It's about time — the best ways public policy can support parents

It's about time — the best ways public policy can support parents
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The American Families Plan holds tremendous promise for transforming the opportunity landscape for young children. It promises an expansion of childcare, early childhood education, free access to higher education and expanded child tax credits. These investments meaningfully address some of the daunting challenges faced by American families. 

However, only one provision of the plan addresses the factor that an overwhelming majority of Americans consider vital to their children’s future success. Eighty-two percent of Americans think that “time with parents” is “extremely” important to children’s future success. This view is shared nearly equally by Democrats and Republicans — an incredible level of agreement in this divisive political climate. Americans value this one-on-one time more than what schools children attend, the neighborhoods they live in, their parents’ income, race or ethnicity or even luck. Both parents and non-parents share this view and it jibes with academic research showing that parents’ time with their children is an important predictor of children’s skill development. 

The support for paid family leave in the American Families Plan is an important start in freeing up time for parents to spend with their children and this policy is supported by a whopping two thirds of Americans. Given the importance that Americans place on children’s time with parents it is not surprising that more Americans support paid family leave than support school choice vouchers, tax credits for families with children, or income transfers to parents as a means to support children’s success, though Americans also strongly support several of these initiatives.

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But paid parental leave is only one necessary step in increasing the time — and the quality of that time — parents spend with their children. There’s still more work to do. To that end, policies and programs like the following should be put front and center:  

  • Implementing flexible work scheduling to allow time off for school events, to attend to sick children, and accommodations for breast feeding to make it possible to work and spend time with children.
  • Leveraging technology and expanding access to provide information about early childhood development and access to books and other learning materials. Nurse home visiting programs that provide advice and support for young vulnerable parents have gone virtual in response to COVID and can be widely available at a reasonable cost if parents have the technology to access them. Other consulting services for child behavior issues can be delivered efficiently using the model of telemedicine.
  • Scaling up light-touch programs that communicate with parents via text message to help them set and achieve goals for spending time with their children, especially those whose children are not enrolled in preschool. New innovative programs like this have shown substantial promise for increasing parents’ engagement with their children.
  • Expanding programs such as “maternity care boxes” that provide new parents with diapers, bedding and other child amenities. This is an important public signal of how much a society values children and support for parents, both mothers and fathers alike.

So, why have these types of family support policies not been a part of the policy agenda in the United States? One reason may be that the relentless focus of American public policy on paid work in the labor market has stymied policy innovation in supporting parents to increase both the amount and the effectiveness of the time they do spend with their children. Even the progressive proposals put forth by the Biden administration, such as the section of the American Families Plan outlining tax cuts for America’s families and workers, continue to include work requirements for low-income parents to obtain publicly provided income support, and the proposed expansions of childcare and preschool assistance are at least partly designed to allow parents to meet these work requirements.

To be clear, policies to support parents’ paid work are critically important and mitigating the vicissitudes of the labor market is crucial. But supporting parents’ time with their children should also be a cornerstone of family support policies. And they should be designed to support gender equality by applying to both fathers and mothers. Neither mothers nor fathers should have to choose between their child and their job. Similarly, parental leave, and access to technology, learning materials and help for both social and physical health should encourage both mother and father time with children, reversing gendered parenting roles.

Other countries have successfully implemented many of these family support policies and countries with strong family support policies generally rank higher than the U.S. in gender equality. If Americans really do believe that children’s time with their parents is crucial for their success, then such policies should be implemented here, too.

It’s about “time” — in more ways than one.

Susan Mayer and Ariel Kalil are professors and codirectors of the Behavioral Insights & Parenting (BIP) Lab at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Michelle Michelini is the lab’s associate director of research and strategy. Follow them on Twitter: @ariel_kalil, @harrispolicy, @HarrisBIPLab