The scarce resource (Hint: It’s not money.)

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough presents research on the effects of poverty on a child’s development. He argues that the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them make a huge difference in how children’s brains develop and lead to later problems in school, health, and behavior.

Similarly, in an essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” (Boston Review, Sept./Oct. 2012), James J. Heckman notes that “early adverse experiences correlate with poor adult health, high medical care costs, increased depression and suicide rates, alcoholism, drug use, poor job performance and social function, disability, and impaired performance of subsequent generations.”

Other relevant quotes from Heckman’s essay include:

“An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy, … and participation in crime.”

“…both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. This evidence is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms childhood and adult outcomes. Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…the benefits of later interventions are greatly enhanced by earlier interventions: skill begets skill…”

What are some of the implications for public policy? Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is now implementing in Indianapolis). “Programs with home visits affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end. Programs that build character and motivation, and do not focus exclusively on cognition, appear to be the most effective.”

What about programs for older children and youth? According to Heckman, “A growing body of evidence does suggest that cognitive skills are established early in life and that boosting raw IQ and problem-solving ability in the teenage years is much harder than doing so when children are young. But social and personality skills are another story. They are malleable into the early twenties, although early formation of these skills is still the best policy because they boost learning. Adolescent strategies should boost motivation, personality, and social skills through mentoring and workplace-based education.”

Heckman concludes the essay by noting that “Giving money to poor families does not, by itself, promote social mobility across generations….The scarce resource is love and parenting – not money.”

In a column titled, “Of Love and Money,” published in the New York Times May 25, 2006, David Brooks drew a similar conclusion: “Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.”

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