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.

By Richard V. Reeves Isabel Sawhill Kimberly Howard

Tagged FamiliesInequality

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

In many developed nations, services for families and parents are an established feature of the policy landscape. In the Netherlands, the kraamzorg system can provide daily support in the first days after the birth of a child. In the UK, health visitors drop in at the home of every newborn child (and, despite broader cuts in spending, the government is investing more in health visiting, parenting classes, and the Family Nurse Partnership, a home-visiting program).

In most countries, programs aimed at improving parenting skills have developed as part of a comprehensive health-care system. Unsurprisingly, then, the picture here is patchier. Programs are delivered at the state or county level and typically targeted at families that are already struggling. But as evidence of the importance of the early years has mounted over the last two decades, we have seen growth in a variety of home-visiting schemes. Given the impact of parenting on opportunity, social mobility, and inequality, there is a strong prima facie case for greater investments in policies to boost parenting ability.

But resistance in the United States also reflects a wariness of government interference in family life. As Bill Clinton said in 1992, “governments don’t raise children, parents do.” Quite right: In a free society, families must operate as mostly private institutions, except when a child needs to be protected against abuse or neglect. Parents are at liberty to do things their own way—even if their way is hopeless. Readers of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy will remember that his fictional regime is toppled when it decides to take the children of the poor into care, in the interests of equalizing opportunity.

For white liberals, the issue is harder still: Few relish the risk of appearing to lecture poorer, often black, adults on their failings as parents. Black politicians, including Obama, have been more outspoken on the importance of strong parenting—not least among fathers—in the black community. As Obama says, being a good parent is a moral responsibility. But offering a helping hand to struggling parents is a collective responsibility—and a mark of good government. Supporting parents to do a better job, so their children will have a better life, is one element of an overall strategy to equalize opportunity—not least between white and black children.

From a progressive perspective, there are two deeper problems with the parenting-is-private stance. First, it amounts, in effect, to a laissez-faire attitude toward families and parents. Protecting rights to family autonomy quickly dissolves, politically, into leaving them to sink or swim on their own. There is an important distinction to be made here: The state cannot and must not take over the job of raising children—but the state can and must do more to help parents raise their own.

Second, the consequences of failure in parenting are felt not just by individual children but by society at large, in the form of welfare payments, higher crime, and lost productivity. Michelle Perrot and her colleagues, writing in the fourth volume of Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby’s magisterial A History of Private Life, describe the nineteenth-century family as “society’s invisible hand…it straddled the ambiguous boundary between public and private.” That holds true today. And since families straddle public and private domains, public policy should not be silent on parenting. Voluntary, proven, cost-effective parenting programs ought to be seen as vital weapons in the progressive armory.

What Works?

Of course, it is one thing to say policy can legitimately seek to improve parenting, especially among the most disadvantaged groups, quite another to prove that it can. It is difficult enough to improve the quality of public schools, let alone the quality of private parenting. Let us be blunt: The evidence, in fact, is that many attempts to use tax dollars to improve parenting have failed to show significant effects. In particular, it is hard to find evaluations providing strong evidence that outcomes for the children are permanently influenced—surely the ultimate objective.

But in the spirit of promoting “evidence-based policy-making”—rather than its evil twin, “policy-based evidence-making”—we should draw lessons from the programs that have not worked, and highlight those with a solid record of success.

To its credit, this is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) allocates $1.5 billion over the next five years to support home-visiting programs for disadvantaged or at-risk parents of very young children. Specifically, the ACA will fund voluntary home-visiting programs aimed at improving school readiness, boosting health outcomes (of both mother and child), raising family economic self-sufficiency, improving parenting, and reducing child maltreatment and crime. The Department of Health and Human Services has carefully reviewed 11 home-visiting programs, and found seven that passed muster, showing at least two significant favorable effects lasting at least one year after enrollment. The seven programs deemed eligible for federal support include Early Head Start-Home Visiting; Nurse Family Partnership (NFP); and a reading support program, Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, or HIPPY. (Yes, this field suffers from an acute case of acronym addiction.)

