Issue #30, Fall 2013

The Parenting Gap

The first two years of life are crucial. We need to help lower-income parents do better—and demand that they do.

The deep divides in American education, from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate, threaten to create a class-based society. Advantage and disadvantage are inherited to a degree that undermines our claims to be open and fair. There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning. But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.

Affluent couples are going to some lengths to get it right: marrying (usually later than average, but better than never), having one or two children, and investing heavily in their offspring—not just in financial terms but in other ways, too. Type “parenting” into Amazon and some 90,000 child-rearing products—books, DVDs, equipment—pop up. It is easy to parody overzealous parents shuttling their children from after-school tennis practice to cello lesson to Chinese tutor. But the truth is that those with more money are also doing a lot of things right. High-income parents talk with their school-aged children for three hours more per week than low-income parents, according to research by Meredith Phillips of UCLA. They also provide around four-and-a-half extra hours per week of time in novel or stimulating places, such as parks or churches, for their infants and toddlers.

Less-advantaged parents are struggling to make a living and often lack a partner to help them build better lives. Less money typically means more stress, tougher neighborhoods, and fewer choices. This is not to say that there has been a deterioration in parental investment in poorer families. In fact, parents without a high-school diploma spent more than twice as much time each day with their children in the 2000s than they did in the mid-1970s, according to data from the American Heritage Time Use Study, marshaled by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. But parents with at least a bachelor’s degree increased their investment of time more than fourfold over the same period, opening up a gap in time spent with kids, especially in the preschool years.

The quality of time matters as much as the quantity of time, of course. In a famous study from the mid-1990s, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley from the University of Kansas found large gaps in the amount of conversation by social and economic background. Children in families on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, working-class children heard 1,200 words, while children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By the age of three, Hart and Risley estimated, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words at home than one from a professional family.

It is not surprising that parents have long been seen as creators of a successful society. Taking time from writing his influential political works, John Locke in 1693 penned his own parenting guide, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Some of Locke’s recommendations are outdated—admonitions against children eating vegetables, for instance—but his insistence that good societies need good citizens, created by good parents, is timeless: “The well Educating of their Children is so much the Duty and Concern of Parents, and the Welfare and Prosperity of the Nation so much depends on it.”

Few would disagree. Parenting has acquired the status of a skill—in the UK, classes for first-timers are now labeled “parentcraft.” But it has also opened up a new social divide. The parenting gap is both a consequence and a cause of broader inequality, and it must be explicitly addressed as part of any egalitarian agenda. To be blunt: If we want a fairer, more equal society, we need more parents to do a better job. And we need to do more to help them do a better job. Helping parents to improve is a legitimate—and perhaps increasingly important—public policy goal.

Currently, however, parenting policies are the Cinderella of early childhood initiatives, eclipsed by the focus on pre-K education. In part, this is because interventions in parenting are politically unpalatable. Conservatives are comfortable with the notion that parents and families matter, but too often simply blame the parents for whatever goes wrong. They resist the notion that government has a role in promoting good parenting. Judging is fine. Acting is not. Liberals have exactly the opposite problem. They have no qualms about deploying expensive public policies, but are wary of any suggestion that parents—especially poor and/or black parents—are in some way responsible for the constrained life chances of their children. Many liberals instinctively believe that reducing financial poverty is the only worthy social policy goal—and the principal route to reducing other social problems. Poverty reduction is, in and of itself, a vitally important ambition. But raising the abilities of parents is not just about raising their incomes.

Neither the standard conservative nor liberal position will do. Public education, no matter how lavishly funded, can never substitute for good parents. But it is absurd to cast the idea of taking broader responsibility for helping parents as closet communism, as some on the right do. What is needed is a policy agenda and political platform that recognizes the contribution of parenting to mobility and opportunity, and tackles the parenting gap.


Right now, the Obama Administration is pursuing an ambitious plan to widen access to pre-K education, especially for low-income kids. This drive is fueled by mounting evidence that wide gaps in educational and social skills open up between poorer and more affluent toddlers long before they enter kindergarten, in large part because of gaps in parenting. Pre-K education thus provides a public supplement to the private investments of parents. But we might get more bang for our buck by getting closer to the heart of the problem. In the end, the most important pre-K educators are mom and—hopefully—dad.

