Survey: Parents feel more social support than non-parents


By: Jessica Sprague-Jones, Ph.D.

Published by: Capita

Preliminary analyses on the results of our recent survey of young families suggests that parenting is a protective factor for the erosion of social connections and solidarity.

Idea in Brief

  • Parents feel more social support than people who are not parents
  • Parents of young children feel greater respect and flexibility from their employers regarding their family responsibilities
  • Men who are parents of young children feel a greater commitment to their neighborhoods
  • While the structures of society have not caught up to the realities of contemporary family and work life, it seems that our social and cultural scripts are working to fill the gap

Our lack of infrastructure to support caregiving ultimately contributes to our diminishing social connection
During the COVID-19 crisis, challenges to social connection have been particularly acute. Of course, our fraying social fabric has long been overdetermined: multiple long-term social and economic forces have been eroding our social connections over the course of decades, including rising inequality, increasing mobility, and the privatization of entertainment. In this context, it’s particularly interesting that our new analyses suggest that parenting may be a protective factor helping people feel greater social support – and that parents of young children feel the most support.

These analyses are based on the results of Young Families’ Experiences of Social Connection and Responsibility, a survey we at the Center for Public Partnership and Research developed in partnership with Capita. The focus of the survey is to understand the experiences, attitudes, and behaviors of parents of young children as they relate to social connectedness and support. We contracted with Qualtrics to collect panel data in August 2021. Of 1,319 respondents, 50% were parents of young children. The sample was representative of the US population in terms of race, education level, and community characteristics.

Our results consistently demonstrate that parents feel more social support than people who are not parents, and that this is especially true of parents of young children. This manifests itself in general interpersonal support – for example, having people you can go to for advice, or friends who will support you in achieving a goal. It also shows up in perceived employer support. Parents of young children feel greater respect and flexibility from their employers regarding their family responsibilities. Finally, men who are parents of young children feel a greater commitment to their neighborhoods, including less interest in moving and more engagement with their neighbors.

Here’s the paradox – as anyone who has tried to navigate a stroller across a city center and into a bus knows, our society is not set up with the needs of young children and their families at the center. The US lags behind most of the world in providing paid parental leave, infant care is more expensive than college, and workplaces are built around the assumption that employees are not caregivers.  While these structural pieces have not caught up to the realities of contemporary family and work life, it seems that our social and cultural scripts are working to fill the gap.

Does the need to lean harder on one’s network create more opportunity to make and feel connection and support? This may be a time in the life course in which we become more aware of what we need from others, and more aware of our dependency on a community that extends far beyond our immediate family unit. In the midst of fraying social fabric, parenting young children remains a socially recognized time that we enact our connection and care for each other. It is an okay time for parents to ask for support, and their asking allows the rest of us to provide it and confirm that connection. In that sense, the period of parenting young children may be a time in which our social ties become more obvious to us, and we feel them most.

Of course, feelings of social support cannot actually stand in for the other kinds of support families need, like parental leave and high-quality child care. Another long-term trend is falling fertility – women have been delaying childbearing and fewer people are having children at all. Moreover, evidence suggests that many people end up having fewer children than they’d hoped – in part no doubt because the costs of having children are evident, and the support unclear. In this way, our lack of infrastructure to support caregiving ultimately contributes to our diminishing social connection, by creating a barrier to one avenue to reaffirming our connections to each other and our communities through our shared support of parenting.

It’s also the case that only some of us are parents of young children, usually just for a short time, but all of us need connection throughout our lives. It should be an expectation that employers respect our responsibilities to our parents, siblings, and friends. We should feel that it’s okay to ask each other for help, not just for the sake of our young children, but also for ourselves. These results suggest that for many people, this is not the case.