February 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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Affluent Parents of Young Children: Neglected Parent Education Audience

Extension parent educators have gone to considerable effort to design parent education programs and materials that are responsive to the needs of a wide array of audiences. However, there is one group of parents whose needs have not been addressed: parents living and rearing children in affluent circumstances. Responses of 85 affluent mothers of young children documented strong interest in participating in parent education programs. Topics and items of child and family functioning that were of high interest to this group are described. Suggestions for program format are given.

Maureen T.Mulroy
Associate Professor
Cooperative Extension System
Internet address: mmulroy@canr1.cag.uconn.edu

Jane Goldman
Associate Professor
School of Family Studies
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut

Cassandra Wales
Counselor, New Haven Jewish Family Services
New Haven, Connecticut


In 1994, the national Extension System developed a model for the design of parent education programs, the National Extension Parent Education Model(NEPEM). This model represents a consensus of opinion about essential areas and practices of parent education (Smith, Cudaback, Goddard, & Myer-Walls, 1994). It is based on data collected in a series of nation-wide surveys of Extension human development and family life educators. The primary audience is Extension professionals responsible for designing balanced and comprehensive parent education programs (Smith et al.,1994, p.5).

NEPEM recognizes that there are diverse types of parent audiences and underscores the importance of Extension educators being knowledgeable about and sensitive to the particular needs of each group with whom they work. A review of recent research indicates that many Extension family life educators have heeded this recommendation.

Using a variety of techniques (for example, surveys, need assessments, focus groups) they have collected information about parenting and family education needs of parents with limited incomes, parents from different ethnic groups, and parents rearing children in stressful circumstances (Cudaback, Marshall & Knox, 1994; Jackson, 1993; Ludwig, 1988). However, there is one group of parents whose needs for parent and family education have not been addressed. They are parents rearing children in affluent circumstances.

As a group, affluent couples, and more recently, affluent families, have been well studied by researchers interested in explaining, predicting, and anticipating their business, financial, and purchasing decisions (Crispell, 1994; Seiter, 1992). However, there has not been parallel interest in looking at the parenting concerns in these families.

What little information exists suggests that affluence does not insulate parents from the stress and worries accompanying child rearing (Li, 1993) nor does it guarantee their children will be protected from harm. In fact, evidence suggests that children reared in affluent circumstances, like children raised in other economic circumstances, also are at-risk for psychosocial and educational problems such as stress disorders, abuse, neglect, suicide, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, and under-achievement (Gubernick & Linden, 1995; LeBeau, 1988; Stone, 1979; Wellisch, 1984; Wixen, 1973). There is evidence that affluence brings its own set of risks, recently labeled "affluenza," that are associated with childhood experiences of over-scheduling and over-indulgence (Arnoff & Ward, 1994; Fanning, 1990; Gubernick, 1995; Gubernick & Lindon, 1995; Shine, 1992; Stevens, 1990).

The purpose of this study was to assess the parent education needs of a group of affluent parents of young children.


Eighty-five mothers of preschool age children participated in this study. The mothers were residents of a suburban community in the metropolitan New York area recognized as one of the most affluent communities in the United States (Barone & Ujifusa, 1993).

All were enrolled in a parent education program sponsored by the local health association and the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. This parent education program, which runs weekly from September to May, has been on-going since 1980 and always has a long waiting list. Parents are divided into groups (infant, toddler, preschool/kindergarten) depending upon the ages of their children.

The average age of the respondents was 33 (range 24-46). One mother identified herself as being Asian. All other mothers identified themselves as Caucasian/Non-Hispanic. Ninety-four percent(N=80) were college graduates, with 35% holding advanced graduate degrees. Seven were mothers of infants, 57 were mothers of toddlers, and 21 were mothers of preschool/kindergartners.

Only 20 (23%) of the mothers were employed. Of these women, only 5 worked more than 20 hours a week. The mean family income reported was $250,430 (range $40,000-$1,400,000, SD= $210,042). However, it is interesting to note that even when assured of anonymity only 74% provided information about family income.

