I was looking at my 10-month-old son the other day spinning and laughing, playing with a new friend, unfettered by time or adult rules. Was he playing to learn or consciously seeking new information or skills? If you look closely, he was indeed exploring spatial relationships, honing motor capabilities, practicing social skills and basic language, creatively thinking, gathering information about the world through his senses, or simply, developing and learning through play.

The interesting thing is that the way I play with him might have been influenced by the way my grandma used to play with my mom! Is there an intergenerational transmission of parenting practices? And, will an intervention aiming to the less stimulating families lead to better child development?

In the early nineties, researchers at the University of the West Indies (UWI), in Jamaica, initiated a two-year randomized trial (sometimes called the “Jamaica study”) of nutritional supplementation and/or early childhood stimulation motivated by the fact that undernourished children have sustained deficits in intelligence, educational achievement and psychological functioning. Previous approaches had disregarded the stimulation components (i.e. community health workers ‘teaching’ parents in their home how to interact with their children effectively) by focusing only on nutritional interventions (i.e. multivitamins in the form of powder or tablets).

They found that stimulation had sustained benefits to cognition, education and mental health. UWI and the IDB hypothesized that the sustained deficits associated with undernourishment may contribute to the intergenerational transmission of poor growth and development. Or, that the benefits from stimulation will lead to better child development in the next generation. We basically wanted to see the impact of parents’ early childhood experiences on the development of their children, or more specifically whether benefits from early childhood stimulation are seen in participants’ offspring.

Heckman and colleagues estimate benefit-cost ratios of early childhood development (ECD) programs to be between 7 and 12 for a US program, while Berlinski and co-authors find this ratio to be between 3 and 19 for Argentina. With this cost-effectiveness framework in mind, the project started in 2009 researching an area that had not been explored ever before: the intergenerational impacts of parenting practices, which in turn might make benefit-cost ratios much higher!

Children (ages 12-72 months) born to mothers or fathers who were participants in “Jamaica study” were then surveyed.  Results show that children of undernourrished, non-stimulated parents had lower developmental scores compared with children of well-fed parents. Development was not significantly lower in children of undernourrished-stimulated parents compared with the non-undernourrished group and parents in the undernourrished-stimulated group provided higher levels of stimulation in their home.  These results suggest that the intervention may benefit parenting of the next generation; therefore, parents who received stimulation in early childhood are providing a more stimulating home environment for their children.

These research results are now at the core of various projects involving ECD in  Bolivia,  Paraguay and Nicaragua. An upcoming ECD loan in Venezuela is also taking that very promising direction.

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