Better-off children in the United States do not benefit just from hearing more words, or having higher-quality day care, or having more stable family lives. They benefit from all these things together, and more. Better-off parents spend more money on their children, and this gap has been growing over time. They also make more nonspending investments, like reading with their kids, which is one of the few specific interventions that does seem to matter.
My new book, on data-driven parenting, argues that there are many good choices, and that parents should usually feel comfortable making the ones that work for them. In interviews promoting the book, I’m often asked whether I’m concluding that parenting just doesn’t matter. Parenting does matter. It’s just that once you’re worrying about preschool philosophy, whatever you choose to do is probably fine.
This disconnect between the debates parents have and the data on child outcomes has societal implications. Policies in the United States that focus on helping less well-off families and children have a much greater impact. Many families live with limited access to health coverage and are forced to make choices between, say, food and medicine. Children with lunch debt face “lunch shaming” in many districts — and some are denied the option of hot meals. There is good evidence that high-quality pre-K programs like Head Start can improve school readiness.
And yet many of our parenting discussions are driven by, effectively, elite concerns. What is the best organic formula? Food mills versus “baby-led weaning.” Breast-feeding for one year, or two? And, of course, preschool philosophy. These concerns occupy thoughts and Facebook discussions, but they also occupy the news media, at least some of the time.
There was coverage of the fascination with European formula, for example. And who can forget the Time magazine breast-feeding cover asking if you are “Mom Enough” (Implication: No).
By and large, such choices matter very little. But the focus on them distracts from problems that are more central for policy. What we do in day-to-day parenting may matter less than we think, but what we do over all to serve the nation’s children may matter quite a bit more.
Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University. She is the author of “Cribsheet” and “Expecting Better.” You can follow her on Twitter at @ProfEmilyOster.