Transmitting Advantage: Maternal Education Differences in Parental Investment Activities

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2007-07-30

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Though the stark advantages of children growing up in college-educated families are well documented (e.g. higher levels of school achievement, higher likelihood of completing high school, higher college admission rates), scholars are just beginning to understand how the everyday activities of parents and children are involved in this reproduction of inequality. This study links parental time investments in children to their verbal achievement using data from the 1997 and 2002 waves of the nationally representative Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement.

Consistent with existing theoretical frameworks, children of college-educated mothers are read to more often, watch less television, participate more in structured activities, and have mothers who are more involved in their schooling when compared with children of less educated mothers. These investments are also linked to children's verbal aptitude, and the linkages are strongest when children are young. Among preschool-aged children, reading is positively associated, while children's television viewing with parents is negatively associated with children's verbal achievement. By the time children reach school age, however, reading is negatively associated with verbal achievement. At this age, better-educated parents seem more likely than less-educated parents to provide remedial help to their children who may be having difficulty with reading. Also among school-aged children, parental investment in children's schooling and structured activities are positively associated with children's verbal scores.

At the same time, there are important ways in which college-educated and less educated mothers do not diverge as much as previous research might suggest. Most notably, once family structure and race are held constant, educational variation in time spent with extended family and visiting others, mothers' daily expressions of warmth and affection, and awareness of children's whereabouts are generally negligible.

Finally, individual parental investment measures only marginally explain the positive relationship between maternal education and children's verbal achievement, though they do play a significant role in helping to explain how and why children of college-educated mothers are more likely to have high-achieving children. Other factors, like high levels of income and mothers' verbal ability, seem more advantageous to these children than do the specific parenting activities of college-educated mothers.

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