Usually, when we think about child learning and development, we think about schooling and institutions outside the home. Most people will say we can fix childhood issues through schooling. Consequently, the role of parents has become a kind of lost both in research and policy. But if you look at where children spend their time, especially during their first and most critical years, it’s in a family environment. They spend less time in school versus in the company of their parents and caregivers. Even beyond caregiving, parents play a critical role throughout the years. For example, parents select their children’s environments all the time based on things they think are good for them, like neighbourhoods, schools, etc., although some constraints exist. All this suggests parents are the number one influence on children.
How true is it that parents in low-income contexts, usually under stress, tend to procrastinate more in their interactions with children than those in higher income contexts?
It’s the 20-million-dollar question. There’s a general notion that life is more complex and complicated in low-income contexts, and that as stress increases so does the probability of procrastination. Under stress, it might be more appealing to choose leisure time or watching TV for 20 extra minutes rather than reading to your child because you’ve had a long day and you think you’ll read tomorrow. There’s no question this happens in all families, but it might be more common in low income households because there are more – or different – kinds of stressors. This does not mean these parents don’t value the return on time investment in the early childhood. Surveys of parents of young kids show that parents have very high expectations for their children’s future and are therefore willing to invest in the present time to increase their cognitive development. But less educated or low-income parents have a harder time converting what they wish to do into what they actually do.
Do children in these contexts learn to procrastinate?
That’s an interesting question. Children behavior is modelled on their parents, and maybe if they grow up in households that don’t have routines or language about doing things today because it’s important for the future — such as: ‘You need to read today because you’re going to kindergarten tomorrow’— that can be possible. If children don’t grasp the idea that the reason you do things now is for a future reward, their horizon might be different.
Evidence suggests more educated parents spend more time with their children. What implications does this have for vulnerable contexts? What strategies can we implement to change this?
Assuming parent-child interactions have an impact on development, we should be concerned if one group of kids gets the benefits of parental time and another doesn’t. However, over time low-income parents have vastly increased the time they spend with their children. Less-educated parents now spend the same amount of time with their kids than more educated parents did 30 years ago. But highly-educated parents have also increased their time investments over time, and thus we still see income-based inequality in parent engagement. If there’s a minimum threshold for time investment, parents in low-income families have reached it, but a puzzle we still need to solve is whether there is such a threshold or if more is always better.
How to close these gaps turns out to be easier than we might have thought because we know low-income parents share the same aspirations for their kid’s development. They do not enjoy time with their kids any less, and they do not completely lack the tools to promote their development. Most homes have at least some books. But the answer is not to give them more books; rather, we must provide tools for optimal decision-making, where the optimal decision is parents doing the things they say they want to do.