The future will have unprecedented wealth inequality.
Knowing this, how do I raise my kid?
This is the story of a book that changed my life.
The book is Capital in the 21st Century. It is the seminal text of French economist Thomas Piketty and it made me fall in love with free-range parenting.
In Capital Piketty predicts that the 21st century will be characterized by the largest gap in wealth equality in history.
After I read Capital I switched careers with an eye to joining the relatively protected professional/merchant class. I became obsessed investing. I broke up with my non-committal long-term boyfriend to settle down with someone else — not coincidentally, an automation engineer.
“We need to team up and we don’t have the resources to be frivolous” — the exact words of my marriage proposal to the automation engineer a few months after we got together. He was 21 and said yes.
We had a baby and became what is the first wave of “post-Piketty-parents” – parents who know that in their kid’s lifetime domestic wealth will be at least as unequally distributed as, say, pre-revolution France.
This knowledge changed my parenting in a way I could have never predicted when I was a kid lugging Kumon everywhere: I became convinced that creativity is the most important skill to foster in my kid, so he can respond to whatever the heck the world looks like in the next 100 years.
In order to foster my kid’s creativity I found myself helicoptering around him, creating little art exercises around the house that were not unlike the Kumon I did as a kid but with a little more ROYGBV. He was seven months old.
I’m not completely insane relative to my peers — Kumon, the math kind, can now start as young as one year of age.
As I hovered I wondered: why do I feel the need to helicopter, is there any evidence that this will help my kid flourish, and is my urge to helicopter related to what Piketty said about wealth inequality?
I dug into these questions and along the way accidentally dyed my kid’s penis blue and discovered the world of free-range parenting.
BEFORE I HAD A BABY I HAD TIME TO READ PIKETTY
I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century the summer it came out. I was the target audience: a bright-eyed university arts student.
Piketty presents tax data going back to the start of the Enlightenment to argue that current income inequality around the world is increasing and has reached the same level it did in societies we think of as truly, evilly unequal, like pre-revolution France.
He makes the case that, historically, severe income inequality is leveled out through one of two means: government intervention via high taxes (90% at some periods) or a civil war.
He argues that the world has never been more equally wealthy than in the 1950s – 1970s and that this happened because of significant government intervention following the two world wars and a recession that redistributed most of the wealth of the elite.
He points to the conservative fiscal policies of the 80s as the place where wealth equality began to diverge… and now we’re here, in the 21st century, right back where we started in the 18th century.
He suggests that, as democracy is founded on the existence of a healthy middle class, as wealth inequality grows democracies will be replaced by oligarchies. This has already happened in one of the most unequally wealthy countries, the US.
His tl;dr is that income inequality will shape the 21st century in every way. It will affect how we work, where we live, the length and quality of our lives, how and what we eat, who survives global heating, who we marry, how we raise our children… everything.
THE POST-PIKETTY MID-20s WOMAN
After I read Piketty I felt like I was armed with very useful information which I held close to my heart as I moved through my 20s. My life changed instantly in all the ways my prudent parents had been hoping for years.
I stopped teaching yoga, a services job, the kind of job Piketty deemed the most vulnerable to the whims of the 1% in the new world order.
I declined an offer to do a fully funded humanities PhD at a great school and instead went to school to be a midwife. I figured midwifery wouldn’t make much money but would let me be a little freer from the 1% by giving me a tangible set of skills that would land me in the merchant class and make me useful in case Piketty’s civil war scenario unfolded.
I started squirrelling money into an investment portfolio and became obsessed with tracking its returns. I read the fine print on every bank document and read everything in my public library on personal finance and popular economics, from William Bernstein to Gail Vaz Oxlade. This culminated last year when I confidently took our money out of the exclusive physician-family-only banking institution which has handled my family’s finances forever and moved it to an online millennial haven. That took a lot of guts on my part!
I began to re-envision my future: it didn’t look like my parents’ boomer lifestyle anymore, the one I thought was the apex of enlightened human achievement. I began to appreciate that the way my parents spent their money and time reflected the incredible wealth and wealth equality of their generation.
I came around to the idea of raising kids in an urban centre in a condo. Maybe the good life was not a set of possessions (house, backyard, bedrooms for every kid, two cars, Disneyland vacations) but just being as free from the tyranny of the 1% as possible. Food and water security. The freedom to raise your children in safety. Having your craft in your hands and body so you can work wherever this changing world displaces you.
When my husband and I moved close to my family and miraculously bought a house Piketty was like a third person in the room as we contemplated how much debt to take on. “Money will be harder to come by in the future,” we recalled, “we should aim to get out of debt as soon as we can and not treat our house like an investment.” With Piketty and Elizabeth Warren in The Two Income Trap as our guides we bought a house we could swing on one income.
