What research tells teachers: A review about how family wealth impacts child rearing

By Jim Parsons, Executive Editor


In an op-ed article in the New York Times on December 17, 2015, columnist Claire Cain Miller reviews the findings of a PEW Research Center survey of differences between how wealthy and working-class parents and families raise their children. Although the study was located in the United States, and the United States differs from Canada in significant ways, these findings represent information that might help Canadian teachers better understand the children in their classrooms. The following represents my review of Miller’s column.

Miller’s title gives the message away: “Rich Children and Poor Ones Are Raised Very Differently.” Specifically, moneyed families run on schedules ruled by calendars where children are enrolled in ballet, sports, and after-school programs. Usually these families have two parents, spend time reading to children, and worry about their children’s anxiety levels and hectic schedules.

However, in financially poor families, children spend time at home or with extended family. Poor children are likely to grow up in neighborhoods that, their parents reveal, are scary. In fact, poor parents worry their children will get shot, beaten up, or run into trouble with the law.

Class differences in child rearing are symptoms of wider economic and social inequalities, where different child-rearing practices have far-reaching consequences. Thus, children follow different life paths that further create socioeconomic divisions. Because poor children lack the skills they need to succeed in schools, they become financially poor adults.

The PEW study strongly links education to earnings. Because childhood experiences impact children’s long-term social, emotional, and cognitive development, the cycle continues. Poorer parents have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children. Thus, their children are less prepared for school, resulting in lower lifetime earnings.

It isn’t that parents want different things for their children; in fact, quite the opposite. All parents report that they want their children to be healthy and happy, honest and ethical, caring and compassionate. Nor did parenting style or philosophy make the difference: indeed, it was all about time and money. Resources of time and money differ widely – and these differences matter.

Annette Lareau, author of the book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, suggests that higher-income parents see their children as projects to be cultivated. These parents supervise and organize activities, teach their children to question authority, and help their children learn to navigate institutions. On the other hand, working-class parents believe their children will naturally thrive and allow them greater independence and free play. These children are taught to be compliant and deferential to adults.

Ironically, working-class children are happier and more independent; they don’t whine or complain; and, they build closer family relationships. Higher-income children are more likely to be bored and expect their parents to solve their problems. Yet, as adults, affluent children end up at university and middle class, while working-class children struggle. Why? Lareau believes children of higher-income parents learn to navigate and succeed in bureaucracies such as schools and workplaces.

The difference, the PEW study reports, is that low-income parents have less money to spend on extra-curricular activities, less time to spend with their children, and less flexible schedules. Extras, such as travel or even attending school events, simply come second to work. According to the PEW survey, these extracurricular activities are the biggest differences in child rearing. When families earn more than $100,000 (Canadian) a year, their children are almost twice as likely to participate in organized sports, to do volunteer work, or to take music, dance, or art lessons.

Although well-off parents report their children’s schedules are too hectic, affluent children start extra-curricular activities at younger ages. Many higher income, college-graduates enrol their children in programs before they are 5. But, only one-fifth of lower-income, less-educated parents enrol their children in such programs. Affluent parents use preschool or day care; low-income parents depend on family members.

Time to spend with children at home also matters. One great predictor of success in school is reading aloud, which research shows helps children gain bigger vocabularies and better reading comprehension. Almost three of four parents with college degrees read aloud to their children daily, but only one of three parents with a high school diploma or less do so, the PEW study found. Married parents are more likely to read to their children.

A short list of the PEW findings include:

  • Parents’ attitudes toward education do not reflect their own educational background as much as their belief in the importance of education for upward mobility. More than half of poor parents note the importance of their children earn a university degree, compared to just one-third of wealthier parents.
  • Most parents are not concerned with their children’s grades as long as their children work hard.
  • Less-educated parents and poorer parents believe they cannot be too involved in their children’s education. Wealthy, college-educated parents believe too much involvement can be bad.
  • Bullying is parents’ greatest concern; however, half of low-income parents worry their children will get shot while high-income parents worry their children will be depressed or anxious.
  • More than one of four children who live in single-parent households live in poverty.
  • Enrolling children in public preschool programs and reading initiatives help, and addressing disparities in the early years can reduce future inequality.

In summary, the PEW research found socioeconomic status an important predictor of success. These findings, I believe, help teachers better understand the context in which their children live and grow and the importance of their work in schools. As my friend Gary Oker, former Chief of the Doig River First Nations in British Columbia, notes, poverty is not only a lack of money, it is also a lack of choices. Thus, children born poor or to uneducated single parents tend to, according to PEW research, have low life expectations. Although it is naïve to believe teachers and schools can solve deeply rooted socioeconomic issues, it is crucial that we work together to help schools become places where all children can grow towards life success.