Everyone’s familiar with the income gap in the United States, though deep disagreements persist on what to do about it. Less discussed and perhaps even harder to address is the parenting gap, or the difference in the amount of quality time and attention parents devote to their children.
As Richard V. Reeves, Isabel Sawhill, and Kimberly Howard write in Democracy Journal, the parenting gap is significant and consequential:
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. . . .
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.
These disparities underlie lasting achievement gaps between children from different social classes—and though income, education, family size, and other factors also matter, parenting alone may account for a third of the gap, research indicates.
Reeves, Sawhill, and Howard propose devoting greater government resources to improving disadvantaged parents’ skills with successful programs such as Early Head Start-Home Visiting, Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), and Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, or HIPPY. In such programs, a nurse or developmental specialist regularly visits new parents (generally mothers) at home in the first couple years of their child’s life, and provides them with feedback, suggestions, and encouragement about their parenting.
The Albuquerque Journal described how one such home visiting program works in New Mexico just last week:
Home visitors teach parents how to get a baby’s attention and how to help when a baby is fussy; what toys and activities are appropriate for development; what skills make feeding, meal time and diaper changing easier; how to help a baby get to sleep; and how to better understand whether the child is hungry, tired, sleepy, lonely or sick. . . . And they look out for clues that mothers might be depressed or a family situation is changing and try to help.
As Reeves and his colleagues point out, expanding home visiting and other parenting-related programs would be a tough sell, between budget constraints, liberals’ reluctance to criticize parents, and conservatives’ aversion to government interference with families. Yet efforts to improve parenting skills in disadvantaged families could play a crucial role in restoring the American ideal of equal opportunity—the dream that educational and financial success is available not only to the rich, but to all Americans.