Journal Article

The ‘developmental gradient’ revisited: Australian children's time with adult caregivers from infancy to middle childhood

Published: 2019


Children’s time use patterns represent a potentially important mechanism for the transmission of disadvantage across generations. Recent international research indicates that more educated mothers tailor the content of time with children to favour activities that are particularly important at different developmental stages – a finding that has been termed the ‘developmental gradient’. Using time diary data for a sample of Australian children, this paper seeks to extend previous work in several ways. We first establish whether a ‘developmental gradient’ exists in Australian children’s time with mothers, comparable to the results from international studies. We go further, however, by extending the analysis to consider time investments provided by fathers and other adult caregivers, and examining the importance of resources for explaining the patterns of time use. Consistent with theory, our results indicate that educational gaps in time spent ‘teaching’ are largest in the 4–5 age group, gaps in ‘play’ time with fathers are largest for toddlers (2–3), and gaps in ‘enrichment’ are largest for 6–7 and 8–9. Time with parents appears to be the primary driver of observed patterns of time spent ‘teaching’ and ‘playing’, while for ‘enrichment,’ differences are distributed across caregivers, but largest for non-parent caregivers. These results are not driven by differential access to resources. Our results suggest that the developmental gradient represents a plausible mechanism for the transmission of intergenerational disadvantage in Australia, and that policy responses focussed on better educating parents to understand the developmental needs of their children are likely to be an effective response.


O’Flaherty, M., & Baxter, J. (2019). The ‘developmental gradient’revisited: Australian children’s time with adult caregivers from infancy to middle childhood. Social Science Research, 102397.