Addressing the Parenting Divide to Promote Early Childhood Development for Disadvantaged Children

Growing income inequality over the past three decades has created a social divide with stagnated incomes for families at the bottom of the distribution and sharply increased earnings for those at the top (Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez 2011). As the economic destinies of affluent and poor American families have diverged, so too has the educational performance of the children in these families (Reardon 2011). Socioeconomic gaps in children’s cognition and behavior open up early in life and remain largely constant through the school years (Duncan and Magnuson 2011). However, rising inequality in income is not the sole cause of the divergence in children’s achievement and behavior (Duncan et al. 2013). Parents do more than spend money on children’s development—they also promote child development by spending time with their children in cognitively enriching activities and by providing emotional support and consistent discipline. The “parenting divide” between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children is large and appears to be growing over time along these dimensions (Altintas 2012; Hurst 2010; Reeves and Howard 2013). 

Consider the parenting time divide between economically advantaged and disadvantaged households. National time diaries show that mothers with a college education or greater spend roughly 4.5 more hours each week directly interacting with their children than do mothers with a high school diploma or less (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008). This relationship is especially noteworthy because higher-educated parents also spend more time working outside the home. Kalil, Ryan, and Corey (2012) further show that highly educated parents not only spend more time with their children than do less-educated parents, but that they spend that time differently. Specifically, highly educated mothers shift the composition of their time as their child grows in ways that adapt to different developmental stages. When children are in preschool, for example, college-educated mothers focus their time on reading and problem solving. This is precisely when time spent in learning activities best prepares children for school entry. During the middle school years, college-educated parents shift their attention to the management of their children’s lives outside the home—precisely the ages when parental management is a key, developmentally appropriate input. Non-college educated parents do not match their time investments to children’s developmental stages in this fashion. Indeed, based on mothers’ patterns of time use across a variety of activities, researchers now posit that highly educated parents, more so than less-educated parents, view time with their children as an investment behavior with which to increase their children’s future human capital (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008). As 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. 

The disparities in parental time investment are important because time with children is shown to have direct and causal effects on children’s cognitive test scores (Villena-Rodán and Ríos-Aguilar 2011). Price (2010) finds that an additional year of daily mother–child reading increases children’s reading test scores in the early school grades by 41 percent of a standard deviation from average. By comparison, the Perry Preschool program, which is widely upheld as a model, has effect sizes on arithmetic achievement at age fourteen equal to 34 percent of a standard deviation, but at a cost of $20,500 (in 2013 dollars) for each participant (Schweinhart et al. 2005). 

To bridge the parenting divide and improve the life chances of economically disadvantaged young children, I propose that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services be tasked with building the knowledge base to create an Early Years Family Policy to promote more- effective parenting and child development in low-income families, especially for children from birth to age five. 

This policy memo outlines action steps that the ACF can take to develop an evidence and innovation agenda to support parents in helping their children reach their full potential. In particular, I argue for three major evidence-based innovations: (a) increasing participation in existing programs so that they can achieve their intended goals, (b) modifying or adapting existing programs to test new approaches that might be more cost- effective and/or cost less, and (c) developing new interventions that are lower cost and better matched to families’ needs. For all three innovations, I advocate building on new knowledge from the field of behavioral science, given its potential for helping identify ways of changing behavior that are more cost- effective. These efforts have the potential to deliver smarter, more-innovative, and more-accountable programs for children and families. This commitment necessarily demands experimentation and testing with an eye toward developing new Early Years Family Policy interventions that can be offered cost-effectively and at scale.