The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.
Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.
In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.
The class differences in child rearing are growing, researchers say — a symptom of widening inequality with far-reaching consequences. Different upbringings set children on different paths and can deepen socioeconomic divisions, especially because education is strongly linked to earnings. Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.
“Early childhood experiences can be very consequential for children’s long-term social, emotional and cognitive development,” said Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “And because those influence educational success and later earnings, early childhood experiences cast a lifelong shadow.”
The cycle continues: Poorer parents have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children, which can leave children less prepared for school and work, which leads to lower earnings.
American parents want similar things for their children, the Pew report and past research have found: for them to be healthy and happy, honest and ethical, caring and compassionate. There is no best parenting style or philosophy, researchers say, and across income groups, 92 percent of parents say they are doing a good job at raising their children.
Yet they are doing it quite differently.
Middle-class and higher-income parents see their children as projects in need of careful cultivation, says Annette Lareau, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist whose groundbreaking research on the topic was published in her book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.” They try to develop their skills through close supervision and organized activities, and teach children to question authority figures and navigate elite institutions.
Working-class parents, meanwhile, believe their children will naturally thrive, and give them far greater independence and time for free play. They are taught to be compliant and deferential to adults.
There are benefits to both approaches. Working-class children are happier, more independent, whine less and are closer with family members, Ms. Lareau found. Higher-income children are more likely to declare boredom and expect their parents to solve their problems.
Yet later on, the more affluent children end up in college and en route to the middle class, while working-class children tend to struggle. Children from higher-income families are likely to have the skills to navigate bureaucracies and succeed in schools and workplaces, Ms. Lareau said.
“Do all parents want the most success for their children? Absolutely,” she said. “Do some strategies give children more advantages than others in institutions? Probably they do. Will parents be damaging children if they have one fewer organized activity? No, I really doubt it.”
Social scientists say the differences arise in part because low-income parents have less money to spend on music class or preschool, and less flexible schedules to take children to museums or attend school events.
Extracurricular activities epitomize the differences in child-rearing in the Pew survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,807 parents. Of families earning more than $75,000 a year, 84 percent say their children have participated in organized sports over the past year, 64 percent have done volunteer work and 62 percent have taken lessons in music, dance or art. Of families earning less than $30,000, 59 percent of children have done sports, 37 percent have volunteered and 41 percent have taken art classes.
Especially in affluent families, children start young. Nearly half of high-earning, college-graduate parents enrolled their children in art classes before they were 5, compared with one-fifth of low-income, less-educated parents.
Nonetheless, 20 percent of well-off parents say their children’s schedules are too hectic, compared with 8 percent of poorer parents.
Another example is reading aloud, which studies have shown gives children bigger vocabularies and better reading comprehension in school. Seventy-one percent of parents with a college degree say they do it every day, compared with 33 percent of those with a high school diploma or less, Pew found. White parents are more likely than others to read to their children daily, as are married parents.
Most affluent parents enroll their children in preschool or daycare, while low-income parents are more likely to depend on family members.
Discipline techniques vary by education level: 8 percent of those with a postgraduate degree say they often spank their children, compared with 22 percent of those with a high school degree or less.
The survey also probed attitudes and anxieties. Interestingly, parents’ attitudes toward education do not seem to reflect their own educational background as much as a belief in the importance of education for upward mobility.
Most American parents say they are not concerned about their children’s grades as long as they work hard. But 50 percent of poor parents say it is extremely important to them that their children earn a college degree, compared with 39 percent of wealthier parents.
Less-educated parents, and poorer and black and Latino parents are more likely to believe that there is no such thing as too much involvement in a child’s education. Parents who are white, wealthy or college-educated say too much involvement can be bad.
Parental anxieties reflect their circumstances. High-earning parents are much more likely to say they live in a good neighborhood for raising children. While bullying is parents’ greatest concern overall, nearly half of low-income parents worry their child will get shot, compared with one-fifth of high-income parents. They are more worried about their children being depressed or anxious.
In the Pew survey, middle-class families earning between $30,000 and $75,000 a year fell right between working-class and high-earning parents on issues like the quality of their neighborhood for raising children, participation in extracurricular activities and involvement in their children’s education.
Children were not always raised so differently. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to Mr. Reardon’s research.
People used to live near people of different income levels; neighborhoods are now more segregated by income. More than a quarter of children live in single-parent households — a historic high, according to Pew – and these children are three times as likely to live in poverty as those who live with married parents. Meanwhile, growing income inequality has coincided with the increasing importance of a college degree for earning a middle-class wage.
Yet there are recent signs that the gap could be starting to shrink. In the past decade, even as income inequality has grown, some of the socioeconomic differences in parenting, like reading to children and going to libraries, have narrowed, Mr. Reardon and others have found.
Public policies aimed at young children have helped, he said, including public preschool programs and reading initiatives. Addressing disparities in the earliest years, it seems, could reduce inequality in the next generation.