Parenting practices matter in the long-term emotional and cognitive health of children. A new briefing paper by Dr. Sandra Hofferth, professor of family science in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, analyzes recent data on parenting practices compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. Published by the Council on Contemporary Families, the report by Hofferth notes that although the Census Report found some differences by family type, most American parents — married, divorced, single, or unmarried and co-habitating — read to their children, monitor their children’s media exposure, engage their children in extracurricular activities and make an effort to regularly eat meals together with their kids.
Most of the differences in parenting practices between family types were small and not a cause for concern. For example, married parents reported reading to children aged 3-5 an average of 6.8 times a week, compared to 6 times a week for single parents of children the same age. Likewise, most families with children ages 6-17 reported eating breakfast together at least five days a week.
There are however notable differences in children’s experiences based on income level of the family. “For example, the children of parents who are below poverty level don’t get to engage in as many extracurricular activities,” Hofferth explains. “This is significant because children’s participation in extracurricular activities is related to their scores in school, their achievement, their ability to get into college and to succeed later on.”
The Census report documents differences in children’s involvement in extracurricular activities by the income of the household and reveals that within each activity and across all family types, children whose family poverty status was 200 percent of poverty or higher had greater activity participation levels than children living below poverty or those whose poverty status was 100 to 199 percent of poverty. For example, the extracurricular participation in sports of children in families at 200 percent or more of the poverty level is 42.5 percent, while the participation of those in poverty is 22.5 percent, a difference of 20 percentage points. The difference between children of two married parents and children with a single parent was only 10 percentage points (44 percent vs. 34 percent).
“The big issue is resources,” Dr. Hofferth suggests. “Our rate of child poverty in the U.S. is extremely high – 22 percent overall and 26 percent for kids 6 and under. We should be concerned about this because it does make a difference in terms of what parents do with children and that can have long term consequences for kids’ outcomes and ultimately societal outcomes.”
Hofferth noted that on many of the positive parenting indicators the Census Bureau reported, children in families headed by two unmarried parents were similar to children in families with only one parent (who were also likely to be poor), suggesting that it is not the number of parents, but having low resources that dramatically limits involvement in clubs, lessons and sports. This also limits important opportunities for skill-building and social development.
Other nations have addressed this issue by providing more resources to make sure that families who participate in the work force will have sufficient resources so that they will rear healthy and socially and academically successful children with many opportunities to succeed, through tax credits for employment, for children, and for child care expenses, plus paid parental leave. Thus, child poverty rates in Scandinavia average 3 to 4 percent and those of Western Europe average only 9 percent, compared with 22 percent in the U.S.
Dr. Hofferth’s Report: Child-Rearing Norms and Practices in Contemporary American Families
Census Report: A Child’s Day: Living Arrangements, Nativity, and Family Transitions: 2011 (Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being)