May 19, 2024

Economix: Parenting Matters

Book Chat

Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor who specializes in research on children, is the author of “Britain’s War on Poverty,” which was published last year. She previously wrote, “What Children Need,” an overview of research on child development. Several of Ms. Waldfogel’s research papers are available from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Our conversation follows.

Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University.Rose Lincoln Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University.

Q. Bryan Caplan — the subject of our last Book Chat – argues in his new book that “parents barely affect their children’s prospects.” He says that the research on adopted twins suggests that nature trumps nurture over the long term: twins who grow up in very different families often end up very similar.

I’m somewhat skeptical of that claim. I don’t doubt that genes exert a powerful influence. But my sense is that environment does too, and not just in the short term. That sense stems in part from reading your work. Can you sketch out your view of what the research on nature and nurture shows?

Ms. Waldfogel: I think we need to be careful with the evidence from adoption and twin studies. Such studies rely on the assumption that twins adopted into different homes experience different environments, but in fact twins who are reared apart are often raised in quite similar homes. Another confounding factor is that the influence of genes seems to be stronger in more advantaged settings than it is in more disadvantaged settings. Think of corn planted in fertile, well-watered soil; the main thing that will matter in that context is genetic variation in seeds. Because adopted children more often grow up in advantaged homes, studies of adopted children will therefore tend to overstate the influence of genetics.

More generally, one very clear message from research is that the relevant question is not nature vs. nurture. The more we learn about these things, the more we understand the role played by interactions between genes and environment. Children with a particular genetic endowment will go on to have very different outcomes depending on what environment they grow up in, and effects of environmental factors will vary depending on the genetic endowment of the child. In a classic study conducted in New Zealand, for
example, children who had a specific gene associated with antisocial behavior were four times more likely to develop antisocial behavior — but only if they experienced harsh and inconsistent parenting.

Harvard University Press

It is clear that environmental factors, and parenting in particular, have a large influence on child development. Parenting is particularly important in early childhood, when children are so dependent on their parents and when they are exposed to few outside influences; but even during the school years and adolescence, parents continue to be an important influence. They select the community their family lives in and the school their child attends. They even have some influence over the peers with whom their child associates.

Social scientists have long recognized the importance of parenting, but many also recognize that we do not know very much about how to improve parenting. So, for example, we know that in early childhood, sensitive and responsive parenting matters a great deal to child development, but the evidence base is thinner as to what programs are effective in teaching parents to be more sensitive and responsive.

Q. And what are the main elements of what researchers call “sensitive and responsive parenting”?

Ms. Waldfogel: Think, for example, of an infant (whom we’ll call John) who wakes up hungry in the middle of the night. John’s mother picks him up tenderly, feeds him while softly rocking and comforting him, and then gently places him back in bed, and as a result he learns to expect sensitive and responsive care in future. But imagine another infant (whom we’ll call Sean) who also wakes up hungry. Sean’s mother has just had a fight with his father and so she picks Sean up abruptly and speaks to him harshly. Because of this, Sean does not feed well, further irritating his mother, who puts him back into his crib before he has finished eating and without comforting him. Sean learns from this encounter that when he cries out, he will not be treated sensitively and responsively and will not have his needs met.

Recent research bears out the idea that parenting is a major influence on child health and development, and not just in infancy. Despite the lack of experimental evidence (because we do not have studies that assign children randomly to different sorts of parents), the evidence from observational studies is informative.

Using data concerning young children from large, nationally representative birth cohort studies from Britain and the United States, I collaborated with Elizabeth Washbrook from the University of Bristol to analyze school readiness. Controlling for a host of factors, we asked what share of the total gap in school readiness between low-income children and their middle-income peers could be accounted for by the various sets of factors in our models. In both countries, the single most important factor was parenting. We measured this using information about: discipline practices; regular mealtimes and bedtimes; the frequency of reading, singing and library visits; the number of hours of television watched each day; the availability of a computer in the household; and the warmth and sensitivity of mother-child interactions, as assessed by trained observers.

In both countries, differences in parenting between low-income and middle-income families accounted for about one-fifth (just under 20 percent) of the gap in school readiness. Differences in parental education accounted for a similar share in the U.S. (about 18 percent) but a smaller share in the U.K. (about 11 percent). Differences in parental health accounted for a smaller portion in both countries (6 percent in the U.K. versus 8 percent in the U.S.).

This research about the importance of parenting, especially for young children, and its role in helping to explain income-related gaps, has clear implications for public policy.

Q. That segues nicely into your more recent book, on Britain’s recent war on child poverty. What’s your take on it?

Russell Sage Foundation

Ms. Waldfogel: The British reformers set themselves an incredibly ambitious goal – to end child poverty in 20 years, and cut it in half in 10. Remarkably, if you measure poverty as we do here in the U.S., using an absolute poverty line, they met that 10-year goal, cutting child poverty by more than half. But taking the European approach, they also hoped to reduce relative poverty (what we would think of here as inequality). On that metric they reduced child poverty by only 15 percent, a great achievement in a time of otherwise rising inequality but nevertheless a disappointment to them.

What they were able to do is truly inspiring. We often think here that there is nothing we can do about child poverty, that it is an intractable problem. But the British case shows that is not the case – if you make a concerted effort and invest real resources, you really can achieve significant reductions in child poverty.

Q. How’d they do it? And what have been the less successful elements of the effort?

Ms. Waldfogel: Ironically, much of what worked for the British reformers was based on U.S. policies and research.

The first leg of their antipoverty reforms, promoting work and making work pay, was modeled in large part on our welfare reforms, although the British relied mainly on work incentives rather than requirements or sanctions. Their second leg, raising incomes for families with children even if parents are not working, was more generous than existing U.S. policies but was based on U.S. research showing how important income is to child health and development, particularly in early childhood. And their third leg, a host of investments in children ranging from extensions of paid parental leave to universal preschool to a right to request part-time/flexible hours to expansions in school funding, was again based on research from the U.S. (and other countries) on the role these kinds of programs could play in reducing the risk of poverty for the next generation.

In hindsight, more could have been done. The reforms did not do enough to increase the collection of child-support payments from absent fathers. I also think Britain should have done more to raise job skills among low-income parents. And, although establishing universal preschool was a huge achievement, raising the quality of preschools and of child care continues to be a challenge.

But, on the plus side, I’d say their larger success is having moved child poverty onto the national agenda in what looks to be a permanent way. The new Conservative-led government is making deep cuts in public spending – but they have maintained the commitment to tackle child poverty. And, although most departments (including defense) are facing cuts, the Conservatives have protected and even expanded low-income tax credits and education funding (including for early education).

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