Looking at recent generations, there has been a major evolution in parenting styles—from Boomers who tended to be strict disciplinarians who demanded respect, to Gen Z parents raising their children with a more permissive, egalitarian and friend-like approach.
Since 2009, Smarty Pants has tracked these shifts in an effort to monitor the ongoing evolution. Annually, thousands of US parents of children ages six to 12 have been asked, “On a scale of one to 10, where ‘one’ represents a strict, authoritarian style and ’10′ represents a permissive, friend-like style, how would you classify your parenting style?”
The data confirms a slow, steady change is afoot. Over the past decade, the number of parents claiming to be strict/authoritarian has declined from 26% in 2011 to 18% in 2015, and just 10% in 2019. At the same time, the number of parents who say they are permissive/friend-like more than doubled between 2011 and 2019, and then nearly doubled again by 2021.
The pandemic push
This parenting evolution was kicked into hyperdrive when the COVID-19 pandemic hit American families. Moms and dads underwent a dramatic parenting shift last year, with 30% reporting they employed a friendly style (up from 19% the year before). By 2021, 37% of parents of kids and tweens said they are, essentially, their child’s friend and “peer-ent.”
This spike in parents being permissive is true regardless of the gender or age of the child. Whether they have boys or girls, little kids or tweens, between 34% and 40% of parents say they are friend-like in their style, with little statistical difference across comparable subgroups.
Home is where the heart (and school and work and playtime) is
The pandemic forced parents into new roles as schools became virtual (or hybrid), structured activities were cancelled, and social get-togethers were limited. Not only did they become surrogate teachers and backyard coaches; parents also became playmates, confidantes and, perhaps, “besties.”
Moms and dads have leaned into that closeness—board games were dusted off and co-consumption of content soared—in an effort to pass the time and reconnect during what parents thought was a temporary pause.
But a year later in the spring of 2021, the majority of school-aged children were still learning (at least sometimes) from home. In fact, only 35% of parents reported that their children were learning at school. Additionally, more parents have been home overall. In 2021, only 52% of parents work outside the home, compared to 64% in 2019. Home time continues to dominate family time.
Given all of this extra interaction, it’s not surprising that parent-child closeness appears to have “stuck” as the pandemic drags on. Schools remain in flux, and activities are still on pause. Social time with other kids has been replaced by more and more time at home and with parents. From mom-initiated basketball games in the driveway, to second-graders teaching dads the “new rules” of UNO, inter-family play is at an all-time high.
A parent’s likelihood to be in the friend zone dramatically increases with household income. While this was true in a slight way a decade ago, the gap between parenting styles based on income has widened dramatically in recent years.
In 2021, 53% of those who make more than US$100,000 per year report a friendly style. Only 34% of those who have a household income of US$50,000 to US$100,000 say the same, and even fewer (just 24%) of those who make less than US$50,000 agree. Resources clearly lead to leniency, while feeling restricted—perhaps by money, time, or both—tends to yield strictness. After all, who has time to horse around or go grocery shopping together when a parent may be working until 10 p.m. or feeling stressed about paying bills?
Culture matters, too
Race and ethnicity also influence the likelihood of being a peer-ent. While household income undoubtedly plays a role, there are also clear cultural differences in parenting styles that the pandemic has broadened.
In 2021, nearly 50% of white parents say they are permissive and friend-like. Half as many (26%) parents of color report the same. Qualitative data suggests that this is partially because parents of color place a greater emphasis on deference and rule-following as a means of safeguarding their children and setting them up for success. They also have a heightened awareness of how their child’s negative behavior can be perceived by the world and work against them.
As parents begin to return to their out-of-home offices, and kids return to in-school learning, it’s unlikely that parenting behaviors and attitudes will revert back to pre-lockdown dynamics entirely. The pandemic left many parents feeling that life’s too short, and they want to have fun and enjoy themselves with their children. It has also encouraged many to shift their priorities in favor of soaking up family moments and making memories. For others, there is a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to their child’s emotional wellness, leading parents to take a gentler, friend-like approach in an effort to combat their child’s sense of loneliness or anxiety.
The continuing shift in parenting styles impacts families’ relationships with media, programming and brands. Gone are the days of authoritarian parents whose sole job is to punish and govern.
Today’s adults also aren’t the goofy, butt-of-the-joke characters that have been depicted by the media in the past.
Maintaining authenticity will involve content with parent-child relationships that reflect the shift toward a more level, friend-like approach—with nuanced degrees of permissiveness based on income and culture.
As parents enjoy opportunities to spend time with their kids, content that pleases both will be a must for the rise in co-viewing. Keeping a pulse on the parenting style that has evolved over the past decade and the peer-enting trend that has accelerated over the past year will be instrumental for establishing relevance with families today and in the future.
Data was derived from the company’s annual Brand Love study of more than 9,500 US families’ attitudes, behaviors and brand affinities.
Wynne Tyree is the founder and president of Smarty Pants, a youth- and family-focused market research consultancy.