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Americans share parenting traits across income groups, but poverty a tough barrier to overcome
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Parents read to their kids, monitor their screen time and engage them in extracurricular activities, but poverty is a tricky challenge to overcome, according to a briefing paper released Wednesday by the Council on Contemporary Families. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Parents in different income categories and family structures read to their kids, monitor their media use and sign them up for activities, but there are some striking differences in outcomes, according to a briefing paper released Wednesday by the Council on Contemporary Families that finds poverty is a tricky challenge for many to overcome.

Sandra L. Hofferth, professor of Family Science in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, analyzed Census data to see what America's child-rearing practices look like. It's important, she said, because "what parents do with their children matters a lot for their later success in school and adulthood."

Children living with their two married parents had just a 14 percent chance of being poor, compared to children raised in a single-parent home, where the likelihood of poverty is 41 percent. Children living with their two parents who are not married have a 37 percent chance of being poor.

While she noted "small differences" based solely on family structure, there were much greater differences because of financial resources, Hofferth said.

More than one-fifth of American children live in poverty. Under age 6, it's more than one-fourth. The Southern Education Foundation recently issued a study showing more than half of children in public schools live in low-income households.

Federal data

According to the Census data, 63 percent of children live with married parents, 27.5 percent with a single parent, 5 percent with cohabiting unmarried parents and 4.5 percent with other types of guardians. It noted that more than half of American kids at some point in childhood "live in a household that does not include two biological parents who are married to each other."

Across all those family structures, Hofferth said most follow daily or near-daily rituals such as eating meals together, reading to small children and having rules about how much TV viewing is allowed.

More than 90 percent of kids under age 6 had been read to in the week before parents were asked. About half of kids ages 6 to 17 ate breakfast with family at least five days a week and 90 percent had rules about TV time. Between 20 and 40 percent of children participated in sports as an extracurricular activity.

To demonstrate the impact of income versus family structure, Hofferth pointed out 20 percent more high-income older kids participate in sports than low-income kids, but there's just a 10 percent difference for a two-parent family vs. a single-parent family. She noted 44 percent of teenage children of married parents participate in sports, compared to 34 percent of teenage children in single-parent homes.

"There are lots of things that affect kids' development, but of course we know that what parents do is really important," said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the council and a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. "We also assume that good outcomes are simply because of better parenting. And when we look at this, we recognize that most of these parents are trying to do their best."

Why it matters

Hofferth focused first on measures of well-accepted best parenting practices such as sharing family meals or limiting TV time.

Making certain all kids have the benefit of quality parenting practices is vital as it helps prepare them for school and beyond, she said. For example, reading to and talking to young children helps develop their verbal skills and get them school-ready. The Census data showed that 54 percent of children ages 3 to 5 in married-parent homes, half in cohabiting homes and 41 percent in single-parent homes were read to daily.

She believes many of the differences she found are a matter of resources. Although other research shows single mothers spend nearly an hour more daily on solo child care, even though they work more hours outside the home, compared to married mothers, Hofferth said, "that typically still does not produce enough total time to make up for the absence of a second caregiver or story reader."

But it's not always straight-forward. Her report found children 12-17 are slightly more likely to eat with their parent at least five days a week in single-parent homes than when living with two married parents. But that seeming advantage might spring from a resource disadvantage, she said.

"This seeming advantage for children of single-parent families may be a result of lower participation in the extracurricular activities shown to contribute to better grades in high school and increased college enrollment," Hofferth wrote. "There is a trade-off between family dinner times and children's extracurricular activities, which often extend into the family dinner hour, leading families to eat in shifts."

The trick is figuring out how to overcome the impact of poverty on children's lives, she said. "Some people argue that if you just get married, it will take care of the issue. But sometimes the reason they don't marry is they are low-income."

That's part of a long-time philosophical discussion about why fewer people are choosing to marry, although marriage is likely among those with a college education. In a recent interview with the Deseret News, noted sociologist Andrew Cherlin, author of "Labor's Love Lost," said he believes liberals and conservatives are recognizing that both economics and family structure play a role in how the American family fares. "Its not totally economics, its not totally culture, its both," he said.

Differences in family structure, Coontz said, are "dwarfed by differences in resources and that's not something the parents themselves can solve."

Bolstering family

Hofferth said policies should offer low-income families a hand, since "these children, a quarter of them in poverty, will eventually grow up, their incomes and earnings supporting older adults, which is critical to the country."

The report, she added, "suggests poverty could have very long-term effects on children, but it's something that could be addressed with things like income supplements and more child credits for low-income families."

Coontz noted that single parents in America work longer hours than single parents in other countries and have fewer support systems. As a result, their families are more apt to be poor. "It's very important to get us past the idea that you can blame everything on parents or you can attribute everything to good parents," she said.

"We forget sometimes when we congratulate ourselves," Coontz said. " A lot of our kids were born on third base. They didn't hit a homer from scratch. Sometimes your run batted in because you were already on second or third base."