“How many people here have children? And how many of you are confident that you know how to bring up your children in exactly the right way?” Helen Pearson asked her audience at the TED talk she gave on the research conducted for her book, “The Life Project”.
In her book she details what British researchers have learned about parenting from the longest study on human development ever conducted. She highlights two very specific things that influences a child’s development: poverty, and of course, parents. Watch how she breaks it all down, and explains what parents can do to boost their children's development, in the full video below.
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The mother of three begins by admitting that she, and most parents, don't actually know what the right way is to raise our children.
“I want them to be happy and healthy in their lives, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do to make sure they are happy and healthy. There's so many books offering all kinds of conflicting advice, it can be really overwhelming. So I've spent most of their lives just making it up as I go along.”
She continues, “Something changed me a few years ago, when I came across a little secret that we have in Britain. It's helped me become more confident about how I bring up my own children, and it's revealed a lot about how we, as a society, can help all children. I want to share that secret with you today.”
The longest study on human development
This British study, which has been running for 70 years, is following the lives of thousands of children all the way through adulthood, to see which factors influence things such as their happiness and health.
“So it all starts back in 1946, just a few months after the end of the war, when scientists wanted to know what it was like for a woman to have a baby at the time. They carried out this huge survey of mothers and ended up recording the birth of nearly every baby born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week. That was nearly 14 000 babies.
"The questions they asked these women were very different than the ones we might ask today. They sound really old-fashioned now. 'During pregnancy, did you get your full extra ration of a pint of milk a day?', 'How much did you spend on smocks, corsets, nightdresses, knickers and brassieres?'. And this is my favorite one: 'Who looked after your husband while you were in bed with this baby?',” to great laughter in the audience.
“These are some of the best-studied people on the planet, and the data has become incredibly valuable for scientists, generating well over 6 000 academic papers and books. But today I want to focus on just one finding – perhaps the most important discovery to come from this remarkable study. And it's also the one that spoke to me personally, because it's about how to use science to do the best for our children.”
She broke it down in two points.
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1. “Don’t be born into poverty”
Helen Pearson talks about the “biggest message from the study”, even though it might be the uglier, sadder news: “Don’t be born into poverty or disadvantage, because if you are, you’re far more likely to walk a difficult path in life.”
Well, that's no surprise. But she explains:
“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.
"Now, maybe that sounds really obvious, but some of the results have been really surprising, so 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.
“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 3. 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.”
“So there we have it. The first lesson for successful life, everyone, is this: choose your parents very carefully.”
It's not all bad news, though. “We can't choose our parents or how much they earn, but this British study has also struck a real note of optimism by showing that not everyone who has a disadvantaged start ends up in difficult circumstances. As you know, many people have a tough start in life, but they end up doing very well on some measure nevertheless, and this study starts to explain how.”
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2. “Parents really matter”
And here's the silver lining.
“The second lesson is this: parents really matter. In this study, 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.”
She elaborates, “In one study, scientists looked at about 17 000 children who were born in 1970. They sifted all the mountains of data that they had collected to try to work out what allowed the children who'd had a difficult start in life to go on and do well at school nevertheless. In other words, which ones beat the odds.
"The data showed that what mattered more than anything else was parents. Having engaged, interested parents in those first few years of life 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:
"Talking and listening to a child, 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. So in one study, children whose parents were reading to them daily when they were 5 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.”
She offers example upon example that all point to the same conclusion: no matter how challenging your circumstances, if you try to be a good parent, your children will have a great chance of succeeding.
But, Pearson says, good parenting can only go so far. “Poverty leaves a really lasting scar… 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,” she says.
Alleviating poverty altogether isn’t something we can do right away, but as parents there are certain things we can do to ensure our kids are, for the sake of her initial argument, happy and healthy.
“Wouldn't it be great to think that 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? Our job would be done. Now, as you can imagine, the answers aren't quite as simple as that.”
She continues, offering advice from her own home situation. “I realised I was so busy working, and ironically, learning and writing about this incredible study of British children, that there were days when I hardly even spoke to my own British children. So at home, we introduced talking time, which is just 15 minutes at the end of the day when we talk and listen to the boys.
"I try better now to ask them what they did today, and to show that I value what they do at school. Of course, I make sure they always have a book to read. I tell them I'm ambitious for their future, and I think they can be happy and do great things. I don't know that any of that will make a difference, but I'm pretty confident it won't do them any harm, and it might even do them some good.”
So after all her research, she concludes with a very simple, but possibly full-proof parenting strategy:
“Ultimately, if we want happy children, all we can do is listen to the science, and of course, listen to our children themselves.”
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