COVID-19 could erase parenting gains of the last 30 years

mother in mask with baby

Past research has attributed income-based inequalities in young children’s academic achievement and educational attainment in part to differences in the home environment; that is, to differences in what parents do and the goals that drive their behavior. However, in our studies using data on parenting behavior and parental goals over the past 30 years, we found that income-based differences in parenting have been steadily decreasing. For instance, since the mid-1980s, low income parents have greatly increased the time they spend in enrichment with young children, such as reading to them, telling them stories, and taking them to the library. And, when we look at parents’ goals for children, we see a complete convergence in trends over time, such that high and low income parents today are equally likely to value children’s ‘thinking for themselves’ and ‘working hard’ over ‘being obedient,’ a trait low-income parents consistently rated as more important than higher income parents throughout the 20th Century.

Consequently, economically advantaged and disadvantaged parents of young children share more similar parenting behaviors and goals today than ever before. There is some evidence these changes are benefitting young children too –Reardon and Portilla find that test score gaps between kindergartners at the top and bottom of the income distribution narrowed in the first 20 years of the 21st century after increasing from the 1970s to 2000.

The COVID-19 crisis, and the economic and social restrictions that followed it, threaten that progress. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in families’ economic, health and educational resources that will tax low-income parents’ ability to pursue and realize their goals. Decades of research describes the toll taken by job loss, income instability, and material hardship on parent mental health, parent-child interaction, and children’s development and we can see in emerging data from the pandemic that these phenomena remain true today.

Our respective research teams have been following hundreds of low-income families with young children from before the onset of the pandemic through this spring after its onset. One of these longitudinal studies is of 272 predominantly Latinx families of elementary school children in rural Pennsylvania, and the other is of 314 predominantly Black and Latinx families of preschoolers in Chicago. Despite the differences in demographics, emerging evidence from families surveyed between April and June of this year shows striking similarities in the ways in which three pillars of parenting – economic stability, parental mental health, and support for children’s learning – have been shaken. In rural Pennsylvania, for example, we found a substantial increase in the share of parents who worried they would run out of food before they could afford to buy more, just as parents’ reports of daily worry and depression increased steadily from February to May 2020. In Chicago, we similarly found that the share of families who reported struggling to make ends meet nearly doubled, from 13% to 23% from last fall to this spring. Not surprisingly, these same parents reported a substantial increase in their levels of stress. Disruptions in parent-child interaction are also apparent: Among parents in Pennsylvania, the share of parents who reported losing their temper with their children on any given day increased by 60 percent from February to May. In Chicago, the share of parents who agreed with the statement “I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of being a parent” rose significantly from 8.9% last fall to 14.3% this spring.

Furthermore, given the ongoing economic crisis and move to online learning in many school districts, there is reason to believe that support for young children’s skill development has also diminished during the pandemic, particularly for low-income families who are experiencing high levels of stress and few resources for at-home. The challenges posed by the digital divide, which impedes schools’ and teachers’ abilities to support parental engagement in their children’s learning, exacerbate this problem. In Chicago, we found that the share of parents who reported not reading to their preschool age child at all in the prior week nearly doubled, rising from 4.7% to 8.2% between last fall (when preschools were open) and this spring when preschools schools were closed. The increase in “not reading at all” was accompanied by a decrease in the number of parents who reported daily reading.

This reduction in time spent supporting children’s learning is despite the fact that about three-quarters of parents of preschoolers report being “somewhat” or “very” worried about their children’s learning and social skills as a consequence of the pandemic-related school closures. These changes in parent support for learning are a particular problem for low income preschool-age children because evidence shows that the preschool years are crucial for future success and are a source of increasing disparities later in life.

Numerous policy proposals to support low income families are on the table, from federal efforts to pass another stimulus bill and expand federal food assistance to local efforts to connect low income families with high speed internet access and functioning digital devices. Our research suggests all of these options should be pursued vigorously and simultaneously so that the pandemic does not break the three pillars of parenting and wipe out decades of progress for low income families and children.