This article was based on the 2017 TED Talk, “Lessons from the Longest Study on Human Development,” by Helen Pearson:
|Lessons from the longest study on human development | Helen Pearson|
Parenting Isn’t Easy
Helen Pearson, like most parents, is hesitant to admit that while she wants to raise happy and healthy children, she’s not quite sure how she is supposed to do that. There are so many resources offering all kinds of conflicting advice; it can be very overwhelming. Pearson shares that she’s been making it up as she goes along but has a little secret that helped her become more confident about raising her kids. It's revealed a lot about how we as a society can help all children.
Figuring Out What Matters
For the last 70 years, scientists in Britain have been following thousands of children through their lives as part of a scientific study. Altogether, more than 70,000 children have been involved in these studies across five generations. Researchers are collecting this information so they can compare the factors that contribute to how a child’s life turns out.
No other country in the world is tracking generations of children in quite this detail. The data has become incredibly valuable for scientists, generating well over 6,000 academic papers and books. Perhaps the most important discovery to come from this remarkable study is this: being born into poverty means that you are more likely to walk a difficult path in life.
A Tough Start in Life
Many children in the study were born into poor families or into working-class families that had cramped homes or other problems. The data shows that those disadvantaged children were more likely to struggle on almost every score. They performed worse at school, ended up with worse jobs, and earned less money. Children who had a tough start in life are also more likely to end up unhealthy as adults, suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, and then decades down the line, failing memory, poor health, and they even die earlier.
Some of these differences emerge at a shockingly early 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. These types of differences have been found again and again across the generations. It means that our early circumstances have a profound influence on the way that the rest of our lives play out.
Of course, children cannot choose their parents or what situation they will be born into, but this study also shows that not everyone who has a disadvantaged start ends up in difficult circumstances. Many people have a tough start in life, but they end up doing very well on some measure nevertheless. What the study found was that parents matter.
Children who had engaged 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 important, especially in the first few years of life. Having interested parents in those first few years was strongly linked to children going on to do well at school later on.
In fact, quite small things that parents do are associated with good outcomes for children. This includes talking and listening to a child, responding to them warmly, teaching them their letters and numbers, and taking them on trips and visits. Reading to children every day seems to be really important, too.
Listen to Science and the Children
This study shows that poverty and parenting matter. The data reveals that even when parents were doing everything right – putting their kids 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. That means that poverty can leave a 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 incredibly important.
It would be great if all we had to do to have happy, successful children was to talk to them, be interested in their future, put them to bed on time, and give them a book to read. However, in the end, each of our children is going to walk their own path, and that's partly defined by the genes they inherit and of course the experiences they have through their lives, including their interactions with their parents. Ultimately, if parents want happy children, all they can do is listen to the science, and of course, listen to the children themselves.