Published: September 21, 2018


For parents, it is not just a matter of spending time with children but also tailoring this time to fit their developmental needs over time.

This is a key finding of a new Life Course Centre Working Paper which examines the ‘developmental gradient’ of time investments in children.

The paper, authored by Martin O’Flaherty and Janeen Baxter of The University of Queensland, builds on recent US research that shows more educated mothers tailor their time with children to favour activities that are important at different developmental stages.

This finding has been termed the ‘developmental gradient’ and the authors use time diary data for a sample of Australian children to extend this work. They first establish whether a developmental gradient exists in Australian children’s time with mothers, comparable to the US evidence, then consider time investments by fathers and other adult caregivers, and examine the importance of resources for explaining the patterns of time use.

The results show educational gaps in time spent ‘teaching’ are largest in the 4-5 age group, gaps in ‘play’ time with fathers are largest for toddlers aged 2-3, and gaps in ‘enrichment’ are largest for the 6-7 and 8-9 age groups.

The study suggests that the developmental gradient of time investments in children represent a plausible mechanism for the transmission of disadvantage in Australian children, and that more highly educated families not only allocate more time to children but do so in a manner that is responsive to their children’s distinct developmental needs over time.

Therefore, policy responses focused on better educating parents to understand the developmental needs of their children are likely to be effective, the paper concludes.

You can read the full paper, titled The ‘Developmental Gradient’ Revisited: Australian Children’s Time with Adult Caregivers from Infancy to Middle Childhood, here.