Whether it is crime, drug abuse, academic failure, or poor social mobility, there is a strong temptation to blame the parents. It is indeed true that most social problems are linked to bad parent-child relationships. Yet, parents are not nearly so much in control of that relationship as moralists assume.

It is easy to blame parents for social problems. Yet, that entire approach is short-sighted and misses the true explanation. Unfortunately, it is seductive and bamboozles people across the political spectrum.

Why is social mobility three times better in San Diego than it is in Atlanta (1)? It so happens that Georgia has higher single parenthood levels than California. So the cause of inequality must be related to bad parenting pundits like David Brooks opine.

Poverty degrades parent-child relationships

Although conservatives look to family failings as an explanation for societal ills, this whole line of reasoning was also promoted by a liberal, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan attributed high crime rates to the rise of single parenthood in an influential 1986 report (2).

It is true that children of single mothers were much more likely to commit crimes, and much more likely to be incarcerated for their offences. Yet, the true culprit is poverty, rather than the marital status of parents. This point is illustrated by the fact that children of single mothers fare very much better in European countries having minimal child poverty.

Here in the U.S. parental marriage does not protect children against the adverse consequences of low income as revealed in comparisons between children of married parents at different levels of parental income. The key finding is that children of poor couples do very much worse than children of middle-income parents (3).

Low-income parents spend a lot less time talking to their children than middle-income parents do and their conversations are much less enriching in terms of varied vocabulary. They do a lot more scolding and provide a lot less emotionally positive feedback. So it is not surprising that their kids do less well at school and are more likely to get in trouble with authority figures, and to behave in delinquent ways.

Why poverty affects parenting

The facts about poverty and parent-child relationships, and their adverse effects for social problems are not in dispute. The really interesting question is why that happens. After all, wouldn’t parents want to do the best for their children regardless of what their social circumstances are? How could poor parents be sabotaging their children’s prospects for advancement into the middle class?

Until recently, social scientists assumed that the stress of poverty and low social status produces pathological behavior in the parents. Yet, there is a better explanation which is that parents are helping their kids to survive in their current environment. Instead of preparing their children for a hypothetical future on the right side of the tracks they are preparing them to make the most of life on the wrong side of the tracks.

Some evidence in support of this idea is the fact that parent education programs encounter strong resistance and have minimal practical consequences (4). If parents happen to believe that corporal punishment is the best way of disciplining children, they are unlikely to change their habits following parent education where they learn the value of sensitive responsiveness to children as the most effective way of shaping their conduct.

Instead of blaming parents for preparing children for the harsh realities of the life that they find themselves in, improve their prospects for social mobility. Once incomes at the bottom rise, parent-child relationships, and child outcomes, will improve along with them. Moreover, it is precisely in those societies with good social mobility that parents strive to educate their children to capitalize on available opportunities.

As usual, the politicians mostly have it backwards. “Bad” parenting is not the cause of poverty but its product. The quality of the parent-child relationship is what matters and this improves with middle-class living conditions whether parents are married or not.

1. Chetty, R., et al. (2014). Where is the land of opportunity? The geography of intergenerational mobility in the United States. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper # 19843. http://www.nber.org/papers/w19842

2. Moynihan, D. P. (1986). Family and nation. San Diego CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

3. Hart, B., and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

4. Nightingale, C. H. (1993). On the edge: A history of poor Black children and their American dreams. New York: Basic.

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