Parents influence their child’s fortunes right from their first breath, while pre-K is aimed at 4-year-olds. In child-development terms, four years is an eon. By the time pre-K kicks in, big differentials in test scores are already apparent. Sixty percent of 3- or 4-year-olds from low-income families score in the bottom third of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test—a measure of verbal ability or scholastic aptitude—compared to just 17 percent from the most affluent.

Gaps in cognitive ability by income background open up early in life, according to research by Tamara Halle and her colleagues at Child Trends, a nonprofit research center focused on children and youth. Children in families with incomes lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty line score, on average, one-fifth of a standard deviation below higher-income children on the standard Bayley Cognitive Assessment at nine months—but more than half a standard deviation below higher-income peers at two years. This is the social science equivalent of the difference between a gully and a valley. These early months are critical for developing skills in language and reasoning—and, of course, months in which parents play the most important role. Closing ability gaps in the first two years of life—pre-pre-K, if you like—means, by definition, closing the parenting gap.

There is a long history of research highlighting the significance of parenting. From the 1960s onwards, psychologists led by Diana Baumrind showed that parents who managed to combine strong emotional attachment with clear discipline and boundaries produced more competent, more confident, and happier children. Since the 1980s, social scientists and economists have been using longitudinal data sets to link early parenting with later life outcomes, such as educational achievements. Over the same period, twin and adoption studies have informed our understanding of how genetics and environment contribute to children’s development. Neuroscientists such as Michael Meaney have started to show how early brain development can be influenced by nurturing and sensitive parents.

The trouble with much of the early research is that it fails to take account of the myriad other factors influencing how we each turn out. Smarter parents may be better parents and have children who do better; but it may be the inheritance of the smarts that’s the cause, not the parenting. Then add in peer effects, neighborhood effects, health, and schooling, among others. Simply put, proving cause and effect is fiendishly difficult.

Inevitably, then, there has been a backlash against the supposedly dominant role of parents. In her 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris, an independent researcher in psychology, argued that parenting is much less important than we have come to believe. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, in his recent Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, argues that super-parents should chill out since their kids have the genes to succeed even without flawless parenting. Caplan draws on parenting research based on studies of outcomes for twins and/or adopted children in an attempt to factor inherited abilities into the equation. He rightly suggests that naturally smart kids are likely to do well whether or not their parents force them to learn Mandarin and Mendelssohn. But the new studies also show that the key ingredients of success aren’t just good genes but—and there’s no big surprise here—a mix of genes, family environment, and nonfamily environment.

Research to date suggests that parenting accounts for around one-third of the gaps in development. Careful longitudinal research by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and Liz Washbrook of the University of Bristol in England shows that variations in parenting behavior, especially maternal warmth and sensitivity, explain about 40 percent of the income-related gaps in cognitive outcomes for children between three and five. Parenting behavior explained more of the gap between top income quintile children and bottom income quintile children than any other factor, including maternal education, family size, and race. Likewise, Richard Murnane and his colleagues at Harvard, using the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development data set, show that “maternal sensitivity,” measured when the child is at six and 15 months, explains about one-third of the math and language gaps at the beginning of kindergarten between black and white children.

Bruce Sacerdote, an economist at Dartmouth, finds that the educational and job outcomes of adopted children are strongly affected by family size and parental education—more so, in fact, than by family income. Children adopted at a young age—on average, a year and a half—by highly educated parents with small families were 16 percent more likely to graduate from college than children brought into less-educated, larger families. This suggests a strong impact from parental investment. And a number of studies suggest that parenting matters most among disadvantaged kids, rather than at the top. Michael Meaney’s research, based on brain functioning in animals, suggests a strongly nurturing parent is especially valuable in stressful conditions. To put it simply: Affluent kids don’t need good parents as much as poorer kids do.

The Parenting Gap

Now we can add findings from our own research. In a new paper published by the Brookings Center on Children and Families, we assessed the scale and significance of the parenting gap in the United States. Using data from a federal survey of children and young adults, we were able to track the educational outcomes of 5,783 children born in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We were also able to assess the quality of parenting received by these children using a well-validated measure called the HOME scale (for Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment). This “parent quality” scale attempts to capture the two critical elements of successful parenting: intellectual stimulation and emotional support. Talking, reading, and listening are all critical. Encouraging curiosity and learning is vital too: Every parent knows the stage of intellectual development where the child asks, “Why does [fill in pretty much anything]?” On the emotional side, providing comfort and care especially in the early months and years helps an infant to feel a secure “attachment” to the parent or primary caregiver. And this attachment is a foundation stone of personal confidence and security.

