Social class and parenting

By John Hayward 07 Dec 2010

Parents' social class has a greater impact on how well their children perform at school than 'good parenting' techniques such as reading bedtime stories, claim researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education.

In actual fact the study of around 11,000 seven-year-old children simply looked at the variables associated with cognitive, educational, behavioural and health progress made between the ages of 5 and 7, a previous study having reported on progress at younger ages and, presumably, future studies to report on later progress as the researchers continue to follow the Millennium Cohort Study, tracking 18,818 children born in the UK in 2000/01. What they found was:

'The Home Learning Environment and daily reading to the child, and especially taking the child to the library at age 3, are significantly positively associated with cognitive outcomes at age 7...suggesting that the benefit of having parents who take the child to the library in the early years persists into improvement in the child's attainment even after they have started school.' (pp.12-13)

Furthermore, on behavioural outcomes, they observe, 'A number of parenting and parental behaviour variables are also linked to the child's difficulties score. ... Moderate TV viewing (between one and three hours daily) is linked to lower difficulties scores as compared to high levels of viewing (over three hours). Library visits and frequent reading to the child are also linked to lower levels of social and behavioural difficulties. Regular mealtimes are also linked to lower difficulties scores.' (p.22)

Thus they conclude, 'We examined a wide range of parenting variables, and many of them were significantly associated with the child's cognitive and educational scores. The strongest and most robust associations with cognitive scores were with regular bedtimes and library usage. Of these variables, library usage also retained the largest association with the child's educational scores at age 7, once age 5 scores were controlled for ... reading to the child had a significant association with the child's difficulties score at age 7 once the age 5 score was controlled for. The PIANTA scales of warmth and conflict are significantly linked to the child's general health at age 7 once health at age 5 is controlled for.' (p.34)

So, when they quote the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as having recently blamed low levels of social mobility on class based differences in parenting, they are wrong to conclude 'The finding that social class is a stronger predictor of differences in the cognitive and educational scores of 5 and 7 year-olds than either parents' educational qualifications and a range of parenting measures, confounds a good deal of received wisdom.' For, a correlation between class and outcome does not explain what the cause of the correlation is. As the report itself notes:

'the various dimensions of disadvantage are powerfully interrelated. ... Parents' social class and educational status are linked to family size, structure and the age of the mother, as well as to parenting behaviours, physical and mental health, and to the type of neighbourhood.' (p.36)

The question is: what advantages does social class (or more accurately, employment category) confer on children? For instance, p.11 of the study notes that 'Renting (whether privately or socially) is negative on cognitive outcomes compared to home ownership.' What proportion of the 'social class' advantage is in fact attributable to house tenure? Also, the disadvantage experienced by children of the long-term unemployed relative to children of professional/managerial parents was comparable to the advantage enjoyed by children of parents with the highest level of qualifications relative to those with no qualifications. What proportion of the 'social class' advantage is attributable to parental educational background? And why is it that children of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, and other ethnic minority background advanced more quickly than their British counterparts between the age of 5 and 7? What are their parents doing that the British ones are not?

Like income poverty, 'social class' should probably be viewed as 'a high level summary variable encapsulating the impacts of a broad range of causative and consequential factors.' The authors are therefore disingenuous to conclude (on the basis, at that, of someone else's research from 1993) that 'redistributive economic policies may be more effective than policies aimed directly at addressing parenting practices for example, if our aim is to tackle inequality.'

The bottom line

Irrespective of their profession, parents may rest assured that time spent with their children is a valuable investment of their time, energy and resources. As Frank Field recently concluded in his Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances, The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults: 'We have found overwhelming evidence that children's life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life. It is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.'

Put another way, to quote the 2004 Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study: 'What parents do is more important than who parents are.' Or, as we are exhorted in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3, we should bring our children up in the training and instruction of the Lord, for through the gaining of wisdom and understanding they will have life and 'you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.'

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