, Volume 53, Issue 6, pp 1883–1904 | Cite as

Compensation or Reinforcement? The Stratification of Parental Responses to Children’s Early Ability

  • Michael GrätzEmail author
  • Florencia TorcheEmail author


Theory and empirical evidence suggest that parents allocate their investments unequally among their children, thus inducing within-family inequality. We investigate whether parents reinforce or compensate for initial ability differences between their children as well as whether these parental responses vary by family socioeconomic status (SES). Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) and a twin fixed-effects approach to address unobserved heterogeneity, we find that parental responses to early ability differences between their children do vary by family SES. Contrary to prior findings, we find that advantaged parents provide more cognitive stimulation to higher-ability children, and lower-class parents do not respond to ability differences. No analogous stratification in parental responses to birth weight is found, suggesting that parents’ responses vary across domains of child endowments. The reinforcing responses to early ability by high-SES parents do not, however, led to increases in ability differences among children because parental responses have little effect on children’s later cognitive performance in this twin sample.


Child development Cognitive performance Parental involvement Within-family inequality Twin fixed effects 



We are grateful to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the United States Department of Education/National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for making the data used in this study available to us. They bear no responsibility for our analysis of the data. We are grateful to Mónica L. Caudillo for excellent research assistance as well as to Rachel Dunifon and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Population Association of America annual meeting in San Diego, at the Spring Meeting of the Research Committee 28 of the International Sociological Association in Tilburg, and at the University of Tübingen in 2015. We thank participants at these venues for their comments.

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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nuffield CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.Department of SociologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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