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How Income Differences Affect Parenting Options

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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An article published in 2014 in the online version of The Economist magazine discusses a very tricky topic that’s still relevant almost five years later. The article examines how the class divide in the U.S. leads to different styles of parenting. “Choose Your Parents Wisely” uses two case studies: a family from an upper-income neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, and a family from a low-income town called Cabin Creek, West Virginia. The study draws data from a paper released by the Brookings Institute’s Center on Children and Families in September 2013 entitled “The Parenting Gap.” Before delving into the particulars of the article and discussing the various statistics it cites from the Brookings study and how they relate to parenting choices, it’s vital to address a disturbing underlying assumption revealed by both the article and the Brookings paper.

Myth: Higher Income Equals Better Parenting

Though the article does attempt to mitigate its point of view by stating “Cabin Creek parents love their children just as much as Bethesda parents do,” the effort is token. The dominant perspective pervading the entire piece is normative. It implies the practices of parents from higher-income ranges are better than the practices of parents from lower-income ranges. And therefore, the parents from higher-income ranges are more effective parents than those from lower-income ranges.

While this perspective is common in the U.S., we rarely address or debunk it. In education circles, this misconception is often the “elephant in the room” that no one points to. It’s simply just too sensitive a subject to bring up. But the fact is: nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we can demonstrate that the presence of parenting practices more readily found in upper-income families lead to high academic achievement and high employment/income rates later in life. But it’s a clear mistake to view these parenting differences as better than those of their lower-income counterparts. Just as it would be a mistake to view parents from high-income families as more effective than parents from lower-income families.

It would also be easy to analyze the data presented by The Economist article through the alluring lens of various false dilemmas common in mainstream U.S. culture. We’re inundated with the ideas that  bigger is better or rich is superior to poor or wealth equals success. Instead of falling into these traps, we an take a more productive perspective. We can view differences in parenting styles between high-income families and low-income families in terms of access and options.

High-Income Parenting and Low-Income Parenting: What Are the Differences?

The data from the Brookings study and interviews with the parents from Bethesda and Cabin Creek show significant differences in two significant parenting areas related to family income: intellectual stimulation and emotional support.

Intellectual Stimulation

As a result of their economic status, children from lower-income families have less access to essential enrichment tools. They have fewer books, educational games, computers, and extra-curricular classes and activities. Studies show that all of these things have positive academic and financial effects later in life. In contrast to high-income families such as those in Bethesda, parents in places like Cabin Creek simply don’t have the disposable income to provide these fundamental options.

In addition, the Brookings findings show that parents from high-income families talk to their children more. Children in families receiving welfare hear an average of 600 words per hour. Those in middle income families hear 1,200 ords per hour. And those in higher-income families hear 2,100 words per hour. Verbal communication leads to verbal ability, which in turn can lead to increased academic achievement in language- based classes. Meaning the entirety of liberal arts and social studies.

Emotional Support

Circumstances for high-income families and low-income families in the U.S. can be startlingly different. On the surface, it appears they live in two completely separate countries. According the HOME Scale of assessment, which was designed to rate the quality of home life for children in the U.S., adequate emotional support early in life is a key indicator of both academic achievement and financial security later in life. Because of their economic freedom, families with high incomes often have plenty of extra time to spend with their children. This enables them to give their kids the emotional support they need.

On the other hand, families with low incomes often have no extra time to spend with their children. Often, they are not home enought to give them the support they need. Low-income parents may be single and working more than one job. Or they may be together, but with several children and both working multiple jobs. There are many possible scenarios leading to the same result. Through no fault of their own, they have less free time, which deprives them of the option to spend the hours necessary to be there emotionally for their children.

Remedies: What Can Be Done?

Parents from low-income families and parents from high-income families both want what’s best for their children. Yet there is an enormous gap between the two. High-income parents have both access and options. Their disposable income gives them the ability to provide their children with every advantage early in life. This gives them a greater chance at academic success during their school years, and financial security later in life. Lower-income families, on the other hand, rarely have access to the same enrichment activities that high-income families have. This lack of access early in life can lead to lowered economic security during adulthood. Which, in turn, can lead to perpetuating the cycle they themselves where born into.

One step toward closing this gap might be recognize that the there is no inherent value difference between the parenting practices of high-income families and low-income families. There are only differences in the resources they have access to. Another step might be to support any effort to increase educational and enrichment options for lower-income families. At school, in the local community or society at large – anywhere we can help, we should.

Finally, a far reaching, holistic approach to closing the parenting gap might be to re-evaluate what success means to people in the U.S. Do we believe high income and wealth determine our level of success in life? Perhaps we can now consider consider that fulfilment and happiness serve as equally valid –  and perhaps more meaningful – measures of success in life.

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