Data from 30-Year Study Examines Values of Parents from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds

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Parents at the top and bottom of the income and education distributions hold more similar parental values today than ever before according to a new study co-authored by psychology professor Rebecca Ryan and doctoral student Cailtin Hines . This article examines changes in the characteristics that parents from differing socioeconomic backgrounds in the United States most value in their children over a 30-year period.

Professor of Psychology Rebecca Ryan

Instilled Values Shape the Future 

In the United States, children tend to have the same income and education levels as their parents, a pattern that has grown even stronger in the past three decades. Researchers in previous studies have argued that one source of the intergenerational transmission of economic status is the difference across higher versus lower income parents in the characteristics parents believe will promote their children’s success in life.  

Specifically, past research has found that lower income parents value “obedience” in children more than higher income parents, who are more likely to value “self direction” or “independent thinking” in their kids. These studies argued that the emphasis on obedience came in part from lower income parents having jobs that were more likely to require and reward adherence to authority, whereas higher income parents were more likely to have jobs that required self direction or independent thinking. 

“What researchers argued is that  because these child characteristics or values reflect parents’ own occupational and educational experiences as well as their expectations for their children’s futures, they inform in myriad ways how parents interact with and invest in their children,” says Ryan, a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University.

But Ryan and her colleagues hypothesized that these differences in “values” or characteristics might have reduced or narrowed in the past three decades — and might not describe differences across socioeconomic status at all anymore. 

She explained that since the 1970s, the earnings returns to a college degree have increased.  Well-paid jobs that require a college degree, and often additional specialized training, also increasingly valued workers’ ability to think creatively and independently. 

“At the same time, there are far fewer jobs today that require only a high school degree today, and those that remain provide far less financial security,” Ryan continues. “Moreover, rising income instability among workers at all levels of education have arguably made children’s economic futures – even those who secure a college degree – seem increasingly uncertain.”

Taking these trends into consideration, Ryan reasoned that over the most recent period, economically advantaged and disadvantaged parents would both value independent thinking and perhaps “hard work” above obedience to increasing degrees, for parents across the socioeconomic distribution likely increasingly agree that securing a college degree and/or specialized skills are essential to children’s economic security. 

If found to be true, it would mean that advantaged and disadvantaged parents share more similar parental values today than ever before. 

Closing the Values Gap

Ryan, along with her fellow researchers, used data from the General Social Surveys and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics between the years of 1986 and 2016. The percentage of parents endorsing each child trait as “most important” were compared over time across the 90th, 50th and 10th percentiles of the income and education distributions. 

This research is a continuation of other studies that asked parents to rank the importance of different traits to instill in their children for their future success. 

“What we found was somewhat but not entirely what we hypothesized,” Ryan says. “We found that lower income parents were increasingly less likely to rank obedience as most important over time, as we expected, but higher income parents were increasingly less likely to rank independent thinking as most important over time, which we did not expect. These two trends were explained by the fact that lower and higher income parents increasingly ranked “hard work” as most important over time.”

Ryan and her team hypothesized that parents across the socioeconomic spectrum came to view hard work as increasingly important to children’s success in life in response to greater competition for admittance into colleges in the U.S., particularly four-year selective colleges, and because of the rising economic returns to higher education. 

She concludes that the results of this study show that parents at the top and bottom of the income and education distributions hold more similar parental values than ever before. 

“This interpretation suggests that parents across the socioeconomic distribution now hold more common expectations, or at least hopes, for their children than ever before,” Ryan says. “We see evidence of this commonality in the near universality of parents’ predictions that children will go to college even among low-income parents and the increase in time parents at all income levels are spending on educational activities with young children that our team has documented in other papers.”

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