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Family

Schools found to be a big reason why moms are stuck in the 'default parent' role

But they can also be part of the solution.

default parent, moms, emily oster

A distressed mom picking up a phone call

Are you the parent your child goes to first after being emotionally or physically hurt? Do they bug you first when their iPad needs charging? Do you accompany your child to most of their doctor’s appointments? When the school has a problem, are you the first person they call?

If you’ve answered “yes” to most of these questions, you are most likely your family's default parent, which can be a real problem.

Amber Thornton, Psy.D, writes in Psychology Today that default parents (who are most often female) are likely to experience four common psychological problems associated with their position in the household, including chronic fatigue and burnout, feelings of resentment toward their partners and children, diminished ability to care for oneself and a significant decline in mental health.


Dr. Thornton argues that women are often put into this position due to a “systemic” problem where they are expected to provide primary care for parenting and home-related tasks.

A recent study by Kristy Buzard, Laura K. Gee and Olga Stoddard revealed that schools play a significant role in promoting women as default parents in heterosexual couples. Their study of over 30,000 schools across the U.S. involved fictitious parents leaving a message with a principal asking to discuss school placement and requesting their call to be returned.

The study posed three scenarios that proved the bias toward casting women as default parents.

In the first scenario, the person leaving the message asked the principal to call either the mother or the father. In this scenario, 59% of principals called the mother. In the second scenario, the message said the dad had “a lot of availability,” and he was called 74% of the time versus the mom, who was called 26%.

In the third scenario, the caller said the mother had “a lot of availability,” in that case, she got 90% of the calls, whereas the dad was called just 10% of the time. “If you indicate that mom is more available, they almost always call mom; that’s less true when you indicate dad is available,” author and economist Emily Oster writes in her “ParentData” Substack newsletter.

Even though the schools currently appear to be promoting an antiquated view of gender roles, they can also be a big part of paving the way toward equality. Oster believes we can quickly overcome this institutional bias by implementing a very simple solution in America's schools: letting parents inform tell schools who they should call first.

“It would be great if schools and child care centers would ask parents who should be called first. Every year, at the start of the year, we all fill out a million forms for our school or childcare settings. One of those forms should ask who the school should call as a first step,” Oster writes on her Substack.

“This change doesn’t really need to be motivated by a need for household equality, either,” she adds. “It’s just efficient! Calling the parent who will never pick up is not helpful.”

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