NFP, a flagship program, is for first-time, low-income mothers who receive home visits from trained nurses. The goals are to promote healthy behavior during pregnancy, competent parenting during the first two years of their child’s life, and better planning of future pregnancies. Evaluations of NFP have shown a range of positive impacts in maternal mental health, child health, reading, and math.

HIPPY has also shown positive results. In our new paper, we estimate the effects of HIPPY on longer-term outcomes of participants. The goal of the program, offered when children are age three to five, is to effectively train parents to be their child’s first teacher. Families receive biweekly home visits from a paraprofessional for 30 weeks out of the year, along with biweekly group meetings. Parents are also given books and toys. A high-quality evaluation of the program found significant improvements in reading and school readiness in first grade. Using a microsimulation model—the Social Genome Model—we predict that HIPPY participants are 3 percent more likely to graduate high school, and 6 percent less likely to become teen parents. These are modest effects, but positive ones, given the importance of the outcomes. High-school graduates make $260,000 more in their working lives. For a program that costs around $3,500 per participant, it’s close to a gold-plated investment.

Politics and Parents

Public policies to address the parenting gap have traditionally fallen into one of two broad camps: improving skills, or providing supplementary services. The first set seeks to make parents better, the latter to make them less relevant.

Supplementary interventions typically take the form of extra-educational investment (especially in the early years), mentoring schemes, scholarships, longer school days, and so on. As Furstenberg puts it, “The main line of attack…must involve better schools equipped with more skilled teachers that provide a more extensive program of education with longer days and summer months…to compensate for skills not acquired in the home.” The goal is, in effect, to detach the opportunities of the child from the abilities of the parents.

In recent years, great emphasis has been placed on these supplementary policies. In particular, significant investments have been made in early-childhood programs, especially at the state level. Many of the most high-profile school-based reforms, like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), have also adopted a child-focused approach, with the longer school days and school terms that Furstenberg advocates.

Many of these policy interventions have been successful, but not as successful as advocates hoped. A particular disappointment is that according to a recent, thorough government evaluation, Head Start, a flagship early childhood program, appears to be having no measurable impact on academic performance through third grade. Of course Head Start provides other benefits, not least the chance for more parents to get paid work. But in terms of closing the opportunity gap for the children themselves, it is clear that it is not the big win many hoped—or at least not yet.

In policy terms, three conclusions follow. First, we need to invest more in interventions that address the parenting gap more directly: with parents themselves. In the last five years, the federal government has allocated $37.5 billion to Head Start—25 times as much as promised to home-visiting programs over the next five. This may not be the optimum ratio in terms of promoting greater mobility and opportunity.

Second, parenting programs need to be seen as multigenerational interventions, helping parents at the same time as—and intertwined with—improving opportunities for the child. It is rarely possible to separate the life chances of the next generation of adults from the lives of the current one. Poverty has to be treated as a multigenerational challenge.

Third, money has to follow evidence much more closely. State governments already make more than $1 billion available for home-visiting programs, but according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States, most of it goes to local providers with few or no requirements to adopt evidence-based approaches. The danger with spending money in a cavalier fashion and with such negligible returns is that the case for public investment is gradually undermined. Of course, it is hard to shut down locally loved schemes. But policy-makers, especially at the state level, must become harder-headed about the allocation of scarce resources. (Needless to say, parenting programs are far from the only area of policy where this lesson needs to be taken to heart.)

Politically, parenting presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge for the reasons already stated: Conservatives don’t want a “nanny state” and liberals don’t want to admit some parents might be failing. But there is some rich political terrain here, too. It is possible to imagine Hillary Clinton, who reminded us that it takes a village to raise a child, articulating a pro-parent politics, combining more rights in the workplace with more responsibilities at home. Parent politics of a progressive kind would combine the conservative insight that families matter with the liberal insistence that properly calibrated policies can help parents do a better job.

We have to hope that, one way or another, parenting takes a more central place on the political stage. Because the stakes are immensely high. 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.

Read more about FamiliesInequality

Richard V. Reeves is the policy director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

Isabel Sawhill is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. She is the author, most recently, of The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation.

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Kimberly Howard is a senior research assistant at Brookings.

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