Key Lessons from the Longest Study on Human Development

For the past 70 years, scientists in Britain have been studying thousands of children through their lives to find out why some end up happy and healthy while others struggle. It’s the longest-running study of human development in the world, and it’s produced some of the best-studied people on the planet while changing the way we live, learn and parent.

In a recent TED talk, science journalist Helen Pearson shared some important findings and simple truths about life and good parenting based on the data collected as part of this project.

The good news is that parenting does matter; the disappointing, but perhaps not surprising news, is that the results support the notion of the ovarian lottery, that is, the enormous role that luck of birth plays in life outcomes.

The study reveals that children born into poverty or into disadvantage are far more likely to walk a difficult path in life. Many children in this study were born into poor families or into working-class families that had cramped homes or other problems, and it’s clear now that those disadvantaged children have been more likely to struggle on almost every score. They’ve been more likely to do worse at school, to end up with worse jobs and to earn less money.  Children who had a tough start in life are also more likely to end up unhealthy as adults. They’re more likely to be overweight, to have high blood pressure, and then decades down the line, more likely to have a failing memory, poor health and even to die earlier.

That is quite discouraging, to know that something that is completely outside of your control has such a profoundly negative impact on your future.

Some of these differences emerge at quite a young age. In one study, children who were growing up in poverty were almost a year behind the richer children on educational tests, and that was by the age of just three.

There were some optimistic findings in the study, showing that not everyone who has a disadvantaged start ends up in difficult circumstances.

And that’s where parents come in. Children who had engaged, interested parents, ones who had ambition for their future, were more likely to escape from a difficult start. It seems that parents and what they do are really, really important, especially in the first few years of life.

Here are some things parents can do that can have a positive impact:

  • Talking and listening to a child and responding to them warmly
  • Teaching them their letters and numbers
  • Taking them on trips and visits
  • Reading to children every day seems to be really important, too. In one study, children whose parents were reading to them daily when they were five and then showing an interest in their education at the age of 10, were significantly less likely to be in poverty at the age of 30 than those whose parents weren’t doing those things.
  • Having a regular bedtime. Data showed that those children who were going to bed at different times were more likely to have behavioral problems, and then those that switched to having regular bedtimes often showed an improvement in behavior.
  • The data also showed that children who were reading for pleasure at the ages of five and 10 were more likely to go on in school better, on average, on school tests later in their lives. And not just tests of reading, but tests of spelling and math as well.

So yes, parenting matters. But is it enough to overcome the problem of being born into poverty or disadvantage?

Well, one study looked at children growing up in persistent poverty and how well they were doing at school. The data showed that even when their parents were doing everything right — putting them to bed on time and reading to them every day and everything else — that only got those children so far. Good parenting only reduced the educational gap between the rich and poor children by about 50 percent. Now that means that poverty leaves a really lasting scar, and it means that if we really want to ensure the success and well-being of the next generation, then tackling child poverty is an incredibly important thing to do.

So to me that is the biggest issue we face as a nation and around the world – how to reduce the poverty gap so that we no longer have children born into poverty and all the future problems that creates for those individuals and our country.

And we also need to change our attitude; we can’t look at people who are struggling financially, socially, emotionally, or physically and assume it is their own fault.

As the data from this study shows, that’s certainly not the case.

What we need is a kinder, gentler set of policies, and a kinder, gentler attitude from all of us, to all of us.

Here is the TED talk if you would like to watch it (12 minutes):


5 thoughts on “Key Lessons from the Longest Study on Human Development

  1. I have always liked to think that coming from a well off family does not always give you a head start; rich parents are often not around much, poorer families still have love to offer. And of course children from the same family can end up taking very different paths. This study does seem to show that society must always invest in all children and act as a safety net to make sure they are well fed and their lives enriched.


    1. Hi Janet. I agree that coming from a well-off family does not guarantee a child a head start, but the research seems to suggest that a child is more likely to be better prepared for school coming from a wealthier family than a less wealthy one. Yes, parent involvement certainly plays a key role, but apparently it is not the only factor that helps a child get off to a good start. So yes, we need a strong support system for all children from birth through high school to ensure that they all have an equal opportunity to succeed.


  2. This is an excellent article, Jim. I used to teach illiterate adults how to read. It always amazed me that many of them had even made it through junior college and could not even read at the 2nd grade level. It is a terrible thing that there are so many illiterate people out there, and yes, it is partly the poverty that a lot of people grow up with, and then too, there are folks whose parents have never made it through grade school, and their grandparents, and likely their grandparents’ grandparents too. Same thing with property ownership, and I think having a home of your own provides stability that is necessary for not only a better chance to learn the big three – reading, writing and arithmetic, but to have a breakfast every day and parents who are at home at night even if they are not a lot of help. There are so many factors that go into all of this.

    I have worked with children and adults – special needs, ESL, and illiterate, and I have been very observant when I worked in the school districts. I worked for many years in that field, but I always worked as a substitute as I wanted to donate my time to the children and not paperwork and stupid meetings that never seem to really accomplish much of anything. I don’t believe in placing children in categories. It is a horrible mistake. Children grow and learn at different rates, and they need to be able to do that instead of labeling them learning disabled when they are slow to start learning. Allow them all to develop at their own rate. The teachers and others in the higher parts of education only want things they can measure, which makes no sense at all. Not all children, even the special needs children, are going to want to work in factories. Not all of them are going to make it into college. But they might be good at other things – cooking, creative efforts, etc. and those are not easy to measure so they are overlooked.

    The point is that there are many factors that cause a child not to do well in school besides poverty. Abraham Lincoln came from an impoverished family. And neither my father or mother finished high school, and they could never help us with homework, nor did my grandma, who came to the U.S. when she was 16 and became a maid for various people and later a midwife. And so I had a difficult time through my grade school years and married early and did not finish high school. But I went back and got a GED, went on to Junior College, eventually when I was on my own again, went to college and got my first degree in Archaeology, a certification as a Quality Assurance Auditor and Manager, and at 74, graduated from an online college with a degree in Criminal Justice.

    The point is that this research is flawed in that in the end result, the success of an individual depends on the individual. We got our clothes at the Goodwill, bread at the Day-old Bread store, and we bought groceries over the border (Juarez at the time). And this was a time when food was cheap. So I was poor too – perhaps not as impoverished as a lot of other children thru time, but there was a lot we didn’t have. So I think through time, there have always been individuals who make it – some even special needs individuals. I am sure poverty DOES play into it too, along with how many generations have been involved in each family.

    Another aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that when I was a child, the father generally worked, and sometimes the mom, but mostly it was one person working. Today, almost every member of a family is working, even the young people. And there are so many influences out there that were not there when I grew up – drugs, major teen pregnancies, poor nutrition – whole generations growing up on junk food and even the schools serve food that is not very nutritional. Cell phones are a huge distraction in schools and even the poverty level children have them and spend more time on them and on the social media on computers than they do their school work.

    Teachers are rushing the children through subjects instead of giving them the opportunity to ensure that they really understand basics in education. This is all because of the “No Child Left Behind” mandate, which is one of the worst things ever put together for a school system.

    I could go on and on, but I have taken more time and space and have not even hit all the issues that schools are facing today and that families too are dealing with. Your article is excellent and very thought-provoking. Thank you kindly.


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