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Educated Mothers Get All the Credit, Everyone Feels the Heat

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More news on inequality for children according to the education levels of their mothers. Do more educated parents do it better, or are there other things about these homes, families, neighborhoods, friends, schools, etc., that account for this pattern? If education really is the issue, it's a big part of how families transmit inequality -- how rich parents produce rich children, and poor kids turn out poor.

Obesity

For example, preschool-aged children are more likely to be obese if they (a) watch more TV, (b) don't eat regular dinners with their families, and (c) don't get enough sleep. That pattern holds in an analysis that controls statistically for a host of demographic variables, including family structure, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

OK, so TV is bad and sleep and family dinners are good. Maybe educated parents do that better -- because of their know-how or other resources. But the effect of those daily routine factors is not as great as the association  between obesity and mothers' education:

Breastfeeding

According to a recent study in Pediatrics, failure to reach the public health goal of 90% of mothers using breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months leads to 900 deaths per year in the U.S. We know that mothers with more education are much more likely to breastfeed.

In this case, we have some pretty good ideas about the barriers to breastfeeding for poorer women, including inflexible workplaces and commutes, in addition to the know-how issue -- which is why new rules in the health care bill are supposed to make breast pumping more accessible for working mothers. That doesn't stop people from beating up on poor mothers who don't breastfeed. (The Pediatrics analysis estimates every death costs more than $10 million in lost productivity and other costs. Which I don't get. If that's true, how much does it cost to not have children in the first place?)

Childcare

Time with children also substantially favors more educated women:

Before 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week attending to the needs of their children. By 2007, that number had risen to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those with less education.

That accords with an earlier study, in which several colleagues and I found inequality in childcare time by parents' education. But parents spend more time with their children than they did in the 1970s, and there was no increase in the college-noncollege gap.

Whether childcare time is actually beneficial for children -- rather than being just another cultural craze -- depends on the quality of parenting, family relationships, and the quality of the alternative arrangements available. But in other areas, parenting behavior has clear effects. For example, mothers who don't know about the back-to-sleep thing are more likely to put their babies to sleep on their stomachs or sides, which increases the risk of sudden infant death.

The more things change

The parenting madness -- if madness is what it is -- is cyclonic, with news (and blogs) like this feeding the practices that they report on. And this at least contributes to the decisions by some high-end working women to scale back or drop out of their careers. Once no longer employed, these overachievers apply their many skills to parenting, ratcheting up the pressure on everyone else.

This all might seem new. But education for perfect parenting -- in the modern era -- goes back more than a century.  A great online exhibit at Cornell University's library traces the history of its Home Economics program from 1900 to 1969. I didn't know till a recent NYT Book Review that they used practice babies -- real babies -- to train college students to be mothers:

Cornell secured infants through area orphanages and child welfare associations. Babies were nurtured by the students according to strict schedules and guidelines, and after a year, they were available for adoption. Prospective adoptive parents in this era desired Domecon babies because they had been raised according to the most up-to-date scientific principles.

Now the better-parenting treadmill doesn't stop at the Ivy League door. The curriculum is available everywhere:

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.

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