Preferences or Constraints? Education, Gender, and Parenting Attitudes

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Principal investigator:

Patrick Ishizuka

Cornell University



Sample size: 3642

Field period: 05/15/2015-09/24/2015


Social scientists have documented large differences in parenting behavior by social class and by gender. These parenting differences, in turn, have important consequences for women’s labor market outcomes and a wide range of child outcomes. To better understand growing social class differences in parental investments in children and persistent inequalities in men’s and women’s parenting responsibilities, researchers have focused attention on change and stability in cultural expectations of mothers’ and fathers’ parenting. While some studies suggest social class differences in parents’ views about “good” parenting and cultural expectations of intensive mothering, other research points to rising parenting standards for all parents, including fathers. Using data from a vignette survey experiment with more than 3,500 parents, this study examines cultural norms about mothers’ and fathers’ parenting.


Prior research on social class differences in parenting produces two contrasting hypotheses. First, cultural difference accounts argue that higher- and lower-SES parents differ in their views about “good” parenting, with more advantaged parents preferring a more intensive “concerted cultivation” parenting style, and less advantaged parents preferring a less intensive “natural growth” style:

H1A: Higher-SES parents will rate concerted cultivation (intensive parenting) more positively than natural growth (non-intensive parenting) behaviors; the reverse will be true for lower-SES parents.

However, other accounts posit that intensive parenting norms have diffused broadly throughout the population, including to lower-SES parents:

H1B: Higher- and lower-SES parents will both rate concerted cultivation (intensive parenting) more positively than natural growth (non-intensive parenting) behaviors.

Prior research on gender and parenting generates two predictions. First, cultural difference accounts argue that mothers are judged by higher parenting standards than fathers.

H2A: Fathers will be evaluated more positively than mothers for both intensive and non-intensive parenting.

However, other research suggests rising standards for father involvement and symmetry in expectations of mothers and fathers:

H2B: Mothers and fathers will be evaluated more positively for intensive than for non-intensive parenting; there will be no differences in how mothers and fathers are evaluated for the same behaviors.

Experimental Manipulations

I experimentally manipulate four factors theorized to influence views about “good” parenting. First, because norms about how parents should behave may be situation- or domain-specific, I randomly assign respondents to one of six parenting situations. Second, within each situation, I experimentally manipulate whether respondents read an intensive (concerted cultivation) or a non-intensive (natural growth) parenting behavior specific to that situation. Third, to assess whether parent and child gender shape views about “good” parenting, I experimentally manipulate the gender of the parent and child described in the vignette.


The experiment involves two tasks. First, respondents are randomly assigned to read a parenting situation, and are asked how they would advise the parent to respond (open-ended): How would you advise [Name] to respond in this situation? Second, respondents are randomly assigned to read a different parenting situation and a description of a parenting behavior. Then respondents are asked to rate the parents’ behavior (closed-ended): What do you think of [Name]’s parenting in this situation? Would you say it is excellent, very good, good, OK, not very good, or poor? Finally, to gain insights into respondents’ reasoning, I ask them to explain why they provided the rating they did (open-ended): What was it about [Name]’s parenting that led you to rate it as [Rating]?

Summary of Results

Results show that parents– both men and women – have demanding parenting standards: they expect mothers and fathers to perform intensive parenting, and they penalize both mothers and fathers when they deviate from this standard. Additionally, both higher- and lower-SES parents have remarkably similar views about “good” parenting; both consistently view concerted cultivation (intensive parenting) more positively than natural growth (non-intensive parenting). Analyses of open-ended question responses further support these findings. These strong cultural norms of child-centered, time-intensive mothering and fathering are widely held by men and women of different social classes and point to high contemporary standards for parental investments in children.


Ishizuka, Patrick. 2018. "Social Class, Gender, and Contemporary Parenting Standards in the United States: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment." Social Forces.