Graphic shows the percent of parents who rate each trait as the most important for children to learn from 1986-2018. Support for autonomy (top line) declines, while support for hard work (solid orange line) increases. Image via Socius.

Popular culture complains that parents have become too focused on making kids feel good about themselves and not focused enough on encouraging hard work and effort. However, in their new article, Nomaguchi and Milkie demonstrate that support for passing on the value of working hard to children has actually increased over the past forty years.

Nomaguchi and Milkie analyzed which traits adults ranked as most important for children to learn on the General Social Survey between 1986 and 2018. Survey respondents ranked five traits from most to least important: obedience, autonomy, diligence, compassion and likability. The authors wondered if rising economic uncertainty would increase emphasis on survival skills, like hard work, or whether “self-expression” values like thinking for oneself and helping others (autonomy and compassion) would remain popular, as they had between 1920 and 1980. 

They found that although thinking for oneself remains the most popular, adults increasingly emphasized passing on the value of hard work. Between 1986 and 2018, the number of adults who considered autonomy as the most important trait for children to learn declined by about 10% while support for hard work more than doubled.  Nomaguchi and Milkie also found that since 2010 Americans have ranked hard work either as important or more important to pass on to children than thinking for oneself. Importantly, they found that if changes to the population, such as the increased number of college graduates, had not occured support for hard work would have been greater. 

Nomaguchi and Milkie speculate that the increased preference for survival values instead of “self-expression” values reflects the greater sense of economic precarity in the United States. Other social scientists have documented how shifts in the labor market since the 1980s have left more people feeling economically insecure. 

Nomaguchi and Milkie’s finding demonstrates the importance of investigating parenting values, like which traits to pass on to children, to better understand people’s sense of the economy and culture they are living in. People’s increased focus on hard work, and not self-expression, may demonstrate that Americans are concerned about the economy they are living in and will pass onto their children.