As it turns out, the over-scheduled child may be a child scheduled for educational success and presumably economic success, too.
That seems to be the conclusion of a new study that was profiled in a New York Times blog a few days ago, which is garnering a lot of attention. Those of us parents who have jockeyed for a parking spot at the local dance or music school on Saturday mornings can breathe a sigh of relief: Apparently we were not just wasting our time, even if we over-estimated our kids' talents.
Okay, maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but crux of the study is clear enough: Kids who get a lot of attention and stimulation before the age of five have a clear advantage through their school years. The article (written by Sean Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford) is in fact titled "No Rich Child Left Behind", and focuses on the fact that children in wealthy families perform better in school than those in middle-class or poor families. In the United States, this also translates into higher scores on standardized exams (such as the SATs, the admissions tests for college). Very clearly, the gap between those who come from higher-income families and lower-income families is on the rise.
Still, in reading the data, it is not clear to me that it is all about money. Kids benefit from stimulation; that stimulation can come through those music lessons, or through special tutors and the like, but it can also come through parents who spend a lot of time talking to their kids, reading to them, and taking them lots of places. It is true that between 1976 and 2000 high-income families increased the amount they spent on child-enrichment activities by 150 per cent, while low-income families only increased it by 57 per cent. Still, it is also true that since 1975, the amount of time that parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast among college-educated parents as it has for those with less education.
So it is not just about money, but money is going to affect the economic outcomes, for sure. Over the past decade (and increasingly since the recession) we have seen a polarization in North America between those at the top of the ladder and those at the bottom. Most graphically we see it in the divide between income groups (rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, middle class disappearing and all that), but it also shows up scores of other indicators, such as a widening split among earnings by education level and unemployment by education level. Economic success is more correlated than ever with educational success.
So what are the implications of the findings? Well, for a start, they suggest that economic or educational policies can only do so much. The reason why some kids are falling behind may have more to do with what their parents did not do before they set foot into junior kindergarten than anything that teachers are or are not doing. So spending a bunch of (taxpayer) money after the fact may only go so far. The more effective use of money may actually come earlier in the game, presumably to educate parents about the need to stimulate their children early, through whatever means possible. Leaving kids behind, rich or poor, will only leave the economy behind – and we clearly cannot afford that.
Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics Inc. and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.