Financial stability continues to shape how parents’ view their child’s environment and growth opportunities, a Pew Research Center study recently found.
A vast majority of the 1,807 parents polled in the 2015 fall survey reported income as being a major influencing factor with regard to community safety and how well positioned their children were for the future.
Lower income parents, typically families with household incomes of less than $30,000, stated concerns with their neighborhood, violence within their community and teen pregnancy. Parents drawing a household income of $75,000 or more reported confidence in their neighborhood surroundings and felt their community was a safe place for their children.
Regarding after-school activities and personal growth opportunities, lower income parents were again at a disadvantage, reporting difficulty finding strong, high quality after-school programs that would fit their budget.
Dr. Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, says the Pew study reflects what sociologists have long known.
“We've known for some time now that children from higher income families are more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities than children from lower-income families, and unfortunately these gaps are growing,” she says. “Families with higher incomes have more resources available to pay for music lessons, tutoring, expenses associated with participating on a sports team, and so on. They are also more likely to have someone available to help transport children to and from such activities, or to have children attending schools where such activities are provided on site.”
“Where you grow up affects your health for better or worse,” adds Dr. Judith Glassgold, Psy.D., director of the Congressional Fellowship Program at the American Psychological Association.
"Many low-income parents have concerns based on real-life disparities in the quality of their community resources compared to more well-off families," she said. "Very often the resources in a community such as grocery stores, parks and recreational activities, schools are very different. Many low-income parents cannot leave areas that are unsafe or poorly resourced due to lack of income.”
The Middle Class Advantage
Although the Pew study cites income as being one of several factors that influence parenting styles and opportunities, being extremely wealthy was not critical to having parental advantages.
Dr. Karl Alexander, John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, has conducted extensive research on the middle class and has drawn astute insights that shed light as to why some sociological groups may soar over others.
Alexander says his colleague Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about differences in parenting styles across social class lines.
“Middle class parents are given to what she calls ‘concerted cultivation,’” he explains. “They program their children to be involved in all sorts of activities and are more proactive in engaging with school personnel, such as teachers and administrators.”
These parents are preparing their children for the future and their children learn how to navigate the middle class culture of the school as part of their upbringing, he continues.
“Working class parents practice ‘natural growth,’ and their focus is on safety and letting their children finding their own way,” Alexander says. “These parents also are more passive in their dealings with the school, deferring to the professional authority of teachers and school leadership.”
Do the efforts of middle class parents pay off in the long run? Alexander says determining exact cause and effect is uncertain, but the middle class invests much more in enrichment experiences for their children and that the difference has increased greatly over the last decades.
“One has to assume they are onto something, but it's not just the dollars invested, which the middle class have more of, but also their deeper understanding of what it takes to be successful in school and later in life,” Alexander says. “They are self-consciously building a foundation and their children are the beneficiaries. All this can be done to excess of course, but the middle class investment in their children's future indeed pays off.”
Bullying, Drug Use Permeate Class Lines
Across income lines, approximately half of the Pew study respondents said they worried about their children being bullied, struggling with depression or having issues with drugs or alcohol.
Glassgold says a number of resources are available to parents that can serve as a guide or possible intervention for a number of these issues.
“Parents can do a great deal to help,” she says. “The first step is ensure that there is trusting, two-way communication pathway between you and your children, so that your children know they can come to you. One way to establish that is to bring up these topics with your children in non-judgmental, age-appropriate ways and to communicate that you welcome questions and understand how complicated these issues are.”
With regard to bullying, Glassgold says the federal government has a central website for information about bullying and an app that includes tips on recognizing the signs and talking to your children.
Also, the American Psychological Association publishes books such as Big Red and the Little Bitty Wolf: A Story About Bullying, designed for younger children, or Shield Up! How Upstanding Bystanders Stop Bullying, written for middle school kids and older.
“There are similar resources for parents to discuss illicit drugs and drinking with their children,” Glassgold notes. “The Partnership for Drug Free Kids has a tool-kit for parents and the American Psychological Association maintains a Psychology Help Center with fact sheets for parents on how to recognize warning signs and get help. There are also resources for recognizing warning signs for stress, youth violence and suicide.”
“Certainly parents play a big role in their children’s lives and can teach positive life skills and support their children emotionally and academically,” Glassgold concludes. “But, it truly does take a village to raise a child. Healthy communities are the foundation of healthy families and children and provide resources such as schools, playgrounds, libraries that can help children grow. This study appears to illustrate that more well-off communities appear to have better health outcomes. Communities without resources and environmental harms, such as lead in drinking water, can limit children’s potential.”