Madeleine Davies

“I blame the parents” (Child poverty blog 5)

In Uncategorized on October 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm

“Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves. I have also observed how the home life of a minority but, worryingly, a growing minority of children, fails to express an unconditional commitment to the successful nurturing of children.”

Report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances; Frank Field, 2010

“Large numbers of the poorest children are read to every day, taken to places of interest, have regular bed times and are breast fed by their mothers. These examples of positive behaviours among the lowest income parents give grounds for optimism that such behaviours can be promoted more widely among vulnerable families.”

Low Income and Early Cognitive Development in the U.K; Washbrook and Waldfogel for The Sutton Trust, 2011

Is poor parenting to blame for child poverty?

In December 2010, the Labour MP Frank Field published his independent review on poverty and life chances and concluded that

“The UK needs to address the issue of child poverty in a fundamentally different way…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.”

His work builds on that undertaken by the Centre for Social Justice, with a clear focus on the first years of a child’s life – a “broadening of the attack on child poverty”. It “questions the almost universal assumption over the last hundred years that increases in income alone will automatically lead to social progress.” After all, he points out, the post-war period had seen a “considerable increase” in real incomes, yet “too many children now start school who are unable to make the most of their schools lives.”

There is plenty to take issue with here. The Labour Government did focus on income, but it also invested huge amounts in public services such as the Sure Start centres, in recognition of the fact that income alone wouldn’t solve the problems faced by disadvantaged children (see Blog 2.).

Questions remain about the relationship between parenting and poverty. And about the extent to which the State should intervene in the former.

Intervene early

The importance of early intervention to improve the life chances of children has been trumpeted by politicians across the political spectrum. Frank Field believes that a healthy pregnancy, “positive but authoritative parenting”, high quality childcare, a “positive approach to learning at home and an improvement in parent’s qualifications” can “transform children’s life chances” and “trump class background”. As Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen put it in their paper for the Centre of Social Justice on early intervention: “It is as simple – and as difficult – as making sure that very young children 0-3 receive nurture, warmth and attention from parents”. This paper argues that, ensuring that children grow up in “relationships characterised by attunement and in environment fostering empathy” means “reaching into the most private realm of a citizen’s life, the emotional world they share with those around them and especially with their very young children.” (For those concerned about the rise of the Nanny State, they swiftly note that this sort of intervention will only be sanctioned for “the dysfunctional and those at risk”).

The Government’s child poverty strategy (PDF) also takes up this theme: “Our aim is to improve the life chances of children in lower-income families, and we believe that the most sustainable way to do this is to invest in the public services which they use, and to monitor the progress of those children more closely,” it reads, before adding: “Promoting good parenting is not primarily a job for the Government. What is needed is a much wider culture change towards recognising the importance of parenting, and how society can support mothers and fathers to give children the best start in life.” This includes a £60 million grant for voluntary and community organisations for parenting support and mediation. And plans to double the Family Nurse Partnership places by 2015 (more on this in the final blog).

Breaking the cycle

Early intervention makes sense. What is contentious, is the claim that it is parenting, not income, that will most improve children’s life chances. Mr Field believes that: “If we can ensure that parents from poor families know how best to extend the life opportunities to their children – the advantages that many middle class and rich families take for granted and which a significant number of working class parents achieve – then, even if we cannot end income poverty in the short term – we can break this intergenerational cycle of disadvantage.”

Over time, he trusts, this will change the distribution of income, relegating the role of Government to continuing to intervene to prevent “life’s wheel of fortune consistently spinning against the interests of poorer children as a class”. This is a Labour MP vowing to “test some of the 1940s welfare state’s sacred cows”. It’s a very optimistic piece of work: “I believe there will be an almost unlimited number of mothers and fathers who seize the opportunity offered by this Review for them to become life-enablers for their children and to do so with a degree of enthusiasm that matches that noticeable loveable quality possessed by very young children themselves,” writes Mr Field.

Should we share this optimism?

Does parenting matter?

Mr Field’s argument that “income is not the only factor that matters. . . it is not even the main one” holds some water when you look at research into the factors that explain the gaps in cognitive development between children born into rich and poor households. In 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned a study (PDF) to explore “the extent to which poverty itself affects parenting, or whether other characteristics of parents living in poverty, such as their mental health, personalities, education and family structures, are likely to affect both their parenting and their economic circumstances.”

The researchers were careful to highlight the complex interplay of factors at work: “There is conflicting evidence about the extent to which the negative outcomes for poor children are a result of parenting practices or of other factors related to poverty. None of the theoretical approaches (or empirical studies) claim that income differences are the only determinant of parenting capacity, and none claim that poverty has no effect on parenting.” It’s a more subtle analysis than that offered by Frank Field or IDS.

The overall conclusion of this research was that there is no clear-cut causal link between poverty and parenting. “Rather, it is likely that different individuals respond in different ways to financial hardship. Factors such as family structure, neighbourhood and social support interact with parents’ temperaments, beliefs and their own experiences of parenting.” These authors were also keen to stress that the majority of parents living in poverty, like their more affluent peers, “possess adequate parenting capacity”. This is perhaps a finding that can get drowned out, particularly with the dominant rhetoric of “Broken Britain”.

“It would, in our view, be fallacious to conclude that because there is an association between parenting and poverty that the solution to poverty is to encourage (or force) poor parents to emulate their middle class peers rather than address structural inequality in society,” they conclude. This is an important point, given the slightly damning language used in recent reports on early intervention (“much of what we say here may not immediately appear relevant to middle class readers, whose children imbibe effective social behaviour unconsciously with their mother’s milke” wrote IDS and Graham Allen in 2008).

