Families & the Community What the Research Says

Parents Today: Less ‘Helicoptering,’ More Concern About Kids’ Mental Health

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 07, 2023 4 min read
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In the wake of pandemic disruptions and an unprecedented rise in school shootings, a majority of parents place less of a premium on their children’s academic success than their mental well-being and character.

The data are part of the Pew Research Center’s latest edition of Parenting in America Today, a nationally representative survey of more than 3,700 U.S. parents with children under age 18. It was conducted in fall 2022. A previous iteration of the survey was conducted in 2015, but because of changes, it is not directly comparable.

Even so, the findings give educators a window into the priorities and parenting approaches of their students’ families at a time when schools need parents to buy into intensive academic interventions to help students catch up academic ground lost during the pandemic. And they suggest educators will need to make parents aware of the mental and social-emotional supports they give students, not just academic ones.

Parents in the survey—especially moms—reported feeling stressed and exhausted, but they also seem to be working to give their children more freedom and autonomy. For instance, while in 2015, 62 percent of parents described themselves as “overprotective” at least sometimes, only 45 percent of parents in 2022 said the same.

These findings displayed some differences across racial lines as well. In particular, 55 percent of the Black parents surveyed consider themselves overprotective—10 percentage points more than the average for parents in 2022. But it’s not clear from the Pew data why there are such large differences in parenting approaches.

One 47-year-old mom told Pew researchers she was “trying to keep [her kids] independent and not being a helicopter parent.”

Students’ mental well-being is critical

In the survey, 40 percent of parents of children younger than 18 report being very or extremely worried about their child struggling with anxiety or depression—and more than three-quarters of parents were at least somewhat worried about this.

“Parents’ concerns about their children’s mental health are top of mind these days ... followed closely by concern over bullying,” said Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social and demographic trends research. “These items trumped certain threats to their children’s physical well-being (such as being kidnapped, beaten up, or shot).”

Only 55 percent of the parents Pew asked in 2015 said they were at least somewhat concerned about their child’s mental health. While significant shares of parents across racial groups had worries about their children’s mental health in the 2022 survey, 43 percent of Hispanic moms voiced this concern—higher than any other racial group.

Nearly 3 in 4 parents in 2022 also reported being very or somewhat concerned about their child being bullied, up from about 60 percent of the parents surveyed in 2015.

Nearly half of Black parents worried about school bullying, compared to closer to a third of parents of other racial groups.

In a separate national survey conducted by the Ipsos research group last summer, a majority of parents said their school-age children were “lazy” and “disrespectful,” among other issues, but nearly 7 in 10 said they relied on educators in schools to reinforce values in students. Pew researchers found a majority of parents also consider hard work and honesty top values to teach their children, though they were not asked about how much of a role schools should play.

Parents want financial stability more than college attainment for their kids

Seven years ago, the majority of parents said there was no such thing as being “too involved in their children’s education.” In 2022, parents seem to be taking a more relaxed approach.

One 40-year-old mother told Pew researchers she planned to raise her children with more emphasis on extracurriculars. “My parents were overprotective and didn’t let me do anything or go anywhere. They were also unable to afford to put me in any classes or lessons. They valued academics above all else,” she said. “While I think academics is very important, I would like my children to have a more well-rounded upbringing.”

In both 2015 and 2022, roughly the same share of parents, 2 in 5, said getting a college degree was highly important for their children. Then as now, white parents were less likely to put a premium on college than were parents of other racial groups.

“I wouldn’t say it necessarily represents a move away from college as a general aspiration,” Parker said, “but parents are definitely putting a heavy emphasis on financial independence and job satisfaction.”

“The education patterns are interesting here,” she noted. Parents with a postgraduate degree were the only group with a majority who considered it extremely or very important that their child earn a college degree—about 10 percentage points more than parents with either no college degree or a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s the parents with some college (that is, they attended college but didn’t attain a four-year degree) who place somewhat less importance on this,” she said. “Only a third say it’s extremely or very important to them that their child graduate from college. This is a group that tends to have high levels of college debt, which may be feeding into these attitudes.”

Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.

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