The HOME measure therefore employs a variety of items, depending on the age of the child, and blends interviewer observation and mothers’ own reporting. (Fathers, sadly, are not captured in the data.) The mother is asked how often she reads to the child, for example, or how she would respond to a tantrum. Interviewers observe whether the mother encourages a child to contribute to the conversation, whether the child’s play environment appears safe, whether toys are available in the home, and other similar factors.

There are wide gaps in parenting scores by income and education. Forty-five percent of mothers with less than a high-school degree, and 44 percent of single mothers, are ranked as being among the “weakest” quarter of parents. At the other end of the scale, higher levels of income, education, and family stability all predict stronger parenting. There are also sizable racial gaps in parenting scores. Our analysis suggests that the biggest gaps are not between the helicopter parents at the top and ordinary families in the middle, but between the middle and the bottom. Forty-eight percent of parents in the bottom income quintile rank among the weakest, compared to 16 percent of those in the middle, and 5 percent of the most affluent. Similarly, a high-school diploma has a stronger association with parenting quality than a bachelor’s degree. These findings illustrate the significance that parenting holds for eventual equality of opportunity. Children who already face higher hurdles to personal advancement are further disadvantaged by the weaker performance of their parents in preparing them for the world.

To dramatize the role of parents, we model the effects of bringing the weakest parents up to the average score. The results are sizable: For example, 9 percent more of their children would graduate from high school. Each year this would mean roughly 54,000 more 18-year-olds in the United States graduating from high school. This utopian exercise in parental improvement also shows that better parenting is very far, on its own, from being a magic cure. Parenting matters for opportunity; but so do schooling, pre-K, community action, mentoring, peers, teen pregnancy campaigns, and so on. Children and young people develop in social and institutional environments, not as isolated factors in a regression table.

“The family does not operate like a game of billiards,” writes the scholar Frank Furstenburg, “where parents hold the cue and children are the balls to place in the far pocket.” He is right—it’s not as simple as that. But while parents do not hold a cue, they do hold a portion of their children’s destiny in their hands.

Parenting Policy

Issue #30, Fall 2013
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The most significant thing we can do is to insist that marriage precede childbearing - full stop.

Children from fatherless families are at higher risk for failure and other problems in life.

Sep 27, 2013, 9:34 AM
Julian :

Mentoring is on the raise around the nation and will definitely fill that void. It certainly is not the long term solution, because policy change and actual steps taken within households will help counter the trends mentioned.

Oct 7, 2013, 2:17 PM

The data presented in this article show that there are no interventions available nearly potent enough to keep America's poverty class from being highly dependent on subventions from its taxpaying classes for generations to come. It follows then, that government money might be best spent encouraging taxpaying families to have more children.

Dependent people need someone to be dependent *upon*. We don't want to get into a demographic situation where the taxpayers can support themselves, their own children, their aged parents, and/or their underclass, "Pick Any Three".

Oct 24, 2013, 10:33 PM
Martha Lerner:

The Parent-Child Home Program meets this challenge head-on, everyday, throughout the United States. Modeling Verbal Interaction Skills for parents with low-income, limited formal education and circumstances that create this achievement gap. We can do so much more, with a much broader base, with more funds, both public and private. This program is relatively inexpensive, simple, done in the home, easy to replicate. We do not need to re-invent the wheel to address this gap.

Oct 30, 2013, 3:25 PM

Generally good article, but the is a serious error in the conclusion that HIPPY is cost effective. If there is a 3% increase in high school grad rates and that leads to $260K of extra income, on average income increases $7800 over the course of a lifetime (3% of $260k). Due to the time value of money, money received in the future is not worth as much as money paid now, so $7500 received over 50 years after highschool is worth no where near as much as the $3500 spent today on each program beneficiary. This is not the gold standard in investments, but rather an awful waste of tax payer money.

Oct 20, 2014, 9:25 PM
Gordon McGregor:

In the first three years of life, a child is awake for about 45 million seconds. Even if their (I would argue ludicrous) report of words per hour was accurate, they've grossly overestimated the total number of words heard.

Oct 21, 2014, 10:13 PM

Perhaps we should look at how masculinity is constructed rather than emphasising marriage as a solution to inequalities which are related to wider patriarchal structures which feed inequality at a global level?

Oct 24, 2014, 6:58 AM

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