An economic divide can be seen in parents’ worries and aspirations

Lower-income parents tend to worry that their children might fall victim to violence, while parents with higher incomes worry their kids are burdened by busy schedules. That’s one finding of a major new survey on the ways socioeconomic divides affect parenting choices and concerns. Judy Woodruff talks to Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center and Lawrence Aber of New York University.

Read the Full Transcript


    Economic and racial divides are very much a focus in the United States right now, whether through the lens of criminal justice, education, or income inequality.

    Today, a major new survey documents the extent to which those divides also play a role in parenting, and the choices and concerns mothers and fathers face. As an example, the report released by the Pew Research Center finds that lower-income parents tend to worry that their child might be a victim of violence, or run into trouble with the police. While higher-income parents are more likely to worry that their children's overly busy schedules may be causing them stress.

    To help us explore more of the report's findings, and the potential effects different child-raising practices might have, we turn to Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, and Lawrence Aber, he's a professor of psychology and public policy at New York University.

    And we welcome you both.

    Kim Parker, broadly speaking, to start this off, how much difference is there in the parenting styles and approaches of parents at the lower end of the income scale and at the upper-end?

  • KIM PARKER, Pew Research Center:

    I think the differences are less in their style and approach, and more in their outlook and their worries and concerns and their aspirations. We found that for lower income parents, their financial instability can really limit their children's access to a safe environment and the kinds of extracurricular and enriching activities that many more affluent parents may take for granted.


    Well, for example we saw, I think we have a graphic to show this, participating — this is just participating in after school activities. Families earning over $75,000 a year, 84 percent of those children participate in organized sports, 62 percent in some sort of organized music and art. Under $30,000 income families, 59 percent in sports, still a significant percentage but less, 41 percent in music and art. I mean, that tells you something.


    It does. And we also found, we asked about after school programming for kids, you know, so many parents are working now and the kids need somewhere to go after school. And there was a lot of concern among lower income parents about the affordability and availability of high quality after school programs.

    And we found that more affluent parents are more likely to take advantage of those kinds of programs. And so, with after school programs and also the extracurriculars kids do on the weekends, and in the evening, those things take resources. And I think for lower income parents, there are just other places where they have to put that money.


    Kim Parker, I was struck and we cited some of this about how parents of these different income levels, what they worry about for their children. I mean, there's a real difference there.


    Real differences. It was quite interesting to see.

    We asked about a whole range of different things that parents could be concerned about. And we found that lower income parents have really a different set of concerns and they tend to revolve around their children's safety. So, they are more likely to worry that their child might be shot or be beat up or attacked or be kidnapped.

    And all parents we found, the overall — the biggest concern was that the child might be bullied. But for more affluent parents, the emotional well-being of their kids, whether they might be bullied or suffer from depression or anxiety, those things trump those other types of safety concerns that lower income parents have.


    Professor Aber at New York University, does this — how does this track with what — you have done a lot of research and writing on this, how does it track with what you see?

  • LAWRENCE ABER, New York University:

    Very, very well. I think the Pew report is important in getting these facts out. Over the last two decades, we have increasingly realized that the kinds of worries that the report calls out for safety, and the kinds of concerns that parents have of low income, that they can't get their kids into extracurricular activities. These come from a real environment, differences that children and their families live in.

    Parents and children in the upper income sector, and parents and children in the lower income sector are living in different neighborhoods, different schools. And this affects parents' philosophies, attitudes and behaviors.


    And it affects — Professor Aber, it affects the time these parents can spend with their children including at early age — at an early age.


    It affects time and it affects the opportunities that children have. Parents have two jobs, throughout their children's minority. One job is to protect them from safety and to provide kind of security and protect them from danger and provide them security and safety to go out into the world. And the second is when they go out into the world, to provide opportunities to learn and to develop.

    And these are both things that are affected by the neighborhoods that they're in, as witnessed by the data that Pew has been reporting.


    Kim Parker, what do you see in terms of discipline and expectations about school performance?


    We have found some really interesting findings about parental involvement in schools. And we found tht across the socioeconomic spectrum, parents are very involved. The low income and high income parents are just as likely to say that they go to parent teacher conferences and go to PTA meetings.

    But we also asked whether — you know, do you wish you could be more involved in your child education, and we found that lower income parents are more likely than high income parents to say that they do wish that they could be more involved.

    And we had another question where we pitted two opinions against each other. One was, can you ever be too involved in your child's education or too much involvement be sometimes a bad thing? And higher income and more real educated parents, a majority of them said, you know, too much involvement can be a bad thing. But for the lower income parents, they said you can never be too involved.


    It's fascinating.

    Professor Aber, what are the implications of this for these children as they grow up?


    Well, the kind of thing that was just describe where parents are over-concerned, perhaps has to be seen in this environmental context. The kind of things that we're talking about really affect two kinds of things. One is children's language and cognitive development, and the second is their social and emotional development — the soft skills, the interpersonal skills.

    And these are the very roots of inequality that we're seeing in this report. This is how our nation is beginning to pull apart. And we need to close that so that parents' worries in the low income neighborhoods are reduced and the opportunities for their kids are much, much brighter.


    Kim Parker, quickly, what do you see in terms of the implications for these children as they become adults?


    Well, I think one thing that we haven't really touched on is the sort of the backdrop for this is the changing family structure. And the lower share of children that are living in households with two married parents is at a record low now, 62 percent. And a rising share of children that are living in single parent homes, and they are different economic outcomes for those types of families. If those trends continue, this could have real implications for children's economic well-being going forward.


    Yes, a lot to think about and a lot for policymakers to pay attention to.

    Kim Parker with Pew Research Center, Professor Lawrence Aber at New York University — thank you both.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment