The word “parent” wasn’t used as a verb until a few decades ago. In fact, some experts argue it was only in the 1990s that the idea of “parenting” really became a full-fledged “thing.” By that time, at least for members of the middle class, being a parent didn’t just mean serving as an authority figure and a source of sustenance and support for a child—it meant molding that child’s life, flooding her with opportunity so she could have a competitive edge in the long-term, and enriching her with all kinds of constructive experiences. “Raising children,” my colleague Ann Hulbert wrote in her 2004 book Raising America, “has rated very near to sex—and to success—as an American fixation.”
That fixation, at its most extreme, can have dire consequences—but it’s hard to deny that basic parenting practices benefit children. Putting your 3-year-old in Kumon might be overdoing it. But reading her a few pages of Dr. Seuss before she goes to sleep? A simple, low-key way to stimulate her brain and help her thrive as a little human. Experts tend to agree that activities such as a few minutes of reading or telling stories daily, going over letters and numbers several times a week, and occasional trips to the zoo are key to promoting a young child’s development and preparing her academically.
The beauty of those kinds of parenting activities is that they don’t cost much, if any, money. The problem is that low-income parents still lag behind their more affluent peers when it comes to engaging in those behaviors. Economically disadvantaged parents, research shows, still spend far less time than their middle-class counterparts participating in developmentally stimulating activities with their children.
A recent study published by the American Educational Research Association aimed to get a better sense of how those income-based differences in parenting behaviors have evolved over time, drawing data from four nationally representative, longitudinal surveys conducted between 1988 and 2012. The research findings are promising in that they show lower-income parents are engaging in activities like reading and educational excursions more than ever before. But they also show that, for six of the eight behaviors studied, the disparities only grew.
“In one sense, [disadvantaged parents] have really caught up; in another sense, they’re two decades behind,” said Ariel Kalil, the study’s lead author and a professor in the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies. “It’s an interesting puzzle because you could say this is great news, but on the other hand there are still these gaping inequalities in what [educational experiences] children are getting across different kinds of families.”
The reason the gaps grew is simply because affluent, college-educated parents engaged in those behaviors “at a much higher level of intensity,” Kalil said. In other words, after gaining access to new brain science and discovering that things like trips to the museum and storytelling before bedtime are vital to helping a young child’s brain develop and preparing her for success in school, parents with means started doing them at unprecedented (and, arguably, even excessive) levels. Poorer, less-educated parents got wind of that insight, too, and likewise started ramping up the degree to which they fostered their children’s development. They just weren’t able to catch up.
“It’s basically just this kind of ratcheting up of competition,” said Kalil, a developmental psychologist who co-directs the University of Chicago’s Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab. “It’s high-income parents consuming the literature on the importance of brain development, the sensitivity of the early-childhood years. It’s them consuming that information and responding to it more quickly” than their less-fortunate counterparts.
It’s certainly a good thing that parents at all income levels are taking it upon themselves to promote their kids’ development—the simple educational activities that parents engage in with their children in or outside the home can have immense impact on how those youngsters fare in school and beyond. But the fact that affluent, well-educated parents—parents of children who are already well-equipped to succeed academically—are doing so at much higher rates is where the picture gets complicated. As long as “advantaged kids are in the stratosphere, I think there’s still reason to be concerned about opportunity for everybody,” Kalil said.
This phenomenon—growing socioeconomic inequality because, as Kalil and her coauthors write, affluent families are “pulling away” from their lower-income counterparts—is well-documented in research on parenting in America. Valerie Ramey identified a similar trend in a 2010 paper she co-authored with her husband titled the “Rug Rat Race.” Essentially, the Rameys found that the amount of time spent by parents on childcare in the U.S. started to increase dramatically in the 1990s, with the growth particularly pronounced among college-educated parents. Like Kalil’s latest study, the “Rug Rat Race” attributed the increase to growing competition—namely that for college admissions: Rich, well-educated parents were spending far more time on childcare than ever before in an effort to enhance their children’s prospects at getting into a good university.
Both Kalil and Ramey seemed to agree that, ultimately, the rates at which more- and less-educated parents engage in enriching activities with their kids will converge—that affluent parents will realize they’re at a point of diminishing returns in which the amount of energy they put into these behaviors yields little extra benefit. “There are only 168 hours in a week, so the upper-educated parents can only raise the time [spent on their kids] by so much,” Ramey said when I asked her to chime in on Kalil’s research. She pointed out that, in her own study, the amount of time spent by college-educated parents on childcare peaked in the early 2000s and has since remained relatively stagnant. And indeed, for three of the six parenting activities for which Kalil found income-based inequalities increased since 1988, those gaps started to plateau around 2005.
To that extent, both academics suspect that, when it comes to basic parenting activities, poorer, less-educated parents will eventually catch up. For that to happen, however, will require that such families make those activities more of a habit. After all, one of the behaviors where Kalil did find a decrease in income-based disparities was book ownership—likely because there’s been such a push to ensure low-income children have access to books. Head Start centers, for example, often have lending libraries. “Low-income parents have increasingly more access to these materials,” Kalil said, “but they’re not converting that access into activity to as great an extent as their more educated peers.”
“When we do our [research], we find that most parents … of every economic group have high aspirations for their kids and love their kids and want their kids to flourish,” Kalil said. But “for a whole variety of reasons—some of which may have to do with money, some of which may have to do with stress, some of which may have to do with culture and the habits that you were raised with as a child—higher-income parents are just more easily able to convert those really high aspirations into the actual daily habits that make those things come true.”