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):