Social stratification and parental care: an analysis of the Spanish case

Pablo Gracia, Department of Sociology, University of Amsterdam

Researching parental care in different social environments is essential if we want to understand the extent of social inequalities in children's development. This article analyses data from a Time Use Survey (2009-2010) on Spanish couples with children up to 15 years of age to study how time spent caring for children differs among families from different social positions. The main results show that education level, above all that of the mother, is strongly associated with parental care, and for both mothers and fathers. In addition, fathers' education is related to the time dedicated to diverse activities of parental care (for example, interactive and supervisory activities) and leisure time spent with children (for example, cultural activities), which directly impact on the accumulation of cognitive, cultural and socio-emotional abilities that are key to children's future educational and occupational success. 

1. Parental care: Why are we concerned?

Parental care is an essential activity in children's development. It is during the first years of our lives when our brains have a greater capacity for developing the socio-emotional and cognitive abilities crucial for all later life stages. The ways in which parents provide for our physical, emotional and cognitive needs during childhood directly impact on such important indicators of wellbeing as education, employment, health, social relationships and emotional stability (Waldfogel, 2006).

How does parental care differ among social groups? Answering this question is essential if we want an egalitarian society and a strong economy. Such research allows us to detect possible inequalities early that threaten equality of conditions in education and the labour market (Cebolla-Boada et al., 2014). It also permits us to know if children receive the best stimulation to face the major challenges of a globalised economy in need of a labour force that must be increasingly more prepared (Esping-Andersen, 2009).  

2. Stratification and parental care

Although gender is the main explanatory factor of parental care (mothers dedicate more time and effort than fathers), social position is also a key variable (Bianchi et al., 2006). We know that parents in privileged social positions are particularly active in providing not only routine parental care (for example, supervision and physical care), but also interactive care (for example, socialising, reading to their children, cultural activities, etc.) (Bianchi et al., 2006; Bonke and Esping-Andersen, 2011; Gracia, 2014, 2015). An ethnographic study in the United States (Lareau, 2003)  suggests that middle-class and upper-class parents are deeply involved in practices with their children that directly foster their social, cultural and cognitive capacities (for example, going to the library or visiting museums).

Educational differences among parents are seen in routine and interactive parental care, in free time spent with children (cultural activities and family meals, for example, crucial for children's development), in electronic activities in the presence of children, crucial for their digital socialisation, and in time spent watching television with them, an activity that, in excess, is negative for their development (Bianchi et al., 2006; Putnam, 2015).

Between 2002 and 2010 a clear gender difference existed in parental care, although men significantly increased their contribution over that time.

Debate has emerged over whether social differences in parental care are due to parental values or to time resources. Parents in privileged social positions have in particular incorporated the values of intensive parental care into family life, leading to their very active involvement in the daily stimulation of their children's capacities, with the aim of reproducing their social status (Lareau, 2003). However, the power of privileged fathers and mothers to manage their time, controlling their work hours and using their economic resources to reduce the time spent on domestic tasks,  could also lead to social inequalities in parental care (Sayer et al., 2004). Analysing what factors impact on social inequalities in the time parents spend with their children (for example, income and working hours) is an important task that we address in this study.

3. Time use: We are not all equal

The 2009-2010 Time Use Survey is based on a diary in which respondents recorded the activities they carried out every 10 minutes on a randomly chosen day, as well as information about themselves and their household; therefore, it offers an excellent statistical tool for examining the time spent providing parental care (Gershuny, 2000). In addition, this survey permits us compare the pre-crisis period (2002-2007) and the post-crisis period (2008-2010) in the Spanish context. The final sample of the analysis included 3,617 individuals and consisted of heterosexual couples (married and unmarried) with both partners between the ages of 25 and 59 and with at least one child from 0 to 15 years of age.

The empirical analyses combine two types of methods: descriptive, which allow us to observe general differences in parental time for different population groups, and inferential statistics, which permits us to analyse in greater detail the relationship of specific factors to parental care.


4. Measures of inequality

Graph 1 shows the existence of significant inequality in the time dedicated to parental care by gender for two periods in the past decade, 2002-2003 and 2009-2010. In  line with previous studies (Baizán et al., 2014; Esping-Andersen et al., 2013), Spanish fathers only carry out a third of total parental care. However, the graph also reveals a trend toward greater gender equality. While Spanish mothers barely changed their participation in parental care during the period examined, going from 11.8 hours a week to 12.1, fathers increased their participation from 5 hours a week to 6.9, an increase from 29% of the total care to 36%. This change may be due to the adoption of more egalitarian gender roles in Spanish homes, although another explanation is that the 2008 economic crisis, with its very significant negative impact on male employment, increased the relative time available to many fathers for parental care.