And now I am a parent with a baby in my arms and Piketty in my brain. I imagine my kid growing up in a world that will become more unequal and automated. I wonder what skills I should try to foster in him and how I should do it.
Love, Money, Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids
It turns out other parents are also wondering about the relationship between wealth inequality and parenting, especially Mattias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, economists, dads, and authors of Love, Money & Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way we Raise our Kids.
The premise of Love, Money & Parenting is that helicopter parenting, tiger momming, whatever you call labour-intensive parenting, exists in direct correlation to the degree of income inequality in a given country.
Doepke and Zilibotti start with the premise that all parents everywhere love their children and want what is best for them; what form this love takes, and whether parents helicopter or not, depends on more than just their individual neuroses and anxiety.
The US and China, the two countries with the most intense helicopter parenting (college admissions scandal anyone?) are also the most unequal societies, with the farthest to fall if your kid falls behind in school and no real safety net.
Permissive, laissez-faire parenting is the rule in countries where wealth is more equally distributed, like Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. In these places everyone generally makes a living wage, the social safety net is generous, and the incomes at the top are only around twice that of the incomes at the bottom.
“Throughout our research,” the authors tell us,
we discover that in countries with low inequality and low returns to education parents tend to be more permissive, while in countries with high inequality and a high return to education, parents are both more authoritarian and more prone to instill in their children a drive to achieve ambitious goals… inequality is very low in permissive Sweden, higher in achievement-oriented Switzerland, and higher yet in the United States, where anxiety-ridden helicopter parents hold sway.
Helicopter parenting appears to pay off.
In countries with large wealth inequality like the US children who have their time and learning managed by their parents are more likely to attend elite schools and obtain high-paying jobs as adults.
Conversely, in more equal countries, having a high-paying job in adulthood is not associated with having been helicopter-parented… but also, having a high-paying job doesn’t offer the same protections it does in more unequal countries.
In countries with a more permissive style of parenting the concept of elite schools doesn’t exist, university is publicly funded, and childhood is protected as a time of play.
For example, in Finland students don’t start formal schooling until age seven and school is play-based. On the contrary, I have to order toys from a specialty hippie store online if I don’t want them to try to teach my baby the alphabet, the animal kingdom, or minor surgery.
Unsurprisingly creativity makes up a bigger part of the economy in countries where permissive parenting abounds.
In unequal countries parents are more likely to list “hard work” as the top quality they wish to pass on to their kids. In more equal countries “hard work” doesn’t even make top five; instead, “creativity” and “independence” are the top two.
I wonder whether helicopter parenting will disappear as patrimonial capitalism — where most wealth is inherited rather than earned on the market — settles in. Maybe my commitment to free-range parenting reflects the onset of patrimonial capitalism; that is, helicopter parenting is unlikely to offer my kid social mobility in a world where wealth is largely inherited so why would I do it?
Or maybe as part of the relatively free merchant/professional class I have the liberty of parenting my kid with an eye to creativity rather than hard work in a way that parents in service jobs just cannot do. I don’t know.
Anyway, this book is so good that I am doing it a disservice by summarizing it. You get the gist! If you want to know more or want to delve into their methods get it from the library!
SO AM I SUPPOSED TO HELICOPTER PARENT OR WHAT
My friend and I had babies at the same time and often review parenting books to each other furtively via text as our kids nap.
We are both a little intense: she was our high school class president and is now a beautiful urban lawyer. I was valedictorian and am now a no-shit-taking midwife. We are two high strung peas in a minimalist, KonMari’d pod.
“I am confused,” she texts. We are discussing Love, Money, Parenting. “Are we supposed to helicopter parent or not?”
“It depends.” I write back. “It seems like you can helicopter parent if you want to and statistically your kid will earn more money as an adult but also that was then and this is now… plus if you helicopter you crush their soul so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”
I add, “They had a cool chapter about parenting for the future you think your kid will live in and how no one could have predicted how different the future would be with tech (and how useless memorization would be). It confirmed my theory that creativity is the most important skill to foster so my kid can navigate whatever the hell the world looks like in 20 years.”
“Ok thx good to know,” she replies. “My goal is for my baby to become and oligarch so I will start helicoptering.”
She continues, “But seriously I agree that creativity is the most important skill for the future. I worry about how to foster it since I am tragically lacking in creativity and love rules.”
Two women in love with rules, living in a country destined to create helicopter parents (Canada is pretty bad for wealth equality and we share a border with the helicopter capital, the US), we decide to try to encourage our children to be creative.
