Help kids by helping their parents

Loved Paul Tough’s What Makes Children Succeed.  It’s a great book not only for parents, but for anybody interested in human behavior and… how to make children succeed.  He’s got a new book out with the nitty-gritty on how to teach kids grit (sorry, couldn’t resist).  Or, actually, the difficulty in figuring just how to teach kids resilience.  There was a nice summary of it in the Atlantic.

Of course, so much of this comes down to parenting.  And we are, to a degree, caught in a cycle where middle-class parents teach the lessons that help their kids become middle-class adults, but lower-class parents are much less likely to parent in these optimal ways.  Not to be classist, but lower-class parents could really benefit from parenting more like middle-class parents.  Tough also had a recent NYT Op-Ed on the importance on helping parents to actually be better parents:

IN 1986, in a few of the poorest neighborhoods in Kingston, Jamaica, a team of researchers from the University of the West Indies embarked on an experiment that has done a great deal, over time, to change our thinking about how to help children succeed, especially those living in poverty. Its message: Help children by supporting and coaching their parents.

The researchers divided the families of 129 infants and toddlers into groups. The first group received hourlong home visits once a week from a trained researcher who encouraged the parents to spend more time playing actively with their children: reading picture books, singing songs, playing peekaboo. A second group of children received a kilogram of a milk-based nutritional supplement each week. A control group received nothing. The interventions themselves ended after two years, but the researchers have followed the children ever since.

The intervention that made the big difference in the children’s lives, as it turned out, wasn’t the added nutrition; it was the encouragement to the parents to play. The children whose parents were counseled to play more with them did better, throughout childhood, on tests of I.Q., aggressive behavior and self-control. Today, as adults, they earn an average of 25 percent more per year than the subjects whose parents didn’t receive home visits.

The Jamaica experiment helps make the case that if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the adults who surround them… [emphasis mine]

Of course, part of this means remediating the tremendous stress that living in poverty brings.  One thing we know for sure– growing up in a stressful environment is bad for kids and poverty is stressful.  Tough’s conclusion:

Nurturing the healthy development of infants and children, whether in the home or in the classroom, is hard and often stressful work. What we now understand is that the stress that parents and teachers feel can in turn elevate the stress levels of the children in their care, in ways that can undermine the children’s mental health and intellectual development. The good news is that the process can be reversed, often with relatively simple and low-cost interventions. To help children living in poverty succeed, our best strategy may be to first help the adults in their lives.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Help kids by helping their parents

  1. R, Jenrette says:

    If only our policy makers could see and act on the investment possibilities for the nation in creating programs that would help those parents. They seem to look at spending on the poor as a drain instead of a plan to increase national wealth.

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