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Where parents go and what they do: Factors that affect parent behavior

Characteristics of neighborhoods have been frequently studied as one factor that affects parenting behaviors.  These behaviors can have a life-long effect on children’s health and well-being.  As parents routinely spend time outside of their neighborhoods for work, recreation, and other activities, their parenting style may be shaped by time in these other environments. A recent study carried out by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation along with the University of California at Los Angeles Department of Social Welfare and the University of Kansas School of Social Work examines where parents go in and around their neighborhoods to better understand how these environments shape parenting practices.

The researchers used Geographic Information System mapping and detailed interviews of 60 participants from four cities to assess parents’ typical activities and where these activities take place.  Key to the study is the concept of “activity spaces,” which measure individual routine patterns of movement – the specific places where people go and what they do when they are in those places.  Parents described a number of factors that shape their activity spaces including caregiving status, the age of their children, and income.  Parental activity spaces also varied between times (weekends vs. weekdays) and places (adult-only vs. child-specific places).  Knowing how to best capture and study parental activity spaces could identify mechanisms by which environmental factors influence parenting behaviors and child health.

Some places parents spent time were viewed as either child-focused (such as amusement parks or certain museums) or as a point of escape from child-care duties (such as the work place, gyms or bars) while others were reserved exclusively for weekends.  Primary caregivers described spending more time running household errands, dropping or picking up children, and ferrying them between child-oriented activities while the activity spaces of parents who were not the primary caregivers (particularly those who worked full-time) were shaped around work or commuting.  The age of children was also a major determinant of activity spaces, with younger children seen as barriers to activities. Older children were reported as expanding activity spaces, as parents drove children to schools, lessons, or playdates.    Some parents drove great distances to ensure that their children attended a preferred school or activity.

Income also plays a role in where parents go.  Many parents reported that the number and types of places that they went were limited by their income.  This was especially true of “adult-only” activities such as dates with a partner, suggesting that some parents prioritized “child-specific” activities over “adult-only” ones.  Parents who didn’t have a motor vehicle reported being particularly limited in places they could go.

In order to assess the environments that influence parents and families, it is important to take into account the variety of places that parents routinely go and the factors that determine what sort of places are included in these usual locations.  Further study of these factors and locations can provide a more detailed understanding of ways environments can encourage healthier behaviors or may have a detrimental effect on families. 

Price Wolf, J., Freisthler, B., Kepple, N., Chavez, R.  (2015).  The places parents go: understanding the breadth, scope, and experiences of activity spaces for parents.  GeoJournal.  Available online 25 November, 2015. doi: 10.1007/s10708-015-9690-y.