I am determined to encourage my seven month old to be creative so he can someday navigate the future Piketty predicted, marked by wealth inequality and incomprehensible innovation in tech, where creative types who can respond to the changing world around them will probably thrive.
I know that the research shows that the best way to encourage my child to be creative is through hands-off, non-intrusive parenting. Lots of skin to skin to promote brain development as a baby. Open-ended play as a toddler. Theory of loose parts. Unstructured time as a kid. A secure home base, nutritious, simple food, and plenty of fresh air. I know! I know!
This is not the parenting I know though! I was born alongside helicopter parenting and grew up as it was perfected. I started my day before dawn at swim practice, picked up breakfast at Tim Horton’s, school, an hour or two of homework, fast dinner, evening sport, Kumon, music practice, bed. Every moment was structured.
Kumon is the mascot of helicopter parenting. Kumon is a homework service where parents pay for a small portable box of math problems that their kid completes every night for half an hour. Once a week the kid brings the box full of completed problems back to the Kumon centre and reviews the problems they didn’t get with the Kumon people.
Kumon began in the 80s, not coincidentally at the same time as the advent of helicopter parenting and the conservative fiscal policies that brought about the incredible wealth inequality we have today.
I grew up on Kumon. I did Kumon at the beach, at the kitchen table, in the car between sports and music lessons, on summer vacation. I remember on busy days bringing my Kumon to school so I could get it done at lunch before my evening hustle began. A really good morning meant I completed music practice and Kumon before school started.
As an adult with hindsight I firmly believe that Kumon is stupid and homework is stupid. The research agrees. Neither have been shown to give your kid a leg up in anything that money alone doesn’t already give them and both rob families of precious time that could be spent dreaming and playing and can never be got back.
That being said, I get that my parents were doing what everyone else was doing when they helicoptered. And Doepke and Zilibotti would say they were responding to growing wealth inequality. And without my experience being helicoptered I don’t think I would be as motivated to create a free-range childhood for my kid.
I offer the backstory of Kumon so that this next part makes sense. Please, enjoy the following story of my first fumbling flomp into unlearning helicopter parenting.
ORANGE CHALK, BLUE FOOD COLOURING
I set up small art exercises around the house that I can use to creatively engage our seven month old.
My goal is to help him imaginatively respond to the problems he’ll face, problems I can’t even imagine now, as he moves through the automated and unequal world of the 21st century.
My approach of making him do small exercises is, I later realize, helicopter parenting. But I don’t know that yet. I just think I am giving him to means to make art!
I buy a beautiful, minimalist selection of sidewalk chalks. Easy to clean up and not overstimulating. I feel a little smug.
I sit with my seven month old on our driveway. I can’t believe we have a driveway. I draw a flower. It feels so freeing. I remember drawing this flower as a kid. Time is a flat circle. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to buy a house.
I look to my child. He has eaten half a stick of chalk. He is slimy and orange. He really likes eating the chalk. He smiles as big as the bright orange sun and slimily goes in for seconds.
I distract him with a fistful of grass.
Fine, it is too early for chalk.
He loves to put things in his mouth so I come up with a better plan. A genius plan.
Food colouring. An edible art supply.
I sit in the bath with him. I have placed three thumb-sized food colouring bottles on the side of the tub. Red, yellow, blue. I wait. My seven month old is very interested in his penis and not much else.
While he plays with his penis I study the food colouring – the lids are really quite small. They must be difficult for a baby to manage, he is just getting the hang of his pincer grip. Maybe that’s the rate limiting step to my kid making beautiful art – the lid. I take the lid off the blue and squeeze a small drop on the side of our white tub. The colour is arresting and luscious.
“Look!” I point excitedly to the blue drop streaking down the side of the tub.
He stops to look and lets go of his penis. The blue really is beautiful and exciting to watch.
He lifts his rolly sweet arm out of the water. His face is pure, soft, open curiosity. He touches the blue drop with a single finger. The room is still.
He pushes his hand gently into the tub wall and there is an ocean blue smear. He follows the smear with his gaze. It’s happening! Art is happening!
I blink as there is a big splash. He has forgotten about painting and found his penis again… only this time his hand is covered in blue food colouring. His penis looks like one of those blue whale gummy candies. He has blue himself.
It turns out it is not possible to get food colouring out of foreskin.
My baby looks at his blue penis and bursts out in sing song laughing.
CAN’T MAKE ART WITH KUMON. WHAT NEXT?
SARA ZASKE ON Raising FREE-RANGE KIDS IN NORTH AMERICA
My baby rightfully laughed in my face when I tried to force his interest in painting with food colouring in the bathtub. His singsong laugh was my first lesson in unlearning helicopter parenting.
