Parent’s Time with Children: Does Time Matter for Children’s Cognitive Achievement?
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- Hsin, A. Soc Indic Res (2009) 93: 123. doi:10.1007/s11205-008-9413-6
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The time parents spend with children is the central construct in theories of child development and human capital formation. According to human capital theory, the amount of time parents spend with children can be seen as crucial inputs in the production of child wellbeing (Becker 1981). Parent-child interactions create social capital, or the social interactions that facilitate the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and skills (Coleman 1988). Conversely, theories in developmental psychology contend that long periods of daily separation, particularly during early childhood, can be disruptive, leaving parents less sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs, thus leaving children less exposed to the stimulation necessary for their cognitive development (Vaughn et al. 1980; Belsky 2001).
More importantly, the literature points to key disparities in the quantity and type of parent child interactions—the verbal interactions and the type of activities performed together, for example—that suggests that children are socialized in ways that reinforce existing inequalities (Lareau 2003; Hoff 2003). These studies suggest that there may be important differences in how time is used and that these differences may contribute to socioeconomic disparities in child outcomes.
In spite of these studies, research that has sought to establish an empirical link between time with children and child outcomes is relatively limited. This article provides a brief review of the literature on parental time and child cognitive outcomes, relates recent, new findings by the author to this literature, and discusses how these findings may help guide future research.
1 Disparities in Time Use
Socioeconomic status is correlated with how verbally engaged parents are with their children. For example, middle-class mothers are more likely than their working class counterparts to talk to children, encourage child initiated conversation and use verbal reasoning to discipline children (Lareau 2003). Additionally, findings based on laboratory observations of mother-infant dyads demonstrate that better educated mothers not only spoke more often to their children, but also they used more varied vocabulary and employed more sentence complexity in their verbal exchanges (Hoff 2003; Hoff et al. 2002).
Socioeconomic status is also correlated with the types of activities that are performed during parent-child interactions. For example, middle-class mothers are likely to organize children’s leisure time around activities that enhance human capital development (i.e., piano lessons, sports, etc.), whereas mother-child time in working class households is less structured and regimented. Time-diary studies also show that children with better educated parents spend less time watching television and more time performing educationally related activities such as reading or studying (Timmers et al. 1985; Bianchi and Robinson 1997).
These differences in parent-child dyadic interactions have important implications for children’s cognitive development, because they affect that amount of cognitive stimulation children receive at home. These findings suggest that difference in childrearing behavior—both in terms of the quantity and type of interactions that occur during shared time together—may account for socioeconomic differentials in children’s achievement outcomes.
2 Do These Disparities Matter for Child Cognitive Outcomes?
Despite the literature highlighting the importance of parent-child interactions for child development, the empirical studies that have tried to establish a link between parental time inputs and child outcomes have found more limited linkages. Numerous studies show that there are socioeconomic disparities in the quality of children’s home environment and that these differentials affect child outcomes. In particular, this research has shown that aspects of children’s home environment—including childrearing behaviors—account for up to half of the relationship between socioeconomic status and disparities in children’s cognitive test scores (Korenman et al. 1995; Klebanov et al. 1998; Smith et al. 1997).
These studies, however, used HOME scales to measure the characteristics of the home environment. The problem with the HOME scale is that it aggregates various aspects of the home environment, ranging from the material resources at home (e.g., toys and books) to time use (e.g., number of shared meals together and trips to the museum) to other childrearing practices (i.e., maternal warmth and disciplinary practices). These studies thus cannot disentangle the specific aspect of children’s home environment that matters. For example, is it the time children spend with parents that is correlated with improvements in child achievement, or is it the material resources available at home? Is it total quantity of time, or the context in which shared time takes place—in terms of the amount of maternal warmth, responsiveness and/or cognitive stimulation provided during interactions?
Only a handful of studies have specifically examined how parental time with children relates to children’s cognitive test scores using large-scale time-diary surveys. Booth et al. (2002) and Huston and Aronson (2005) both analyzed time-diary data administered to mothers with 7-month-old infants from the National Institute of Child Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care. Booth et al. examined a sub-sample of 326 married or cohabiting mothers and found that the amount of time mothers spend with their infants was not significantly correlated with measures of cognitive skills assessed when children are 15-month-old. Huston and Aronson analyzed a more representative sample of mothers by including single mothers (N = 1,053), utilizing tests of cognitive skills measured at 24 and 36 months. They also found that maternal time did not significantly predict cognitive outcomes.
2.1 Present Study
My research study (Hsin 2007) uses children’s time-diary data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics-Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS) to examine the relationship between mothers’ time with children during children’s pre-school years and these children’s cognitive achievement, as assessed 5 years later. In addition to looking at quantity of time, I examine how the type of activities (i.e., educationally oriented versus less educationally oriented activities) and the type of verbal stimulation during mother-child interactions (i.e., statistical interactions between quantity of time and mothers’ verbal proficiency) relate to children’s test scores.
My results support previous findings that show that, on average, maternal time—both total quantity and type of activities—is uncorrelated with child outcomes. However, these findings suggest that previous research may have shown non-significant findings because the returns to maternal time depend on mothers’ own verbal skills. Whereas time with the most verbally skilled mothers is correlated with improvements in children’s verbal and analytical test scores, time with the least skilled mothers is either unrelated or negatively related to test scores. The findings seem to suggest that the productivity of parent’s time with children—in terms of their ability to translate time investments into positive achievement outcomes—largely depends on the cognitive stimulation and verbal engagement that these parents can provide.
In addition to the two previous studies using time-diary data, these data provide preliminary support that simple quantity of time by itself is not sufficient for producing positive achievement outcomes in children. The evidence seems to suggest that the returns to time investments depend on the amount of cognitive stimulation parents provide during that time. These findings correspond with results from other studies that show that, while high quality center-based care can help improve child development (Howes et al. 1992; Huston et al. 2001), lower quality informal care may be detrimental for cognitive outcomes (Bernal and Keane forthcoming).
3 Implications for Future Research
The question of how parental time relates to child well-being has clear theoretical and practical salience. Yet surprisingly few studies have used time-diary data to examine how parental time affects child outcomes. The handful of studies that have done so suggest that the context within which parent-child interactions occur matters as much as the total quantity of interactions. There may be dramatic difference in how parents relate to their children, even among parents who spend similar amounts of time with children.
Time together with children can occur in silence and without much active parental involvement, or it can be highly stimulating, with parents and children engaged in conversation, active play and/or non-verbal interactions. Additionally, parents may differ in their expressions of warmth and nurturance. Alternatively, there may be differences in the expectations and values that are transmitted to children. Future research needs to take these child rearing practices into consideration, as they may differentially affect how parental time inputs influence child outcomes.
Future research should also explore how parental time influences the development of non-cognitive skills, such as conscientiousness, reliability and self-discipline. How parents choose to relate to children is not only guided by desires to improve children’s scholastic performance, but also by desires to cultivate aspects of children’s personality. From a stratification perspective, the development of non-cognitive skills and how it subsequently affects individual life-chances is an important but less-well understood phenomenon. How parental time influences the development of children’s non-cognitive skills, in the various ways that foreshadow future status attainment, are important questions for future research.