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Study: Parents, Time, and the ‘Rug Rat Race’

By Debra Viadero — March 24, 2010 1 min read
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Earlier this week, Joanne Jacobs alerted us to a study documenting a trend that signals both good and bad news for education. Here’s the good news: Parents are spending more time with their children. The bad part is that the increase is twice as great for college-educated parents as it is for less-educated parents.

In this study, which is scheduled to be presented at the April 10 conference of the Brookings Papers on Economic Actvity, a pair of researchers from the University of California, San Diego, analyze 12 time-use surveys conducted between 1965 and 2007. They figure that parents began spending increasing amounts of time with their children in the 1990s. The researchers explored and discarded some of the usual explanations for the increase, including flexible work schedules for working parents and concerns about safety. Instead, they suggest a new possibility: Worries about increased competition for college entrance.

Study authors Gary and Valerie A. Ramey argue that parents began devoting more time to their children just as as the number of college-bound students surged. What’s more, a major factor in that time increase has been time spent with with older children. The authors also bolster their case by comparing data from time-use surveys over the same period in Canada, where the competition for slots in colleges and universities has been more stable and less intense. And parents there aren’t spending any more time with their kids now than they did in the 1980s.

In the U.S., they conclude “increased scarcity of college slots appears to have induced heightened rivalry among parents, taking the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.”

“In other words,” they add, “the rise in childcare time resulted from ‘rug rat race’ for admission to good colleges.”

This trend of increased parental involvement, in general, in the lives of kids has not gone completely unnoticed by child development experts, of course. There’s been plenty of handwringing in recent years about ‘helicopter parents’ and their ‘hothouse'-raised kids. If the researchers’ conclusions prove true, though what I worry about is the potential here for expanding the already-persistent achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots in U.S. society.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.