The food colouring painting exercise fell apart the moment I redirected his attention from playing with himself to my planned activity. The moment I turned free play into an exercise (exercise, another relic of the 80s).
To better understand what permissive, open-ended parenting looks like, I turned to Sara Zaske, an American mom who found herself raising her kids in east Berlin.
Germany is a place Doepke and Zilibotti would say has high income equality so you would expect laissez-faire parenting. Zaske’s account reflects this. She describes her crash course in permissive, unobtrusive parenting. Her book is lovely and I can’t recommend it enough.
Zaske gives concrete examples of what permissive parenting looks like in Germany:
- National law protects children’s right to independence and each other’s company. This looks like:
- Inexpensive ($20/ a month) universal childcare – kita — starting as young as one year.
- Even stay at home moms put their babies in kita. It is just seen as the right thing to do by your kid.
- Childcare is very different in Germany than North America. It is not seen as a last resort and it is staffed differently. To work in childcare you must have a four year university degree (university is paid for, as are living expenses – your parents must pay for them if they have the means and if not, the state will)
- At kita children do things like:
- Play with fire (special teachers take them into the woods and help them light thousands of matches in rapidfire succession and then pair them off to cook food over a fire… in kindergarten)
- Take weeklong overnight camping trips away from their family (when they are four)
- Homeschooling in illegal
- Grade schoolers walk themselves to school – including public transit.
- Learning is student-led in a way that we can’t even imagine in a nation of teaching to tests – a fourth grade class decides they want to spend the next weeks learning about the human body. They read this amazing book by Babette Cole, a student contacts a local physician and leads a classroom Q & A, they spend hours drawing the structure of the human heart.
- Risky outdoor play
- Zaske gives the amazing example of the gigantic scary dragon playground, which looks like if EDM was a play structure.
- Just to play in the sandboxes around the dragon’s feet is an accomplishment for a kid.
- By the time you are a tween you can climb up to the mouth and sit in the mesh at the back of its throat and not be seen.
- The kids assess the degree of risk they are comfortable taking for themselves and it takes years to “conquer” the dragon.
- The playgrounds of Berlin are mind-boggling in imagination, risk-taking, and quantity. This speaks to the cultural value ascribed to risk-taking, children in public space, creativity, and independence.
- Zaske gives the amazing example of the gigantic scary dragon playground, which looks like if EDM was a play structure.
- große Kinder – große Sorgen “bigger children, bigger worries”
- Teens are free to use their time as they please.
- In Zaske’s circle, the parents of teens set the boundary that they have to sleep at home on weeknights but other than that they do as pleased.
- The friends commented that it wasn’t easy to be so hands off but “große Kinder – große Sorgen,” so what can ya do?
Zaske identifies anti-Nazism and guilt over the actions of Germany in the world wars, not income equality, as the heartbeat of the anti-authority parenting movement in Germany right now. I am sure the two are not unrelated.
When Zaske returns to America with her middle-school aged kids she finds herself on the offensive against school administrators and other parents in her community as she tries to carve out the space for her kids to be free-range. She gives concrete examples of what free-range parenting looks like in the US including petitioning the school for less homework (to create more unstructured time for her kids) and organizing a walk to school day.
THE HELICOPTER HAS TAKEN OFF AND NOW THERE IS A GREAT BIG FIELD TO PLAY IN
In this article I have grappled with my relationship with helicopter parenting and traced my interest in free-range parenting back to reading Thomas Piketty’s seminal text Capital in the 21st Century in my early 20s.
Capital convinced me that wealth inequality and automation were going to increase in my lifetime and I changed my life to live more harmoniously with this fact.
These changes included my career, how I manage money, the age at which I got married and to whom, how I am choosing to raise my kid, and much more. I could go on forever!
Knowing that my baby is going to live in a world more unequal and automated than the one I know inspired me to foster creativity in our home so he can independently and imaginatively respond to whatever the heck the world looks like in his life.
At first I tried to graft helicopter methods like the Kumon approach onto creative exercises but this genuinely blue up in my face.
I then turned my attention to the international example of Sara Zaske parenting in Berlin to explore what nurturing creativity through permissive, free-range parenting looks like.
I know I am not alone in my struggle to unlearn helicopter parenting. I hope you found something useful here to bring to your own journey, whether you are trying to make sense of the way you parented or were parented, dreaming of how you will raise your own kids, raising your children gently, nurturing little minds in your work, or raging against the system… whatever your journey is.
Thank you for reading. Please tell me about your helicopter fails, your free-range parenting adventures, and the books that changed your life in the comments!