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Event Review

Population Europe Event - The Future We Come From. The role of parents for children’s lifetime chances

Population Europe Event
Jan 28
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner  
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner
  • Source: Horst Wagner

Economic, social, or educational (dis)advantages of children tend to be inherited, but policies and institutions can mediate this link if they address it early enough. This is the main message of a workshop on the impact of socioeconomic background of parents on their children, chaired by Francesco Billari and organized by Population Europe in cooperation with the University of Oxford. Following the presentations of three eminent researchers in the field, the event closed with a panel debate between scientists, a speaker of the NGO Eurochild and a representative of the European Commission.

Improving the chances of children with a poor socioeconomic background

John Ermisch, from Oxford University, pointed out that differences in cognitive performance and social behaviour among children due to parental socioeconomic conditions emerge very early in life and tend to increase over time. However, how these differences evolve and affect their future depends on institutional factors such as educational systems and childcare. Evidence suggests, that the provision of universal preschool education would help to attenuate this trend and give children the possibility to reach better opportunities as adults. For instance, it has been demonstrated that in France and Denmark the universal provision gives low-income children a greater shot at social mobility by decreasing differences in school achievement and differences in subsequent wages as adults.

Three dimensions of parents' background

According to Anne Gauthier, from the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, when studying the role of parents in children's achievements three dimensions need to be considered. First, who parents are: their socioeconomic status during both prenatal and postnatal periods, and the demographics of the family matters. For example, we know that drinking and smoking during pregnancy as well as the type of prenatal care received have an impact on children, including their birth weight and their subsequent development.

Second, what parents do. This refers both to the style of parenting, and the time and money they invest on children. What we know from the literature is that a parenting style that is warm, responsive, supportive and consistent has better consequences for children than a style that is harsh, inconsistent, and non-responsive. Data from time use surveys have revealed that the number of hours devoted to child-rearing and child-caring activities by mothers and fathers has increased since the 1960s in most countries. This is particularly intriguing since this has been happening at the same time as women have also been increasing their participation in the labour force. In other words, parents have been devoting overall more time to paid work but also more time to their children.

The third dimension is how parents are supported by the state. We know that tax and transfer programmes, maternity and parental leave, early childhood education and care, and parenting programmes may have an impact on fertility levels. But besides childcare, we still know little on the effect those policies have on children’s development.

Positive Side Effects of Religiosity

Jan O. Jonsson, from Stockholm University, compared the wellbeing of native and immigrant children. Several studies – including his own – have found the wellbeing of immigrant children to be higher than the majority population’s. But why is this? Jonsson and colleagues explored data from the CILS4EU survey for England, Germany, Holland, and Sweden and found that for both groups the impact of family cohesion, parent-child closeness and social capital as elements to help children in internalizing and externalizing problems is very similar. What seems to account the most for a higher wellbeing among immigrant children in comparison with natives is religiosity, as a driver to less risky behaviours.

Invisible children and economic crisis

All participants of the panel debate agreed that there is a significant gap in data related to early childhood in Europe that needs to be addressed in order to elaborate better policies. Sergej Koperdak from the European Commission also stressed the relevance of this kind of data and how new technologies and sources could contribute to evidence-based policies.

Jana Hainsworth from Eurochild highlighted the lack of data at pre-school ages, since differences due to family background emerge very early. Moreover, it is necessary to improve the coverage of the most vulnerable groups, such as Roma and institutionalized children, as they are invisible in national data collections. This includes looking at the impact of the crisis on families that would not be disadvantaged in normal circumstances, but that are affected by the economic recession.


* This event has been funded by the European Union’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion under the grant agreement n° VS/2012/0168 for the project Population Europe 2.0.