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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Talking about tough times: Parents’ experiences and challenges discussing economic hardship and inequality with their elementary school-aged children

  • Author(s): Griffin, Katherine Mildred
  • Advisor(s): Mistry, Rashmita S
  • et al.

In the wake of one of the largest income gaps in our country’s history (Stiglitz, 2012) and a school system that is increasingly segregated along economic and racial lines (Reardon & Bischoff, 2011), children in the United States today are growing up in a remarkably inequitable economic landscape. While prior research suggests that elementary school aged children have a burgeoning understanding of wealth and poverty (Mistry, et al., 2016; Sigelman, 2012), little is known about what informs their beliefs. Given the importance of proximal contexts, such as the family (Bronfenbrenner, 2005), this project examined parents and young children’s discussions of issues related to economic hardship and inequality, and how these discussions varied by child age and family background characteristics. To do so, 26 parents and their kindergarten, 2nd, and 4th grade children participated in a shared viewing and discussion of developmentally appropriate video clips on economic hardship (e.g. job loss and hunger), and parents were interviewed about their discussions at home with their child about family finances, economic inequality, and helping individuals and families in need. Parent-child video discussions were primarily characterized by empathy-related socialization such as perspective taking and labeling emotions. In interviews, when asked how they discussed helping those in need, parents uniformly spoke about charitable giving, such as donation drives, but rarely discussed structural forms of support, such as government benefits. Finally, when asked about how they talked with their children about the causes of economic inequality, parents reported giving a variety of attribution types, however, in parent-child discussions parents often gave unclear attributions (e.g. job loss) for the causes of economic hardship. In both parent-child video discussions and parent interviews, I found that conversations varied by child grade, though variation was also evident by parents’ political ideology (i.e. liberal versus moderate/ conservative parents). By documenting parents’ conversations about economic hardship and inequality, this study’s findings shed light on how young children develop beliefs about poverty, economic inequality, and social class, and provides insight into how researchers and educators might work to support families in having these important discussions.

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