In a guest post, Pablo Gracia looks at inequalities in how parents spend time with their children, using his own research on the UK and Spain – and then considers the likely causes, consequences, and what this might all mean for policy.
When people think of inequality, words like money or income often come to their minds. But it is rarer to associate inequality with parenting. This post actually stresses that parenting practices are critical for the reproduction of inequality. The way parents of different levels of education spend time with children plays an important role in shaping socioeconomic differences in children’s schooling and socioeconomic outcomes.
Parenting and Inequality
Why do privileged children achieve better educational and labour market outcomes than disadvantaged children? The reproduction of inequality operates in a really complex way, as well stressed by Ben Baumberg in a recent post on the sociological debates about the ‘microclasses’.
At the cross-national level, factors like the GINI coefficient, the quality of early intervention programs, and public family support can affect how socioeconomic origins affect child outcomes. At the country level, parents’ occupation, human capital, cultural capital, social networks, or income are relevant factors of children’s educational and labour market outcomes.
Of course, material resources affect children’s life chances, especially in a context of increasing labour market competition and rising tuition fees for university education. This is well illustrated by Tim Smeeding, Robert Erikson, and Markus Jäntti in a recent book on the transmission of inequality in cross-national perspective, where they posit that ‘U.S. parents in the highest income quintile had the resources to spend $50,000 per year on a child, while those in the bottom income group could afford to spend only $9,000 per year for food, housing, and all goods and services.’
Now, children’s life chances are strongly influenced by non-material factors. In particular, differences in parenting practices are central predictors of children’s accumulation of cognitive and socio-emotional skills throughout the life course. This in turn affects directly children’s schooling and employment transitions, as pointed out by economist James Heckman, amongst others.
Educational Inequality in Parents’ Activities with Children
The two graphs bellow show clearly that parental time inputs differ significantly across educational groups. Indeed, children of more privileged educational groups receive more parenting stimuli that are central for their cognitive, socio-emotional, and cultural skills than children from lower educational groups.
Figure 1 shows that Spanish couples with two college-educated parents are clearly more engaged in physical child care (i.e. feeding, medical care, and supervision), but also interactive child care (i.e. teaching, playing, and conversations), than their lower educated counterparts. This educational differential in parental involvement is most salient during early childhood (ages 0-5), when the educational returns of intensive parenting are strongest.
Figure 2 shows a complementary picture with data for British families. British parents with high levels of education are, as compared to the lowest educated, much more active in cultural activities with children (i.e. going to museums, reading in libraries, playing music, theatre plays). These activities are expected to enrich children’s cultural skills and human capital in different ways. By contrast, the lower educated concentrate in watching television with children. We know from previous research that ‘too much’ exposure to television in childhood is, as opposed to a more restricted pattern of television consumption, a negative routine for children’s cognitive and educational performance.
Causes and Consequences
First, what are the causes of these educational differences in parenting? There are two main plausible interpretations of these findings:
(1) The material explanation suggests that parents with high levels of education have more socioeconomic resources to spend intensive and cultural-related time with children than lower educated parents. This would be explained by educational differences in domestic work outsourcing, but also by parents’ different capacity to orchestrate family-organized activities with children, especially in ‘highbrow’ cultural activities.
(2) The non-material explanation is often seen as a complement of the material explanation. Yet, as posited by Lareau in Unequal Chances, non-material aspects might play a particularly important role in parenting practices. From this approach, parents with high levels of education (or middle/upper class parents), as compared to the lower educated (or working-class parents), conform to more intensive childrearing norms, which explains key differences in parent-child daily routines.
Second, what are the consequences of such educational differences in the parenting practices of British and Spanish parents? If children from low educational backgrounds receive poorer social and intellectual stimuli in the home than kids from higher educational positions, we may observe important socioeconomic differences in children’s future life chances.
Social Policy Implications
The empirical evidence of this post has key social policy implications. Of course, these results do not present a definitive picture to implement family and child care polices. This is the beginning of a debate, rather than its end.
However, drawing on previous studies, the findings of this post are important in line with some policy recommendations that have been often made:
- Providing better opportunities for parents with lower resources to spend quality time with children is important.
- Promoting high-quality childhood programs in the educational system through which schools, communities, and families can cooperate may improve children’s present and future lives.
- Fostering parental choice, rather than simply ‘imposing’ changes in childrearing norms, would be beneficial for disadvantaged children.
- Strengthening public support for families and children, which is today very low in most countries, is a necessary condition for making childhood policy interventions work.