Parenting,Middle class

The American Obsession With Parenting

December 12, 2016

Godong / Getty The word “parent” wasn’t used as a verb until a few decades ago. In fact, some experts argue it was only in the 1990s that the idea of “parenting” really became a full-fledged “thing.” By that time, at least for members of the middle class, being a parent didn’t just mean serving as an authority figure and a source of sustenance and support for a child—it meant molding that child’s life, flooding her with opportunity so she could have a competitive edge in the long-term, and enriching her with all kinds of constructive experiences. “Raising children,” my colleague Ann Hulbert wrote in her 2004 book Raising America, “has rated very near to sex—and to success—as an American fixation.” That fixation, at its most extreme, can have dire consequences—but it’s hard to deny that basic parenting practices benefit children. Putting your 3-year-old in Kumon might be overdoing it. But reading her a few pages of Dr. Seuss before she goes to sleep? A simple, low-key way to stimulate her brain and help her thrive as a little human. Experts tend to agree that activities such as a few minutes of reading or telling stories daily, going over letters and numbers several times a week, and occasional trips to the zoo are key to promoting a young child’s development and preparing her academically. The Activity Gap The beauty of those kinds of parenting activities is that they don’t cost much, if any, money. The problem is that low-income parents still lag behind their more affluent peers when it comes to engaging in those behaviors. Economically disadvantaged parents, research shows, still spend far less time than their middle-class counterparts participating in developmentally stimulating activities with their children. A recent study published by the American Educational Research Association aimed to get a better sense of how those income-based differences in parenting behaviors have evolved over time, drawing data from four nationally representative, longitudinal surveys conducted between 1988 and 2012. The research findings are promising in that they show lower-income parents are engaging in activities like reading and educational excursions more than ever before. But they also show that, for six of the eight behaviors studied, the disparities only grew. “In one sense, [disadvantaged parents] have really caught up; in another sense, they’re two decades behind,” said Ariel Kalil, the study’s lead author and a professor in the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies. “It’s an interesting puzzle because you could say this...

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