Graph 2 shows the time that mothers and fathers with different education levels dedicate to routine and interactive parental care. While clear differences exist by gender in routine care, we barely find differences regarding interactive care, which constitutes approximately 20% of the care of women and almost 40% of men. Thus, Spanish women carry out the majority of the tasks of parental care that require greater effort and availability of time. Graph 2 also shows clear differences by education level. Women with university educations dedicate more hours per week to routine care (10.8) than women with only primary educations (6.7), and the former spend almost double the time of the latter on activities of interactive care (3.4 versus 1.8 hours per week). In the case of men, we find a similar variation when we compare those with university educations and primary educations, both in terms of routine activities (3.4 versus 2.9 hours/week) and interactive activities (3.2 versus 1.8).

Graph 3 shows the differences in hours per week spent with children on free-time activities by parents' education level. Regarding time spent on meals, for both fathers and mothers clear differences exist between those with only a primary school education, who spend approximately 4.5 hours a week on  meals, and those with higher levels of education, who dedicate approximately 6 hours a week to such activities.

Regarding cultural activities with children, the differences are significant: men with primary educations spend 0.18 hours/week on such activities, while men with university educations dedicate nine times the amount of time on such activities (1.11 hours/week), with similar differences found among women. Something similar also occurs with technological activities with children: men with primary level educations dedicate 0.26 hours a week, well below the 0.65 hours/week spent by men with university educations; again, these differences are similar to those found for women.

In contrast, education level is negatively related to time spent watching television with children. University educated mothers spend 2.2 hours per week watching television with their children, while those with primary and secondary level educations spend 3.4 hours per week on this activity. The results are similar for fathers.

Graph 4 relates weekly hours spent on parental care with different socioeconomic variables. Both mothers and fathers with intermediate levels of income are the most active, although differences by income are moderate. Findings also show that the more time dedicated to work, the less time parents dedicate to parental care. In addition, working irregular hours drastically reduces the time parents dedicate to care. At the same time, if a parent's partner is employed, the relationship to parental care is moderately positive for both mothers and fathers.  However, the opposite is the case for mothers as the education level of their partner increases, while the mother's education level is positively associated with the time fathers dedicate to care.

Graph 5 shows the differences in hours dedicated to parental care by parents' education level based on three empirical models that can help us to better understand the factors that may be related to greater or lesser inequality in parental care by education level. The first model considers, aside from education, demographic variables (age, number of children and presence of a child below five years of age). The second model also includes individual socioeconomic factors (income, working hours and length of workday). Finally, the third model includes the characteristics of the partner (education, income and working hours).   

The results reveal interesting educational differences. For mothers, those with high education levels maintain a high investment in parental care, even when we take into account their socioeconomic conditions. However, when we include the socioeconomic characteristics of mothers, the educational gap is substantially reduced, especially when we compare mothers with basic education to those with university educations. For fathers, the positive relationship between education and parental care remains, but it declines when we consider individual socioeconomic differences, and in  particular, the characteristics of their partners. Thus, an important factor in why fathers with higher education levels are more involved in parental care is that they tend to have partners with high levels of education and income (Bianchi et al., 2006).          


5. Gender and education level: Key factors

Based on our statistical analysis, this article shows that Spanish women are much more involved in parental care than men. The difference by gender is specifically marked in routine activities, those that take the most time and energy, impacting on gender inequalities in employment and health (Bianchi et al., 2006). However, the comparison between 2002-2003 and 2009-2010 reveals a trend toward greater equality, explained by a significant increase in paternal care, a positive finding not only in terms of gender equality, but also for its impact on child development (Marí-Klose et al., 2010).

We also find a clear association between education and time spent with children. Spanish parents with high levels of education are deeply involved in parental care, both in regard to routine activities (essential for physical and socio-emotional wellbeing) and interactive activities (crucial for socio-cultural education and cognitive skills) (Waldfogel, 2006). Parents with high education levels are the most active in spending mealtimes with their children (important for socio-emotional development) as well as doing cultural activities with them (crucial for their impact on educational results) (Putnam, 2015). In contrast, in families in which the parents have low education levels, more time is dedicated to watching television with children, a practice that, in excess, is associated with less time spent on intellectual, social and physical activities, as well as with school failure and obesity (Gracia, 2015).

Education level, particularly that of the mother, is directly associated with the time that mothers and fathers dedicate to activities that are crucial for their children's development.

Education level, particularly that of fathers, is closely connected to time dedicated to technological activities with children, an important practice in digital socialization and increasingly necessary for success in school and in the labour market in the knowledge economy. This result complements the findings of previous studies on time-use among children regarding activities related to their wellbeing (Marí-Klose et al., 2010). The data also show that parental time is affected by the education level of the partner for fathers, but not for mothers. Women with high levels of human capital, governed by values of intensive parental care, use their status and employment opportunities to assure that their male partners are actively involved in the care of their children (Lareau, 2003).

