School & District Management

What’s a More Important Parent Investment: Money or Time?

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 04, 2019 4 min read
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What matters more to a student’s academic future: their parents’ time or their money? Two new international studies published online by the National Bureau of Economic Research take different approaches to tease out the influence of various parent contributions on children’s achievement.

The first study looked at how parents decide how to support their children’s learning. Researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada and the University of Oxford and University College London in England asked a representative group of nearly 2,000 English parents of school-age children how they valued different kinds of investment and then analyzed how their beliefs affected their actual involvement with their children.

Each parent was asked about the quality of their children’s school and then taken through eight scenarios in which they had to decide how productive it would be for families to invest in time directly helping their children to learn new skills, paying for tutors or enrichment materials, or finding a higher quality school. The parents were also asked what income they expected their child would earn by age 30.

While parents believed that moving a child from a school deemed in need of improvement to one considered “outstanding” would improve their offspring’s adult earnings by about 10 percent, they thought that spending another £30—a little less than $40—each week on supplemental tutoring or enrichment would boost the child’s adult income by 15 percent. And parents thought children would benefit the most—a 21 percent bump in their adult income—if parents spent another three hours a week helping them directly.

This was as true of parents in poverty as wealthy families. Interestingly, the parents thought investing increasing time or money would lead to diminishing returns, though they did think it was worth investing more in materials if the student also was attending a high-quality school.

While prior studies have found parents sometimes invest differently in their sons and daughters, the researchers found no differences in parents’ hypothetical or actual decisions to invest money or time, or to change schools based on their child’s gender, nor were there differences based on whether the child in question was initially low- or high-performing. Moreover, while education research has repeatedly pointed to the benefits of investing in early education, parents overall favored investing more time and money in older children.

Parents’ priorities in hypothetical scenarios generally mirrored their actual investments, the researchers found. Parents spent on average 80 minutes a weekday and two hours a weekend talking with their children, the most time-consuming activity they reported. They spent on average $195 a month on enrichment for their children, including about $143 on school activity fees and clubs. A parent who believed his time would lead to 10 percentage points greater income for his children spent on average 46 more minutes a week doing activities with them. Likewise, for every 10 percentage point return parents expected for providing more enrichment materials, the families spent nearly $20 a month more on those activities, after controlling for parents’ own income.

A separate study accepted to the Journal of Labor Economics and posted online at NBER suggests parents may be right about the value of investing their own their own time.

Researchers from Hebrew University in Israel and Ohio State University were interested in the importance of parent education, as higher levels of parent education have long been associated with better education trajectories for their children. It’s been unclear, though, whether this is because parents with higher degrees often make more money to support their children, or because they parent in different ways.

The researchers tracked more than 22,000 children in Israel who lost a parent before age 18 and more than 77,000 whose parents divorced, as well as more than 600,000 who grew up without either trauma. They looked at the likelihood of children passing that nation’s college entrance exam; about 57 percent of students typically pass the matriculation test, and prior studies have found students have better odds of passing if their parent has more education.

But study co-author Eric Gould of Hebrew University said the new findings show that “student success is not coming just from smart parents having smart kids.”

The researchers found that mothers’ education generally had more influence on their children’s education than did fathers, possibly because in Israel mothers typically spend more time with children than fathers. But, Gould said, “We found that if a mother dies, her education becomes less important for whether her child passes the test, while at the same time the father’s education becomes more important. If a father dies, the reverse happens. ... These relationships are stronger when the parent dies when the child is younger.”

Moreover, this effect was lessened if a child’s father remarried after the mother’s death, they found. For divorced families, children’s education was more closely tied to the education of the parent they lived with.

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