KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Brookings: The Parenting Divide Limits Children’s Development

Posted by Marilee Comfort on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 @ 04:51 PM

parenting assessment m-bThe Brookings Institution has just released a policy recommendation, entitled Addressing the Parenting Divide to Promote Early Childhood Development for Disadvantaged Childrenwritten by Ariel Kalil, Professor, the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago.  In this and the next few posts we will explore this proposal. The Brookings proposal centers around addressing an issue Kalil refers to as the “Parenting Divide”, the disparities in time and quality of time parents spend with their children.  Kalil points to the growing inequalities in US family incomes, which are reflected in children’s educational achievement.  She argues that these inequalities are due in large part to the parenting divide.  She claims that focusing investments on classrooms alone is too narrow and is missing an important component.  We must include parents if children are to be successful.

Regular readers of our blog will recognize the concept of a parenting divide.  For example we have discussed one of the earliest and most frequently cited parenting divide studies performed by Hart and Risely.  The Hart and Risely study is most widely recognized for showing a 30 million gap in words spoken to low-income versus higher-income children.  What is frequently overlooked in this large and well-conducted longitudinal study is that an index of parenting quality was as strong a predictor of children’s achievement as word count.  Another important factor in the parenting divide is the impact of toxic stress on parents and children.  We have discussed how Luby and co-workers found that parenting quality can buffer the impact of poverty’s toxic stress on the development of children’s hippocampus.

Parenting Divide or Parenting Gap?

Kalil’s proposal echoes an earlier report from the Brookings Institution where they used the term “Parenting Gap”.  Sawhill and co-workers reviewed the literature showing early parenting quality is a primary driver of children’s language and math achievement as they enter Kindergarten.

The passing down of poverty, generation to generation, is arguably America’s greatest moral flaw. And the hard machinery of the state—schools, scholarships, and laws—is not sufficient for the task of building an opportunity society. Families and the parents that shape them are equally important incubators of opportunity. If we want more equality—of opportunity, of income, of wealth, of occupation—we’ll have to tackle the parenting gap, too.--Sawhill, Reeves & Howard, 2013

Kalil reviews research showing that parents with college educations provide more enriching interactions with their children.  I have heard some imply that it is the college degree that makes the difference.  But if this were true, we could hand out diplomas to every parent and easily close the parenting divide.  Alas, solving the parenting divide will not prove that easy.  The college degree is merely a proxy for socioeconomic status, accompanied by greater family and community resources.  The research shows, on average, that parents with more education behave differently; and it is the parents’ behavior that makes the difference.  It is also important to point out several things before we dive more deeply into this subject.  The research is done on groups of families, and the statements we make regarding the differences are averages, with wide variation.  This means we can find excellent parenting among low-income families and poor parenting in high-income families.  Also, neither I, nor any of the researchers I cite, want to indicate that families from low-income families have less love or concern for their children than higher-income families.  

From her own research [Ariel Kalil, Rebecca Ryan, & Michael Corey (2012). Diverging Destinies: Maternal Education and the Developmental Gradient in Time with Children. Demography, 49: 1361–83] Kahlil has found that highly-educated parents spend more time with their children and also use that time differently.  In accord with their children’s developmental needs, in the early years college-educated parents tend to read and problem solve with their children to help prepare them for school.  In middle-school years, they tend to coordinate their children’s activities outside the home.  In contrast to less-educated parents, more educated parents offer more enriching activities and emotional support, which serve as investments in their children’s futures.

Quality Parenting Assessments Are Vital Tool in Addressing  Parenting Divide.

In the next post we will explore Dr. Kalil’s three-part proposal for closing the parenting divide.  As a longtime proponent of the importance of parenting, I am pleased to see an increased focus at the policy level on developing supports for parents.  The science is clear we need to support families prior to children reaching school age.  Also, once a child enters preschool, parenting supports can make a big difference for children from low-income families.  One key component of supporting families is parenting assessment.  With a quality observational assessment, like KIPS, we can better guide parents to support each child in growing and thriving.  Quality parenting assessment will prove a vital tool in addressing the parenting divide. 


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Tags: Parenting Assessment, parenting quality, education and parenting, parenting divide, poverty