Time for parents

May 26, 2022

The Nuffield Foundation has published a new evidence review that explores the changing nature of parenting over the last two decades.

Time for parents draws on over 100 studies to examine the relationship between parenting and young children’s outcomes. It also considers the effectiveness of interventions designed to support parents and their children’s development.

The review finds that pressures on many parents of children under five have been increasing over the last 20 years and have intensified during the pandemic. These pressures relate to expectations, the challenges of balancing paid employment and providing care, financial pressures and inadequate housing. All of these factors can affect the care parents provide and children’s development and well-being.

While there is evidence that some parenting programmes can improve parenting skills and outcomes for children, the review concludes that such programmes are less likely to succeed if not combined with action to reduce pressure on families, such as reducing poverty.

The review also identifies priorities for research, including further exploration of the full diversity of parenting forms and practices, the factors that affect parenting and the home environment, and how best to support parents.

We explored five aspects of parents and the home and considered why each is important, how they shape parents’ care and young children’s development and how they have changed over the last two decades.

Parental care

Parental sensitivity and responsiveness, appropriate discipline and limit-setting, and a positive home learning environment are all associated with better outcomes for children.

  • Mothers of children under five continue to provide around two thirds of total childcare, though fathers of children under five were marginally increasing their share between 2000 and 2015.
  • Both mothers and fathers increased the overall time spent on childcare during the pandemic, with fathers providing a greater share of childcare than prior to March 2020. But traditional models of male breadwinner and female caregiver have largely persisted.
  • Both mothers and fathers of children under five are spending more time on development childcare (which includes reading and playing)—a 250% increase between 1975 and 2015. These changes may provide evidence that young children are benefitting from a strengthened home learning environment.

Parental mental health and emotional well-being

Parents’ mental health and emotional well-being shape the care they provide.

  • Small increases in recent years have resulted in one in four children being exposed to maternal mental illness. We do not have comparable data for fathers’ mental illness. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly diagnosed illnesses among mothers of young children.
  • Many parents of young children feel pressures as parents. A majority report that being a parent is stressful and that they feel judged as a parent by others.

The relationship between parents

The quality of relationship between parents and the presence of high levels of unresolved and hostile conflict affects child outcomes at an early age and through adolescence.

  • We don’t know how the prevalence of parental conflict has changed over time. Divorce rates have declined but parental separation is a common feature of family life in the UK, with 3.6 million children (of all ages) in separated families.
  • In recent decades, the proportion of children born into married couples has fallen, with a growing proportion of children born to cohabiting parents and a consistent minority (18%) born to parents who are not living together.
  • While family forms do not determine children’s outcomes, there are important associations between different family forms and the resources available to families. Married couples typically have more resources than cohabiting couples and lone parents the least, which in turn influences children’s cognitive development and emotional well-being.

Housing and the home

Features of low-quality housing, such as overcrowding, damp and problems with heating may significantly affect parents’ and children’s lives. Housing tenure and conditions contribute to inequalities in young children’s cognitive development.

  • One in four children now start school in privately rented housing. Privately rented housing is less secure, has the highest rates of non-decent housing and has disproportionately high overcrowding rates.
  • Within the home, a fundamental change is the digitalisation and the embedding of technology within parents’ and young children’s lives. Three-quarters of under-fives have access to an internet-connected device—a three-fold increase between 2009 and 2019. More than half of three- and four-year-olds are online for nearly nine hours a week.

Family income and poverty

A lack of financial resources available to parents have profound impacts on families with young children. These impacts can be direct, through not having enough money to provide essentials such as food, clothing and warmth. They can also be indirect, through creating parental stress, depression and conflict between parents, which affects the care parents provide.

  • There has been a sharp increase in relative child poverty rates for families with a young child since 2013/14, representing increased pressures for many parents. In-work poverty is increasingly common.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures on parents and created new ones, particularly in relation to time and finances. The pandemic has negatively affected parental mental health and increased inter-parental conflict at a time when parents have less access to support.
  • Despite the reopening of nurseries, attendance in early years settings has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels and parents are reporting difficulties in accessing formal childcare. Emerging evidence demonstrates that the pandemic has had negative effects on young children’s development.

What do we know about supporting parents?

  • All parents need help and support from time to time as they raise their children. Often the type of support parents need is light touch, such as advice or signposting to further support across a wide range of issues. Parents turn most frequently to family and friends for advice.
  • Not all parents receive the support they would like and many face barriers to accessing help. Close to one fifth (18%) of parents of young children have two or fewer people they can turn to locally for help.
  • Support is particularly important at challenging times in families’ lives, such as when relationships breakdown, parents are struggling with their mental health or children are diagnosed with a special educational need or disability – but many parents do not get the support they need at these crucial points.