American Parents’ Changing Attitudes: New Roles, New Needs


The values and attitudes of American parents about their parental roles, their children, and their careers are changing — driven by economic realities, shifting gender roles, and generational transitions.

Major trends underway include:

  • US parents are extraordinarily focused on their children’s cognitive development.
  • The roles of mothers and fathers are converging more than ever.
  • Mothers’ attitudes toward work-life balance are splitting along economic lines.
  • Both genders feel more stressed by juggling work and family.


American parents are deeply attentive to their children’s intelligence — more than in the past, and far more than parents in other Western cultures — and they give much higher priority to cultivating their kids’ cognitive skills, a recent study at the University of Connecticut has found.

Sara Harkness, the professor who led the study, says that when parents were asked what they considered the most important thing they could do for their child’s development, almost all said they needed to provide stimulation with toys that boost cognitive growth: “The parents, almost to a person, said, ‘Stimulation — stimulation is what my child needs.'”


The long-term trend of mothers spending increasingly more time on paid work and fathers spending increasingly more time on childcare and housework continues, furthering the convergence of parental roles.

About 60 percent of all two-parent US households with kids under 18 have two working parents. In these homes, the amount of time mothers and fathers spend on paid work versus home tasks — while definitely still biased toward traditional gender roles — is probably the closest it’s ever been, Pew has found. Today, American mothers spend more than 2.5 times as many hours on paid work and about half as much time on housework during an average week than mothers did in 1965. Fathers today spend fewer hours on paid work and about 2.5 times more each on housework and childcare.

When paid work and home tasks are combined, parents “are carrying an almost equal workload,” Pew notes: 54 hours per week for mothers, 53 hours for fathers.


Fathers’ attitudes toward work have changed little in recent years:

  • 75 percent still say they want to work full time
  • 40 percent want a high-paying job

But mothers’ attitudes toward work have changed dramatically following the Great Recession of 2008. They are much more likely to say that working full time is their ideal. At the same time, in a startling new finding, a large majority of working moms say they wish they didn’t need to work full time. Behind these numbers is a growing divide between mothers who are financially unstable and those who are financially comfortable.

  • Among mothers who are financially on the edge, nearly half — 47 percent — told Pew that working full time is their ideal.
  • Among mothers who are financially comfortable, only 31 percent say working full time is their ideal. While many of these mothers still want rewarding careers, they are more likely than lower-income peers to say they’d trade career advancement for benefits like flex-time, paid sick leave, fewer hours — or even for staying home with their kids.


  • The revelation that some three-fourths of US mothers wouldn’t work full time if they didn’t have to — and that large numbers of career-oriented, potentially highly productive women are staying home because they can’t get the flexibility they need — is a major wake-up call for employers. The mandate is clear: “to get those career-oriented moms back into the talent pool, and to better engage the workers who are there out of financial necessity,” as Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI) puts it.
  • US parents’ focus on their children’s intelligence may be overly narrow, worrying experts including Sara Harkness, the University of Connecticut professor quoted above. As she says, “The US’s almost-obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.” The tide may be beginning to turn, with best-sellers lauding the laissez-faire parenting styles of cultures such as France (e.g., “Bringing Up Bébé”). This could signal new opportunities for companies that can think well beyond the “educational” toys/games market. For example, hospitality companies might find opportunity in developing “learning journeys” for kids and their parents (or grandparents) to attend together. This kind of idea would fit well with the general trend of many consumers looking for experiences rather than physical goods.
  • For many parents, “special time” means allowing their child to lead whatever activity they are doing together. There may be an opening for more toys and games that are designed for exactly that: parent-child play, but with the child leading the play without instruction or guidance from the parent.