Published: September 7, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2018-16


Martin O’Flaherty and Janeen Baxter.

Non-Technical Summary:

Children from more advantaged families spend larger amounts of time with their parents, particularly in activities that are important for children’s development, health, and education. Recent US research indicates that more educated mothers tailor their time with children to favour activities that are particularly important at different developmental stages – a finding that has been termed the ‘developmental gradient’. Specifically, the educational gap in ‘play’ or ‘basic care’ is largest when children are infants or toddlers, the gap in ‘teaching’ is largest around school-entry age, and the gap in ‘management’ is largest in middle childhood and adolescence.

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

Our results indicate that educational gaps in time spent ‘teaching’ are largest in the 4-5 age group, gaps in ‘play’ time with fathers are largest for toddlers (2-3), and gaps in ‘enrichment’ are largest for the 6-7 and 8-9 age groups. Time with parents appears to be the primary driver of the observed patterns of time spent ‘teaching’ and ‘playing’, while for ‘enrichment,’ differences are distributed across caregivers, but largest for non-parent caregivers. These results are not driven by differential access to resources.

Our results suggest that the developmental gradient of time investments in children represents a plausible mechanism for the transmission of intergenerational disadvantage in Australia. Policy responses focussed on better educating parents to understand the developmental needs of their children are likely to be effective.


September 7, 2018