Inequality hurts children and their opportunities in life. Depending on their circumstances and the resources their parents have, different kids will face much steeper barriers to getting through school, affording college, building careers or relationships, and living happy, healthy lives.

It doesn’t need to be like this, says economist Nate Hilger, author of the new book The Parent Trap. If we want to close the opportunity gap, we need to turn to social science research to figure out what supports make a difference in children’s lives and then start making them broadly available. His book is both informative and a call to action for those who care about the well-being of children—which should be all of us.

Jill Suttie: The title of your book is The Parent Trap. How are parents trapped?

Nate Hilger, Ph.D.
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Nate Hilger: The first trap is the unrealistic expectations that we place on parents. We ask them to do far too much. There are structural reasons why parents are not going to be able to do all of the things that would really benefit their kids and help set them up for success. They need more professional support and resources to help their kids, or they will remain stuck.

The subtler trap is that it’s really hard to talk about any of this in a way that doesn’t make people feel like you’re accusing parents of failure. When I describe research showing the reasons why parents are struggling, people say that I’m being too hard on parents. But I find that fascinating, because how can we communicate about this if people are not willing to face the problem?

JS: You write that parents are generally pretty good at caregiving but are not always equally adept at providing life skills for success. What’s the difference?

NH: Caregiving is about loving children, and sharing what gives your life joy and meaning with your children. For many people, that’s religion, food, family; for some it’s hiking, sports, video games, or gardening. It’s just trying to share whatever gifts you have to offer your children, and most parents do that really well.

Skill-building is helping kids develop the skills they will rely on to thrive independently in adulthood. It’s not just reading, writing, and math (the first things that come to mind) but also broader social, emotional skills, and things like conflict resolution, critical thinking, or self-discipline.

These skills are often extremely hard to build and pose immense challenges for parents to build on their own, in their spare time, on their own budget. And that’s totally OK—we shouldn’t expect them to. We need to start viewing skill development in the same way we view flying an airplane or building a house. We don’t expect parents to build their own houses or fly their own airplane, and we shouldn’t expect parents to carry the vast majority of the child’s skill development burden, either. If we insist that parents do this on their own, only the richest, most highly educated parents will have the resources required to succeed, and everybody else will fall through the cracks.

JS: One thing you found by combing through research is that schools, generally speaking, provide pretty equal access to a good education for all kids. But, you argue, schools can’t close the opportunity gap. Can you explain why?

NH: If you look at where children spend their time in childhood, only 10% of that is spent in the existing K–12 education system. The other 90% of childhood, from birth to age 18, is implicitly managed by parents. Since time is the medium in which children build skills, we’re placing this huge burden on parents.

The resource gaps between rich kids and poor kids during the time they spend in K–12 schools in America is not very large: Rich kids get about 2% more K–12 spending than poor kids. It wasn’t always that way. It’s the result of a very long political and judicial battle to fix the inequality problem and equalize resources. And it kind of worked.

In contrast, if you look at the resource gap in enrichment spending on kids during the 90% of time they’re outside of school, you see that rich kids get about 1,600% more spending than poor kids. That’s why, to really address inequality, incremental changes in funding for lower-income kids in our K–12 education system will never get us to where we need to go in terms of leveling the playing field. Our K–12 education system is too small a share of childhood to make the difference. Not that additional cash for low-income schools is a bad idea; it’s just not going to be enough.

JS: We already have social programs designed to support parents. In your research, what did you find were the key factors for successful programs—ones that really improved children’s outcomes?

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis (The MIT Press, 2022, 304 pages)

NH: Successful programs need to make things easy for parents. They can’t just give parents a lot of information—or even money—and ask parents to figure it out on their own. Again, that’s not to say that giving parents more money is not helpful. It certainly is! No kid should grow up in poverty. But money alone won’t be enough to close opportunity gaps, level the playing field, and make our country as efficient as it could be.

The programs that work well tend to take the burden off the individual, overwhelmed parent and put much more of the burden on a trained, experienced, paid professional, such as a tutor, nurse, teacher, coach, or therapist (not just volunteers). Child skill development is a pretty complicated, difficult activity, and to get it right, to handle all the complexity of that task, you really want to rely on people who have knowledge and experience.

To get more specific, contrast the two programs we have to help families access early childhood education—Head Start and Child Care and Development Block Grants [both for low-income families]. The block grant program puts a massive burden on parents to access this benefit and to find a high-quality program for their children. It requires parents to be sophisticated shoppers and consumers of child care. In contrast, Head Start just provides guardrails to assure that, if parents put their kid in a Head Start center, the center will be a fine place for their child. 

By analyzing research, I found Head Start programs have pretty large, positive impacts on the kids who participate, whereas the block grant system has, if anything, small to moderate negative impacts on the kids who participate. Why? Because parents are not able to successfully weed out the lower-quality child care centers when it’s left to them; it’s just too hard.

Another example is trying to help parents navigate the financial aid labyrinth in our college admissions process. If you just give parents information about financial aid, it doesn’t do anything. Even money doesn’t do much! But, if you give parents brief access to a professional to help them just go through the paperwork directly, it has a large impact on successfully completing that paperwork, getting more aid, and getting kids into college.

I find this pattern over and over in the book. When you assume parents are very sophisticated and have all kinds of time, money, resources, and knowledge to navigate problems, interventions tend to have disappointing or even negative results. Whereas interventions that take the burden off of parents and put it onto trained experienced professionals can have very large positive impacts.

JS: Do you anticipate resistance to providing those kinds of support, either from parents who don’t trust experts or feel hostile toward social welfare–style programs?

NH: A lot of parents really want these services. The hostility toward government—and skepticism we see for things like vaccines—doesn’t apply to helping your kid get a math tutor or child care. Parents don’t always realize their kids need academic help and know the value of a good tutor, but if schools suddenly had the resources to prescribe tutoring in the same way physicians prescribe medicine, I think parents wouldn’t be hostile to that. Survey data shows broad public support for universal access to high-quality child care, because parents in the modern world are working and they need an appropriate place to put their kids. The same goes for after-school and summer break programs, too.

The problem is we’re not investing in kids enough in America. And not investing in children is like not fixing a flat tire on a car. We’re going to pay for the consequences. We can either choose to pay for it now and help children become successful or pay for it later when we find out that many children become adults who have weak career options, live in poverty, are unemployed and commit crimes, or have health problems. A massive increase in our investment in child development would dramatically decrease the need for later social welfare programs.

JS: You conclude that the United States could use a Familycare program equivalent to Medicare. What would you include in that type of program?

NH: Paradoxically, it begins with paid family leave. This is the one place where we can’t outsource child development to local professionals, because it’s critical that parents create a healthy, relaxed bond with their child. There’s really good evidence that paid parental leave has huge benefits.

After that, Familycare would include high-quality early childhood education from zero to five, and good after-school and summer programs to fill in more of the gaps left by our K–12 systems. It would provide tutoring to help kids who are falling behind academically or counseling for kids facing mental health challenges. All of these would be subsidized by the federal government, but delivered by local community providers.

It would continue with better financial aid for college and better counseling so that more people can get through the complicated process of applying to and navigating college. And it would include better vocational training and apprenticeships for people who might not want to go to college, better health care for children, a better foster care system, and more spending on research on children (which should be at least 25 times more than we currently spend).

This would have a significant price tag—about half the price of Medicare. But if we think about family care like we think about fixing a flat tire, it turns out that it’s much more expensive not to fix the flat tire than to fix it.

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