On the other hand, the authors also argue that “attempts to change parenting style, practices or beliefs by simply raising the income of parents are likely to fail. The way that parents relate to their children does not simply arise out of economic adversity or advantage.”

What does other research say?

In (PDF) Early Years Policy, a paper produced for the Sutton Trust-Carnegie Summit in 2008, Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook used data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (which collected data on 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2010, with interviews at 9 months, 2 year and 4 years after birth) to compare the school readiness, vocabulary, conduct problems and hyperactivity of children in five quintiles of parental income. The first two increase with every quintile (from lowest to highest income) and the latter two decrease. “Large income-related gaps exist in school readiness” they conclude.

Here are some interesting facts about those quintiles, with the same caveat that you need to be wary about making assumptions about causation from them:

  • The bottom quintile had average before-tax incomes of £15,100 per year or less
  • Before-tax incomes of the richest fifth were, on average, about 8 times higher than the poorest fifth (6 times after tax)
  • Only 35% of the poorest children live with both biological parents by the age of 5, compared with 88% of the middle income group
  • 47% of the poorest children were born to mothers under the age of 25 and 19% to teenage mothers
  • 20% of the poorest children are non-white compared to 6% of middle income group
  • Over a third of the poorest children were born to parents without a single grade A to C GCSE between them
  • Only 1 in 12 of the poorest children lived with a degree-educated parent at 9 months, compared with 4 in 5 of the richest children
  • The poorest mothers are much more likely (9%) than better off mothers (2%) to have three or more children

Waldfogel and Washbrook then explore the facts that explain the gaps in school readiness and conclude that:

  1. Parenting style is the single largest domain explaining the poorer cognitive performance of low-income children relative to middle-income children. It accounts for 19% of the gap in mathematics, 21% of the gap in literacy and 33% of the gap in language. A particularly important factor is maternal sensitivity and responsiveness
  2. The home learning environment is the second most important set of factors: parents’ teaching behaviours in their home as well as their provision of learning materials and activities, including books and CDs, computer access, TV watching, library visits and classes. Together, these aspects of the home learning environment account for between 16 and 21% of the gap in cognitive school readiness
  3. Maternal health and health-related behaviours account for 4-7% of the gap
  4. Disparities in child health account for about 4% of the gap
  5. Differential enrolment in childcare accounts for between 4-6% of the gap
  6. Maternal education explains 10-15% of the gaps in literacy and maths readiness but only 2% of the language gap
  7. Even with the inclusion of many controls for the factors discussed above, “sizeable income-related differences in school readiness remain”: 19% of the gap in literacy remains unexplained, as does 23% of the gap in language and 28% of the gap in math

In another study on low income and early cognitive development in the UK (2010), the same team estimated a gap of 11.1 months in a “naming vocabulary test” for 5 year olds: ie the average vocabulary test score of a 62 month year old child in the lowest income quartile is that expected of a child aged 53.6 months (11.1 months behind the average score of 64.6 months for the average child in the middle income quintile). They decided that 11 factors helped to explain these gaps, listed in order of the size of their contribution to the children’s test gap score:

Factor Category Top quintile Bottom quintile
Lack of access to internet Material circumstances 5% 62%
Lack of access to a car 0% 39%
Interviewer rating of mother-child interactions Parenting and home environment 10.56 9.7
Taken to museum / gallery in the last year 89% 57%
Child read to daily 78% 45%
Regular bed times 91% 70%
Taken to library once a month 45% 25%
Taken to play / concert at least once a month 72% 33%
Birth weight Maternal and child health 3.34kg 3.24kg
Breast fed 6 months or more Parenting and home environment 38% 14%
Mother’s rating of child’s general health Maternal and child health 4.54 4.11

These are interesting findings. But what’s also interesting, is that combined they explain just 35.5% of the gap. Like the JRF authors, Waldfogel and Washbrook  concluded that poverty does not prevent good parenting: “Large numbers of the poorest children are read to every day, taken to places of interest, have regular bed times and are breast fed by their mothers. These examples of positive behaviours among the lowest income parents give grounds for optimism that such behaviours can be promoted more widely among vulnerable families.”

Parenting is hard

Some other points I found interesting when considering the concerns expressed by Frank Field and the CSJ about parenting in low income families:

Firstly, it’s worth noting that rates of maternal depression are nearly twice as high among mothers living in poverty and three times as high for teenage mothers. Maternal depression is in turn associated with low birth weight, emotional or conduct disorders and children’s later intellectual development. The Government’s child poverty strategy notes: “People in our most deprived communities have the poorest mental and physical health and well-being; there is a three-fold increased risk of mental health problems between the highest and lowest socio-economic groups (5% / 15%)”.

Secondly, a higher proportion of parents living on low incomes have an “authoritarian” parenting style than other parents, a style typified by being demanding and directive and less responsive to a child’s needs. The evidence seems to suggest, Lisa Harker of the NSPCC concludes (PDF), that this arises when an individual is under stress, caused or exacerbated by living in poverty. “While there are many routes to inadequate parenting, often unrelated to economic circumstance, it seems that the stress associated with material disadvantage may hasten the journey.”

Nevertheless, the authors of “Poverty and Parenting” at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, mentioned above,  suggest that such practices may be “adaptive responses to their environment”. Does living in a rough neighbourhood mean strict curfews are more appropriate? “The standards by which parents are often judged are those of white, middle class families and do not necessarily apply to parents living in more challenging circumstances, or whose cultural norms differ from this group,” they conclude. Deater-Deckard et al. (1996) similarly found that African-American children of parents who use an ‘authoritarian’ parenting style have better outcomes than those whose parents are ‘authoritative’, whereas the opposite was true for white children.

Food for thought.    

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