Development of the needs assessment for this population occurred as follows:

  1. course outlines submitted by class instructors over a period of years were reviewed; any topics repeated over years or across educators were selected for inclusion;

  2. a review of literature pertaining to parent education was conducted and any topic repeatedly cited as important or essential to parent education programs was added to the list of possible topics/items;

  3. the list of potential topics/items was compared to the NEPEM priority practices and additional topics/items suggested by NEPEM were added;

  4. the list of important topics and items for inclusion on the needs assessment was submitted to the parent education program director and instructors for review and comment;

  5. their suggestions and recommendations were included;

  6. a pilot version was administered to parents not included in the study.

As a result of this process, eight areas of child and family functioning were included on the needs assessment: Caring For Self as a Parent and Spouse, Understanding Child Development, Nurturing Family Relationships, Motivating Your Child's Learning, Guidance and Discipline, Advocating for/Utilizing Community Resources, Handling Emergencies and Crises, and Establishing Routines. In order to reflect the developmental nuances of the three age groups, three versions of the needs assessment were developed. Each of the three versions covered all eight areas.

The three needs assessment questionnaires differed only in number of items listed under each of the eight areas of child and family functioning and in the age/stage related words used in the questions. For example, on the infant questionnaire, an item listed under Establishing Routines was "Traveling with an infant." On the questionnaires for mothers of toddlers and preschool/kindergartners, it appeared as,"Traveling with young children." The questionnaire for parents of infants, toddlers, and preschool/kindergartners had 44, 57, and 65 items, respectively. For each item, the parents were asked to rate their interest in the topic on a scale of 1-4, with 1 indicating "Very Interested, Definitely Cover in Class;" 2 "Interested;" 3 "Somewhat Interested;" and 4 "Not at All Interested."

Group leaders distributed the questionnaires to participants during one of the first classes in the fall. Participants completed them during the class. Copies of the needs assessment questionnaires are available from the first author.


Parent responses were examined to assess: (a) interest in each of the eight child and family functioning areas; (b) interest in particular topics or items; and, (c) variations among parent groups in terms of level of interest in topics or items.

Parents in all of the groups expressed interest in seven of the areas of child and family functioning. However only the mothers of infants were interested in items concerning community resources. For the topics pertaining to child and family functioning, there was considerable variation across the three groups in terms of the specific topics in which they were most interested (Very Interested) or (Interested) by 75% or more of the parents in at least one of the groups.

Caring for Self

Eighty-six percent of the mothers of infants and 84% of the mothers with older children were interested in discussing the "how to" of juggling the roles of parent/spouse/individual and in finding time to meet their own needs. In contrast, only 70.5% of the mothers of toddlers were interested in these topics. The mothers of preschool and kindergarten (pre/k) age children also expressed interest in including topics such as stress management (91%) and enhancing self-esteem (91%).

Understanding Child Development

Mothers in all three groups were interested in the areas of social and emotional development. Cognitive development was of interest to mothers of infants (100%) and mothers of toddlers (98%). In addition, mothers of infants (100%) were interested in learning about physical development.

Nurturing Family Relationships

The topics of interest to parents varied greatly by group. The birth of a baby appeared to increase mother's interest in family structure and interactions (100%) and in father-infant interactions (86%). These were not issues with mothers of older children. Both the mothers of toddlers (75%) and mothers of pre/k age children (78%) expressed interest in discussing ways in which the family can relax and have good times together. The issue of sharing household responsibilities was listed as an important topic for discussion by 81% of the mothers with pre/k age children.

Motivating Your Child's Learning

All groups expressed strong interest in this area. For example, 100% of the mothers of infants indicated that all aspects of infant stimulation should be a part of their parent education classes. Similarly, mothers of toddlers were interested in covering the topics of appropriate intellectual stimulation (92%) and planning for their children's educational future (84%). Ninety-one percent of the mothers of pre/k children expressed interest in developing the best environment for learning, setting reasonable expectations for learning, and in having classes focus on learning styles, capabilities, and problems. These mothers were also concerned about hurrying their children (82%) and in "tuning in" to their children's perceptions and feelings about learning (96%).

