Breaking the poverty cycle through parenting

Is it parenting or the financial situation of a family that can break the poverty trap? Parental confidence is the link between the two.

Anna-Louise van der Merwe
21 July 2017

Children having fun in London. Maureen Barlin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The current debate on austerity, which follows a catalogue of political upheavals and social earthquakes, raises some interesting questions on a central aspect of this debate: child poverty and the attainment gap between rich and poor children. Why does the attainment gap exist? Does it link directly to income or is it a parenting style that is often associated with families living in relative poverty, or is it in fact both?

In 2010, the Rt. Hon Frank Field MP published a report demonstrating that the experiences in the first five years of a child’s life, and the influence of the parents in that period, can define a child’s life chances. While all the evidence shows that children from poorer backgrounds tend to have worse outcomes, the key message was that what parents do is more important than what they earn. The report’s central message was that “Nothing can be achieved without working with parents, enabling [them] to achieve the aspirations that they have for their children.”

Family income is critical for a child’s early development and home environment.

That was 2010. Last week the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion published a report demonstrating that family income is critical for a child’s early development and home environment. Their evidence suggests that nothing can be achieved without money: “money itself matters and needs to be taken into account if we want to improve children’s outcomes.”

In fact, the authors of these two reports do not contradict each other: Frank Field’s report does not deny that a secure income helps to create an environment from which it is easier for parents to give their child a good start in life. Kerris Cooper, the co-author of the LSE report, did not deny that parenting is important – but simply that the economic context in which parenting takes place cannot be ignored.

It seems to me this is all swings and roundabouts. The debate is important but we mustn’t let the evidence lead us to casually “laying blame” on either parenting style or income for the attainment gap. Instead, we should remember that poverty is multifaceted, with multiple causes and cannot be reduced to one factor.

Money itself matters and needs to be taken into account if we want to improve children’s outcomes.

The Foundation Years Trust’s work is inspired by Frank Field’s original report. We work with parents and their children under five with interventions aimed at improving parental wellbeing, sensitivity towards their children’s development needs and the home learning environment.

Among the families we work with, we repeatedly find that parental confidence is on the floor. And yes, this is probably related to financial stress within a family. The Foundation Years Trust cannot provide a cure for financial hardship. However, we do find that once parents realise how much they already know and already do to support their child’s early development, their self-perceived ability to parent improves. That confidence allows parents to master their children’s development, helping them to break the cycle of poverty. Our approach is universal – designed for all parents, not just poor parents. We know full well that parenting is a struggle and that the stresses of parenting are heightened for those families coping with the web of poverty. However, the work of The Foundation Years Trust shows that interventions in parenting can dramatically change the course a child’s life. Especially those families facing the full force of austerity.

There is a real danger in taking too narrow a view of the causes of poverty. Addressing child poverty requires a sophisticated response combining sufficient family income and support to parents to fulfil their role as their child’s most enduring educator. Whilst we should welcome an end to the impacts of austerity which are bearing down hard on children’s outcomes, we must also remember that there is a critical need to support families to achieve their aspirations for their children.

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