Ishizuka, the author of “Social Class, Gender, and Contemporary Parenting Standards in the United States,” published Dec. 22 in Social Forces.

Most parents also said intensive parenting is the ideal approach for both mothers and fathers, and applies to parenting boys and girls, according to the study.

“It’s remarkable just how widespread support is for intensive parenting, in terms of social class and gender,” added Ishizuka, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Population Center.

Researchers in the field have known that parents with low incomes and less education tend to spend less time and money on children than parents with higher incomes and more education. But it hadn’t been clear whether that’s because they lack resources or because they prefer a different approach to childrearing. Ishizuka’s study is the first to directly address the question using a nationally representative survey, by asking parents of different social classes what they consider “good parenting.”

Ishizuka analyzed data from more than 3,600 study participants who were parents. The participants read about various scenarios in which a mother or father interacts with a child between the ages of 8 and 10. The vignettes focused on the child’s leisure activities, how the parent speaks to the child and how the family interacts with professionals in institutions like schools or a doctor’s office. The participants then ranked the parent’s behavior from “excellent” to “poor.”

Each scenario described one of two approaches to parenting: concerted cultivation (an intensive parenting approach) or natural growth (a non-intensive parenting approach). In concerted cultivation, parents facilitate their child’s participation in extracurricular activities, play with them at home, ask them about their thoughts and feelings, and respond to misbehavior with discussion and explanations. In contrast, parents taking the natural growth approach set rules for their children’s safety but give them flexibility to play on their own or with friends. Parents are less involved in the children’s activities and give them clear directives with little room for negotiation.

In one vignette, a child complains about being bored after school. In the concerted cultivation condition, the parent suggests they can sign the child up for a sports team or music lessons. In the natural growth condition, the parent suggests the child go outside and play with her friends.

Ishizuka also analyzed whether the participants answered questions differently when the parent was a woman or a man and if the child was a boy or a girl.

The vast majority – 75 percent – of college graduates and non-college graduates rated the concerted cultivation approach as “very good” or “excellent.” But only 32 percent of college graduates and 38 percent of non-college graduates rated the natural growth parenting style “very good” or “excellent.”

The findings imply that parents may struggle to meet these ideals – especially if they have low incomes and education levels.

“These high standards are less compatible with some parents’ resources,” Ishizuka said. “Even though parents with a lower socio-economic status have these ideals, we know that they’re not, on average, engaging in these parenting behaviors as often as college graduates. A lack of time and money could be a factor in shaping their behaviors, given that they have very similar ideals.”

The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, Mathematica Policy Research, Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences and the Cornell Population Center.

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Gillian Smith