Regarding the factors correlated with inequalities in education level, we find important socioeconomic differences. Parents with low education levels, characterized by having low incomes and inflexible working hours, are in part affected by a lack of time to organize time with their children. In fact, a long workday has a very negative impact on time available for parental care, as does working irregular hours, although parental income has a more moderate impact on parental care. In part, inequality in parental care can be due to the socioeconomic factors mentioned. However, another important aspect of this association between education and parental care is not explained by socioeconomic factors, which suggests that the differences we find may in part be explained by different family values and parental strategies among the different social classes (Lareau, 2003).

6. Proposals for the future

The main results of this study in regard to social inequality provide support for several types of public policies aimed at equalizing the conditions of care provided to children and reducing the risks of reproducing inequalities. A first type of policy has as its objective equalizing time resources, as differences in these resources are closely linked to labour market inequalities and income. In particular, this study suggests that improving the working hours and the workday of fathers with less education could increase the time disadvantaged parents have to dedicate to parental care.

Consistent with earlier qualitative studies (Lareau, 2003), this study suggests that there are social differences resulting from preferences regarding parental care and forms of organizing family life that produce inequalities in the care and stimuli children receive within the family. Implementing educational programmes that inform disadvantaged parents about available parental resources could provide them with new tools for maximizing the organization of the time they spend with their children. However, public institutions in democratic countries should not "impose" standards for parental behaviour; although governments should assure that all families, independently of their material and educational resources, have access to information regarding the best parental practices for fostering the wellbeing of their children.

Educational inequalities in parental care are explained, at least in part, by inequalities in work schedules and income.

A final important objective of public policy is diversifying the care children receive by improving access to pre-school education. Inequalities in time-use and parental care suggest that children from different social environments reach school-age from very disparate situations. However, even reducing these significant inequalities, children from privileged social backgrounds begin with an advantage, which may be because their parents have more money to invest in them, or because they have more educational resources to stimulate their cognitive development.

Preschools are a complement to parental care and can improve the school performance of children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Cebolla-Boado et al., 2014; Esping-Andersen, 2009). Investing in early childhood education (for children from 0 to 2 years of age, when many social inequalities among children emerge) can equalize conditions between socioeconomic groups, as well as foster abilities that will later be associated with successful employment. Although increasing access to quality preschool involves significant initial public and private spending, such an investment will generate important benefits in the future, not only in terms of fostering equal opportunities, but also in terms of economic efficiency.


Pablo Gracia

Department of Sociology

Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies

University of Amsterdam

7. References

Baizán, P., M. Domínguez and M.J. González (2014): «Couple bargaining or socio-economic status? Why some parents spend more time with their children than others», European Societies, 16(1).

Bianchi, S., J.P. Robinson and M.A. Milkie (2006): Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bonke, J., and G. Esping-Andersen (2011): «Family investments in children: productivities, preferences, and parental child care», European Sociological Review, 27(1).

Cebolla-Boado, H., J. Radl and L. Salazar (2014): Aprendizaje y ciclo vital: la desigualdad de oportunidades desde la educación preescolar hasta la edad adulta, Barcelona: Obra Social ”la Caixa”.    

Esping-Andersen, G. (2009): The Incomplete Revolution. Adapting to Women’s New Roles. Cambridge: Polity Press.

—, D. Boertien, J. Bonke and P.  Gracia (2013): «Couple specialization in multiple equilibria», European Sociological Review,

Gershuny, J. (2000): Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Postindustrial Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gracia, P. (2015): «Parent-child leisure activities and cultural capital in the United Kingdom: the gendered effects of education and social class», Social Science Research, 52(4).

— (2014): «Fathers’ child care involvement and children’s age in Spain: a time use study on differences by education and mothers’ employment», European Sociological Review,

Heckman, J. (2006): «Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children», Science, 312(5782).

Lareau, A. (2003): Unequal Chances: Class, Race and Family Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marí-Klose, P., M. Marí-Klose, E. Vaquera and S.A. Cunningham (2010): Infancia y futuro: nuevas realidades, nuevos retos, Barcelona: Obra Social ”la Caixa”.   

Putnam, R.D. (2015): Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis, Nueva York: Simon and Schuster.

Sayer, L.C., A.H. Gauthier and F.F.J. Furstenberg  (2004): «Educational differences in parents’ time with children: cross-national variations», Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(5)

Waldfogel, J. (2006): What Children Need, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 



Pablo Gracia, Department of Sociology, University of Amsterdam



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