I once overheard the following comment: “You have to take classes and pass a test to drive a car, but for something as important as raising a kid…they don’t make you do anything!” I still find this thought rather funny, and I imagine it could lead to endless debates about freedom and the role of the government (but that’s not the subject of this post). I decided to start off the post with that reflection because it’s one that invites us to look inward at our own life experiences (as children and parents) and to recognize in those experiences the mistakes, the lessons and the successes.
In September, Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution published an article introducing a concept they call the “parenting gap.” We economists love to measure gaps in income levels, access to public services or health care, and learning, but the parenting gap is an entirely new concept.
So, exactly what is the parenting gap? The authors define it as the difference between being the child of “weak” parents and being the child of “strong” parents. Note that here the terms “weak” and “strong” refer neither to parenting style nor physical strength but instead to parenting quality. Strong parents are those who offer their children a supportive and stimulating family environment, while weak parents are unable to provide this type of family environment for their children. The quality of the home environment is measured by an instrument known as HOME, a specially-designed observational scale that has been used in the United States and in Latin America. The strongest parents are those that score in the top 33% on the HOME scale, while the weakest parents score in the bottom 33% percent.
Allow me to digress a moment to comment on an important issue. The kind of parents that each child is destined to have is one of those variables determined at birth. For that reason, this variable is closely intertwined with equity, since it relies on factors entirely beyond the control or individual effort of the child. Unless there’s some effort to “level the playing field” so that all children have, at the very least, an acceptable upbringing, we know it will be hard to break out of the inequality trap later. It is therefore not surprising that Howard and Reeves’ article concludes that this parenting gap is related to social mobility in different stages of the lifecycle: early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, transition to adulthood and adulthood.
The authors note that the children of strong parents are more likely to succeed at all the critical life stages. The authors define success using indicators from the Social Genome Project, which identifies academic, social and economic benchmarks for each stage of the lifecycle. Some examples of the indicators included in this definition of success are normal birthweight, acceptable reading and math skills at school age, basic social-emotional skills, and a middle-class income.
The unconditional differences (i.e., without controlling for income, education and other variables) between the children of strong parents and weak parents are huge. In early childhood, 77% of children with the strongest parents have successful outcomes, as compared to 34% of children with the weakest parents. This gap of more than forty percentage points barely changes over the course of a lifetime. Even in adulthood, 70% of children with the strongest parents obtain successful outcomes, as compared to 37% of children with the weakest parents.
The authors perform an even more provocative simulation. If it were possible to turn weak parents into average parents (the category between weak and strong), this improvement would result in 9% more of their children graduating from high school. A 6% reduction in teen pregnancy and even a 3% drop in the number of young people with a criminal conviction could also be achieved. Another interesting finding is that in regard to parental characteristics, both the learning environment and the emotional environment provided by the child’s parents affect outcomes. That is, parents play a critical role in terms of both the cognitive and the emotional.
Public policies to reduce the parenting gap have enormous potential to improve equity and equality of opportunity. These policies look to support the weakest parents in order to enhance the stimulation and support they provide to their children at home. In other words, if parenting quality is of such vital importance to individual and social welfare and families are not always able to provide quality parenting, then the role of the government is well-justified.