Inequality in access to ”well-child” check-ups, exercise and healthy eating are related to parents’ education and are widest in early years, when it matters most for child health.
Preschool children in the US on average receive about 1,000 more hours of vital care if their parents have a college education. This inequality occurs during the first four years of their lives – the most critical period for children’s development, when parents can have a huge impact.
This finding, from a recent US study of parenting by Evrim Altintas, highlights rising inequality since the 1990s in the amount of time parents spend on developmentally important childcare activities. In particular, college-educated mothers and fathers spend more time with their children on such vital activities.
Similarly, recent research by Kate Prickett and Jennifer Augustine shows that young US children with college-educated mothers are more likely than those with less-educated mothers to attend ”well-child” check-ups, eat well, use a car seat and exercise. They are also less likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke, and they typically watch less television.
“Differences in parental education have had, over the last 20 years, an increasing impact on child development, in particular in the vital early years. This is contributing to an intergenerational transmission of parental advantages and disadvantages.”
Parental education leads to inequality in “well-child” health checks
This education-driven disparity in parenting is generally greatest in early childhood, when children’s health needs are most complex and can have the greatest long-term impact. For example, disparities in “well-child” checkups were most pronounced in infancy, when it is important to identify hearing difficulties and when most immunizations are given. Likewise, disparities by parents’ education in children’s physical activity were greatest when children were five years old; children this age start becoming more sedentary at school, and their level of physical activity is strongly correlated with whether they later develop childhood obesity.
The Altintas study examined time US parents spent in activities vital for child development between 1965 and 2013. Such activities include reading to children, helping with homework, attending children’s events and being involved in activities related to children’s education. These are vital for children’s thinking capacities and language development as well as for their emotional well-being. In the 1970s, there was no significant difference in the time high- and low-educated parents’ spent on this kind of childcare. But a gap emerged in the early 1990s, peaked in the early 2000s and remains wide.
Gap is true for fathers and mothers
Moreover, education influences both mothers’ and fathers’ involvement in developmental activities. In a separate study, Altintas found that highly educated fathers spend more time on developmental childcare than their less-educated peers, even after controlling for their spouses’ education. Similarly, Prickett’s study found that fathers’ education was associated with a higher likelihood that children were, for example, eating better and watching less television, regardless of the mothers’ education level. It is well-documented that highly educated men and women are more likely to marry one another now than in the past. This situation likely compounds the socioeconomic inequalities in children’s health and wellbeing because resources are even more concentrated among higher-educated parents.
The good news is that all parents are investing more time in their children. The problem lies in the growing gap between different categories of parents and, in particular, between the better and less educated. Many factors come into play. Educated parents typically are better off, so they can outsource activities such as cleaning and focus their time on activities that are more crucial to child development. Educated parents can also often offer more to children in some one-to-one activities. For example, a college-educated mother may be able to help more with homework or university applications than a mother without those school experiences.
Another issue is whether children live with their fathers. Because of higher rates of marriage and fewer breakups among people with more education, well-educated fathers are more likely to live with their children. Unsurprisingly, fathers who live with their children have more time to spend with them. They work together with mothers to make sure their families can follow through on healthy behaviors, such as getting to medical visits, giving their children a developmental advantage.
Policy options to reduce inequality
What can be done to improve the prospects of children with less-educated parents? The evidence suggests that we need to invest more in education generally, so that the benefits can cascade to children via better-educated parents, particularly in the early years. Alternatively, more programs should be targeted educating parents about the needs of young children, both developmentally and for good health. Such education should begin before birth because what happens during pregnancy is vital to children’s long-term prospects. Policies should focus on parents and would-be parents to make sure that they understand the effects of certain parenting practices.
Programs could also enlist skilled professionals to work with children in the early years to help fill the parental gaps. Despite the fact that parents, regardless of education level, spend more time in developmentally crucial activities with their children than ever, our studies show that the education gap in parenting is larger than ever. And the gaps in parenting behaviors that affect children’s health are greatest at times when it matters most for children’s health. Support for parents, therefore, should target low-income, less -educated parents.
Prickett KC & Augustine JM (2016), Maternal education and investments in children’s health, Journal of Marriage & Family 78.1
Altintas E (2016), The widening education gap in developmental child care activities in the United States, 1965–2013, Journal of Marriage and Family 78.1
Altintas E (2015), Educational differences in fathers’ time with children in two parent families: Time diary evidence from the United States, Family Studies 6.1