How many Americans grew up with parental rules, and how many broke those rules?

Oana DumitruContributor
October 21, 2022, 12:11 PM GMT+0

Parenting has always generated diverging opinions among Americans, but the past several decades have seen a larger cultural shift in guidelines and recommendations, with many parents opting for a more lenient parenting style. In a recent survey, YouGov asked Americans to reflect on their experience growing up with parental rules, and — where applicable — breaking those rules.

More than one-third of Americans (38%) say that their parents were somewhat or much stricter when it came to rules compared to parents of other children their age at the time, and a similar share (36%) of Americans say their parents’ level of strictness was about average. Only 18% of Americans say their parents were somewhat or more lenient than other children’s parents at the time. Though about as many people would have grown up in households with above-average leniency than ones with below-average leniency, that's not how it looks in retrospect to adults.

Among Americans who say their parents were stricter than other children’s, two-thirds (66%) say that was a good thing, 18% say it was neither good nor bad, and only 11% say it was a bad thing. Americans who say their parents were more lenient are less likely to see that as a good thing: 41% say that was a good thing and 26% say it was a bad thing. Parents of about-average strictness, in the recollection of their adult children, seem to have struck a particularly good balance: 68% say this was a good thing, and just 4% say it was a bad thing.

Regardless of how strict their parents were compared to others, most Americans say they grew up with rules in several areas of their lives. Three in four say that their parents or guardians had rules about doing chores, and a similar share faced rules about being home by a certain time. Most Americans also say they grew up with each of several school-related rules such as getting good grades and doing homework, as well as rules around consuming alcohol or smoking. Half of Americans (50%) say they grew up with rules around dating and about the same faced rules on talking on the phone. Less than half say their parents had rules around each of the following: hair or make-up, eating sugar, consuming caffeine, or using the computer.

Parents of multiple children are not always consistent with their rules across children. Most Americans with older siblings say that their parents had roughly the same number of rules for them and their older siblings, but only 45% of those with younger siblings say the same — another finding that shows the potential asymmetry of perception since everyone's older sibling has them as a younger sibling While just 19% who had older siblings said those siblings faced more parentals rules, 34% of Americans who have younger siblings say their parents had more rules for them than they did for their younger siblings, with women more likely to say so than men (40% by 27%).

How many Americans were rule-breakers growing up?

Even though many adults grew up with a variety of rules, they're much more likely to say they were somewhat or much less likely to break these rules compared to other children their age at the time than somewhat or much more likely (52% vs. 15%). More women (56%) than men (48%) say they were less likely to break rules compared to other children their age.

Americans who have both older and younger siblings are more likely to say they were more likely to break the rules compared to other children their age at the time (18%) compared to those who only have younger siblings (15%), those who only have older siblings (12%), and those with no siblings (13%).

When asked which of their parents’ rules they broke while growing up, Americans were most likely to say they broke rules related to eating sugar and using the computer, with men more likely to say they often or always broke these rules than women. Other notable gender differences were observed for breaking rules around playing video games (28% men vs. 13% women), going to bed at a certain time (25% men vs. 13% women), homework and studying (22% men vs. 9% women), and dating (18% men vs. 10% women). The only type of rule women say they broke significantly more often than men is around eating all the food on their plate (11% men, 16% women). Among the rules that Americans were least likely to say they broke are ones related to having sleepovers, doing chores, working a job, and getting piercings and tattoos.

What do Americans think of parenting and rules today?

YouGov also asked Americans about their opinions on modern parenting. Seven in 10 Americans say that when it comes to setting rules for children, parents are somewhat or much too lenient today. Americans whose children are 18 or older are more likely to say that parents today are too lenient (81%) compared to Americans who are parents of children under the age of 18 (64%) and adults who are not parents (59%).

However, when asked about their own parenting style, only one-quarter of parents whose children are under 18 say they are somewhat or much more lenient compared to other parents of children the same age as theirs. More than one-third (36%) say they are somewhat or much stricter, and 30% say they are about average. Here, too, the belief that your household is stricter than average is more common than the opposite belief.

— Taylor Orth, Linley Sanders, and Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

This poll was conducted on September 29 - October 3, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Pexels (Cottonbro)

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