May is the month parents freak out about children's academic progress. It could be their eight-year-old's below grade-level reading; or their middle-schooler's weak standardized test scores; or their high-school student's failure to keep up with the Jones' whiz kid who somehow aces three AP classes while playing two varsity sports and a musical instrument. Parental anxiety boosts demand for information about how to give kids a head start early in life, in the hope of avoiding academic trouble later.
How well and how much children read, in particular, is a hot topic at playgrounds swarming with toddlers, whose parents often intensely invest in their intellectual and social development, education, and well-being. In a new study, Michael Baker at the University of Toronto and Kevin Milligan at the University of British Columbia examine how such parents interact with their pre-school children. Baker and Milligan analyze surveys done in the United States, Canada, and Britain to delineate how parents spend that coveted one-on-one time, for example, in play, sports, reading, talking, singing, or arts and crafts.
The researchers found a gender difference in what they call "teaching activities" that build cognitive skills in children as young as nine months old. Girls, not boys, in all three countries received more time from parents on three activities: reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers. Baker and Milligan scrutinized data for first-born children, to control for differences arising when parents slack off after baby number two or three arrives. They also examined parents' time spent with boy-girl twins and again found boys receiving less time than girls on the three teaching activities.