If money isn’t directly related to children’s development,what is?

I published a post a couple of weeks ago looking at the impact of a family’s income on children’s development.  Analysing information from 19,000 families, the researchers measured children’s development at three ages: 9 months, 3 years and 5 years.  They also gathered data on the family’s income as well as information on a range of factors known to be associated with children’s development.  The study found that there was a  weak or non-existent direct relationship between wealth and children’s development when intermediary factors were taken into account.  So what are  these factors and how do they affect children’s development?

Intellectual development

Parenting practices and styles appear to have a significant impact. Warm parenting and positive, harmonious parent-child interactions were associated with all measures of the child’s intellectual development at ages 3 and 5.  Discipline obtained through compliance to rules was also positively associated with development.

The level of both parent’s investment in their child’s development seemed key.  Reading to children by both the mother and the father was found to be associated with better development as was the frequency with which parents taught their children the alphabet and numbers. Both parents’ own level of education attainment was also strongly associated with their intellectual development.

The impact of grandparents was felt in a couple of ways.  Grandparent care was associated with vocabulary development suggesting that grandparents may talk and interact with children more than other forms of care. Their impact was also felt indirectly through their social economic status.  Higher levels were associated with better development, particularly in lone parent families.

Finally, breastfeeding was positively associated with most measures.

And what were the risk factors? Smoking during pregnancy was linked to poorer results for some tests at 3 and 5. A laissez-faire attitude to parenting was a risk for developmental delays when the child was 9 months. TV viewing had mixed results.  Small doses of TV watching were associated with improved language development suggesting it may help children broaden their vocabulary.  Large amounts of TV viewing were linked to worse scores on a picture similarity exercise when the children were 5 suggesting it may not help develop children’s reasoning ability.

Behavioural development

The factors associated with behavioural development were in many situations similar to those affecting the child’s intellectual development.  Warm parenting and the use of discipline enforced through rules were associated with fewer behavioural problems.   Children where both parents reported they had positive interactions also described their children as having easier temperaments.  Children whose mothers did not smoke and who breastfed likewise reported fewer problems.  A calm, organized household atmosphere, a mortgaged or owned home with safety appliances and a safe neighbourhood were also associated with fewer problems.  Finally, children who visited the library either occasionally or regularly had fewer problems.

Parents who used more punitive parenting tactics reported having children with more behavioural issues. Children whose mothers had higher levels of psychological distress and experienced either moderate or severe depression had higher levels of behavioural issues. Where mothers had poor general health or in some instances long standing illness there were more behavioural issues reported.  Mothers who did not read to their child or who reported not attempting to help their child learn their numbers and alphabet also reported more problems.  As with children’s intellectual development, higher levels of TV watching were associated with more problems.

A few words of caution.  While I think the study is interesting because of its scale and its breadth, a degree of care needs to be reserved in the interpretation of the results.  Firstly, there is a good chance that many of the factors explored are related to one another.  Maternal health is probably highly related to parenting practices for instance.  Secondly, causal links can’t be concluded from the data.

In many ways, the results confirm previous research and probably conventional wisdom.  Children appear to benefit from parents who are warm and attentive.  Setting rules to create discipline rather using punitive tactics seems to have more positive outcomes.  Moderate to severe maternal depression limits mothers’ ability to respond to their children sensitively.  And children appear to benefit from parents who create a stimulating, active environment. What is perhaps new is the impact of people other than the child’s mother. The active involvement of both fathers and grandparents appears to be beneficial to intellectual development. Fathers reading to children as well as grandparents being involved in care appear to be beneficial independent of the mother’s impact.

Violato M, Petrou S, Gray R & Redshaw M (2010) Family income and child cognitive behavioural development in the United Kingdom: does money matter?  Health Economics

Special thanks to Mara Violato for her help in accessing this article.

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