The Covid-19 pandemic upended many family dynamics but one positive consequence of this upheaval: Parents shared more dinners and read to their children more often, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).
Many families spent extra time together in spring and summer 2020, when lockdowns were in place in many parts of the United States.
Most interviews for the 2020 SIPP were conducted during March-June 2020. The data show that parental interactions with children changed from prior years: While parents shared more dinners and read to children more often in 2020, they also took them on fewer outings.
There were, however, big differences depending on parents’ socioeconomic characteristics. Frequent outings with young children dropped for most parents, but more so for parents with fewer economic resources. And parents who were married and more educated read more often to young children.
SIPP and Parental Involvement
The SIPP collects information on child well-being, including details on parental involvement with children.
Specifically, it asks a reference parent (usually the mother) to identify the number of times in a typical week they had dinner with their children ages 0-17 and how many times another parent (usually the spouse or cohabiting partner of the reference parent) did.
The survey also asks how many outings the reference parent or other parent took their young children ages 0-5 on and whether they or another family member read to them. All of these behaviors have been associated with improved child well-being and family dynamics. All estimates shown are at the reference-parent level at the time of interview.
In recent decades, families have been highly engaged with children. Since 1998, at least 80% of children ate dinner with their parent often (five or more times per week). Since 2014, about 80% of children were often taken on outings by their parents (two or more times per week) and at least 48% of young children were read to by parents often (five or more times per week).
Impact of COVID-19 on Parental Involvement
Most likely as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns in early 2020, the proportion of parents taking their young children on outings two or more times a week dropped from 87% in 2019 to 82% in 2020. The frequency of children’s weekly outings with their other parent were not statistically different across those same years (about 67%).
In contrast, parents shared more weekly meals with children ages 0-17.
There was only a one percentage point increase in shared dinners from 2018 (84%) and 2020 (85%). But the change was statistically significant and coupled with the dip in outings, resulted in shared meals becoming the most common type of parental involvement in 2020.
The proportion of shared meals between children and their other parent, as reported by the reference parent, also rose, from 56% in 2018 to 63% in 2020.
Plus, parents or relatives read to children more often in 2020 than in prior years.
In 2020, 69% of parents reported reading to young children five or more times per week compared with 65% in 2018, and 64% in 2019.
Parent-Child Outings Dropped in Almost All Socio-Economic Categories
Across all but one (poverty) of the characteristics considered, the proportion of parents taking kids on frequent outings dropped four percentage points from 2019 to 2020.
Frequent parent-child outings decreased in 2020 compared with 2019 for many reasons, including shutdowns and travel bans.
Many places that families typically visit like restaurants and malls closed and travel, both domestic and foreign, was discouraged or banned during the pandemic.
Families have struggled during Covid-19. Many have had to juggle work and child care responsibilities while also facing food insufficiency and financial hardships such as job or wage loss.
Solo parents — those with no spouse or cohabiting partner present — experienced an 11 percentage point drop in frequent outings with young children: 75% reported going on two or more outings a week in 2020 compared with 86% in 2019.
Solo parents, by definition the sole parental figure living with young children, were especially hard hit during the pandemic with limited time, financial resources and support networks.
Although younger solo parents are typically more involved than older solo parents with young children, young adults experienced some of the highest levels of job loss due to the Covid-19 downturn which may have impacted their involvement with their children.
Even parents with more resources did not take their children on outings as frequently. That includes parents with more education and married parents who may alternate child care responsibilities. Frequent outings among those socio-economic groups dropped about four percentage points in 2020 compared with 2019.
Results for parents in poverty were not statistically different during the period examined (2019 and 2020), which may be due to no real changes or to nonresponse issues (described further below).
Frequent Reading to Children Increased Among Advantaged Parents
The share of married parents who read to young children five or more times a week increased from 68% in 2019 to 73% in 2020.
Groups who read to their young children more frequently:
- Native-born parents (66% in 2019 compared to 71% in 2020).
- Parents who were above the poverty level (66% in 2019 compared to 70% in 2020).
- Highly educated parents with a bachelor’s degree or more read to their kids frequently at a higher rate than all parents in 2020: 81% compared to 69%.
These characteristics are associated with certain advantages, like higher income, residential and family stability and white-collar jobs with flexible work schedules. That may have allowed these parents to leverage their resources to be more involved with children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Comparisons of reading together between 2019 and 2020 were not statistically different for parents with fewer resources: poor, solo, and foreign-born parents, which may be due to no real change or to nonresponse issues described below.
However, there is plenty of evidence showing that parents with fewer resources suffered high levels of job losses.
In 2020, parents who were solo (58%), foreign-born (62%), poor (56%), or did not have a bachelor’s degree (60%) read to young children less often than all parents (69%). Still, more than half of parents with fewer resources managed to read to young children five or more times a week in 2020.
Parent Characteristics Impacted by Nonresponse Bias
The 2020 SIPP had high nonresponse rates, meaning that many people who were asked to participate in the survey did not. Additionally, there was nonresponse bias, that is, the characteristics of those who responded were different than those who did not respond.
Consequently, reference parents who reported on their involvement with children in SIPP were more likely to be older, foreign-born, married, more educated, and above the poverty level than in the two prior years.
The proportions of parents who were foreign-born or married were not statistically different between 2019 and 2020, but the 2019 SIPP also experienced higher nonresponse rates due to the 2018-2019 lapse in federal funding that stopped operations and other factors.
The results discussed in this story may have been impacted by nonresponse.
About the SIPP
The Survey of Income and Program Participation is a nationally representative longitudinal survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau that provides comprehensive information on the dynamics of income, employment, household composition and government program participation.
For more information, please visit the SIPP website. For technical documentation and more information about SIPP data quality, please visit the SIPP Technical Documentation website. The estimates presented here are subject to sampling and nonsampling error.
Yeris Mayol-Garcia is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division.