Guidance and Discipline

All groups expressed a high level of interest in this area. All of the mothers of infants (100%) were interested in learning about limit setting and discipline. Ninety-seven percent of the mothers of toddlers thought that the issue of behavior problems should be covered in their parenting education class and 88% wanted ideas about methods for disciplining and handling "acting out" behaviors in public. These mothers (98%) also were concerned about when discipline may have gone too far. Parents of pre/k age children found all the topics listed under this heading worthy of discussion. They also thought that power, control, and autonomy issues should be covered in class (100%) and wanted limit setting, methods of discipline, and handling oppositional behavior to be part of class discussions (96%).

Utilizing Community Resources

The only group that showed any appreciable interest in this area was mothers of infants. All of them wanted to know what community resources and opportunities were available and (84%) of them wanted to talk about community involvement as a method for combating loneliness. In addition, the mothers (84%) wanted to focus some of their class discussions on choosing a care-giver.

Handling Emergencies and Crises

All mothers of infants (100%) were interested in learning how to handle a variety of physical and emotional emergencies and crises. Eighty-five percent of the mothers of toddlers thought that information about how to handle common accidents should be included in their parent education classes. Mothers of pre/k age children (81%) were interested in information about handling emotional crises. They were not interested in information about handling accidents or other physical crises.

Establishing Routines For Parents and Children

There was great variation among the three groups in the types of routines they were interested in discussing. All of the mothers of infants rated limit-setting and discipline, safety- proofing the home, and private time as important topics for parent education classes. They also expressed interest in discussing crying (83%) and play (83%). Only half of them were interested in talking about bottle vs breast-feeding and weaning. Mothers of toddlers expressed interest in only one item, play (91%), whereas mothers of older children were interested in discussions focused on private time for all members of the family (91%)and chores and responsibilities in the home (86%).


The responses of mothers in this study, residents of one of the most affluent communities in the United States, documented a high degree of interest in participating in parent education programs. This finding clearly contradicts the general social assumption that affluent parents, who tend to be highly-educated and have access to many resources, are less interested in participating in parent education programs.

Overall the topics that these mothers identified in the needs assessment questionnaires were similar to those that have been documented for parents in middle-class families and families with limited incomes. For example, they were interested in expanding their knowledge of child growth and development and were interested in improving their skills and abilities in areas pertaining to guidance and discipline, children's learning, positive family relationships, handling crises and emergencies. The only topic most of these mothers were not interested in covering was "accessing and utilizing community services". Discussion with the mothers suggested that they already felt knowledgeable about available community resources and could access them readily if needed.

Although the interests of these women were similar to those of mothers in other socio-economic groups, discussions with parent educators who lead the classes indicated that within the individual group sessions the discussions often focused on issues specific to living and raising children in affluent families residing within affluent communities.

For example, in the area of caring for self, mothers who had left high power/high visibility careers to become stay-at-home moms wanted to discuss issues surrounding changes in their personal identity and changing roles. In discussions on nurturing family relationships, participants needed to talk about problems associated with fathers working in high power/high pressure jobs.


These findings establish a clear need for parent educators to include the needs of parents and children in affluent families when developing their service plans.

As with all other audiences, programs need to be refined to meet the specific needs of this audience. Once general topics have been identified using a needs assessment questionnaire, we suggest that the most effective role for the parent educator is one of informational resource and group facilitator. Given the articulate and highly educated nature of this audience, traditional didactic methods of parent education are not appropriate. Rather within each topic, sessions are most successful if parents are given the opportunity to take the lead in focusing discussion on issues of most concern to them.

The findings of this study also have implications for the field of parent education in general. The data support NEPEM's categories and priority areas and support the appropriateness of using this model with affluent families. The data also indicate that age/stage specific questionnaires help to identify important but subtle differences in the information needs of parents with children of different ages. Finally, these data reiterate the importance of being sensitive to the idiosyncratic needs and interests of each audience served, whatever their circumstances


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This article is online at http://www.joe.org/joe/1998february/a2.html.