Economic inequality and the parenting time divide

Members of Congress across the political spectrum agree with the Obama administration on the importance of a quality education for all of our nation’s children. Indeed, there may well be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that all children, including low- and moderate-income ones, should have access to pre-kindergarten. Certainly academic research demonstrates that high quality education programs for young children are associated with improved outcomes later in life—even decades later—which is why growing up in a low-income family often consigns those kids to being low-wage earners when they grow up.

But learning in fact begins at home at a very early age and remains fundamental to success through high school. To break the cycle of economic disadvantage, we must consider the evidence on inequality and parenting. When we talk about economic inequality, we should remember how current conditions are likely to exacerbate inequality for future generations given the key role family plays in the intergenerational transmission of economic status. Few people believe that there should be complete independence between parents’ and children’s economic success, but in the race to the top, new research shows highly-educated families are at an ever-greater advantage.

Economists, psychologists, and others who study children’s achievement and well-being often talk about investments that parents make in their children—both money and time—the myriad things parents do to help their children develop successfully and reach their full potential. But researchers have not until recently thought about parents’ time investments in children as a mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of economic status. Yet we know that the amount of parents’ time spent talking, playing, reading, helping with homework, facilitating positive interactions with peers and other adults, and exploring the outside world are all important ingredients of parenting that help to ensure children’s development and long-term prospects.

We are learning more about how parents across the income spectrum spend their time with their children. The economist Jonathan Guryan and his colleagues used data from national time diaries to show that mothers with a college education or greater spend roughly 4.5 hours more per week directly interacting with their children than mothers with a high school degree or less. This relationship is noteworthy because higher-educated parents also spend more time working outside the home.

Interestingly, based on mothers’ patterns of time use across a variety of activities, these researchers posited that highly educated parents, more so than less-educated parents, view time with children as an investment behavior with which to increase children’s human capital. My own national time use research, with Professor Rebecca Ryan and one of our students, Michael Corey, finds evidence for this. Highly educated parents not only spend more time with their children than do less-educated parents, they spend that time differently. College-educated mothers are more efficient in their parental time investments by tailoring specific activities to children’s developmental stage.

In other words, highly educated mothers shift the composition of their time as the child grows in ways that adapt to children’s development at different developmental stages. When children are in preschool, for example, college-educated mothers focus their time with children on reading and problem solving. This is precisely when time spent in learning activities best prepare children for school entry. During the middle school years, college-educated parents shift their attention to the management of children’s life outside the home – at precisely the ages when parental management is a key, developmentally appropriate input.

Research indicates that non-college educated parents do not match their time investments to children’s developmental stage in this fashion. To the extent that highly educated parents increasingly adopt these patterns of investing in their children, the destinies of the children of college-educated parents may diverge even farther from those of their less-advantaged peers.

We still don’t know precisely why these patterns have emerged. It is possible that mothers learn about child development during college—such that highly educated mothers are consciously acting on knowledge attained in formal schooling. But college-educated mothers are also more likely to have higher incomes, to be married, and to have spouses who are more involved in child rearing; they may also have more flexible work schedules due their different types of employment. Unlike less-educated mothers, they can marshal all of these resources to help their children explore their full potential.

Regardless of the reason, we do know there are many direct and indirect policy measures to help support families and promote more equal access to opportunities for children. This why Congress and the Obama administration need to keep their eye on what matters for children and how we can support parents from all kinds of families be the best parents they can be. From providing access to high-quality education and health care for all children, to helping ensure parents who work can rise above poverty, as a society, we must consider our role in supporting every child’s ability to reach his or her full potential.

Ariel Kalil is a Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she directs the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy.


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