By Daniela Philipp

In my last post, I talked about the importance of soft skills, such as optimism, resilience or persistence, to a child’s ability to lead a successful life. These soft skills are not something we’re born with and are unable to change. Instead, these skills are formed by our early experiences throughout our childhood and adolescence. In this post I want to reflect on this question: If there is a window of opportunity during which a person’s character is shaped and that will help him or her make it through life successfully, how can we make the most of this period?

That’s of course the big challenging question for every parent and certainly, there is no one recipe for successful upbringing. But there is growing scientific evidence that some very small actions can have a huge positive impact on a child: loving hugs and cuddles!

In his last Sunday Column in the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof talked about some of these findings. For example, research on rats shows that baby rats that experienced high levels of licking and grooming from their mothers are better prepared to deal with stress. They also do much better at finding their way through mazes and, most intriguingly, they actually show differences in the anatomy of their brains when compared to rats that experienced lower levels of licking and grooming from their mothers. Another post in our blog by Florencia Lopez-Boo talked about similar findings: rats that as babies experienced low levels of licking and grooming later in life showed higher levels of anxiety and negative emotions.

If these findings are true for humans, this means that hugging and cuddling (the human equivalent to rats’ licking and grooming) can prepare a child for life in the long term. And evidence shows that this is actually the case. Kristof mentions for example an interesting long-term study carried out by researchers from the University of Minnesota, which found that supportive parenting during early childhood was as important as I.Q. in predicting whether a child would graduate from high school. Nobel-prize winner, economist James Heckman, has also argued that family environment during early childhood is a major predictor of cognitive and socio-emotional abilities later in life and that the absence of supportive parenting can harms a child’s outcomes.

Poor and disadvantaged families often have less access to receiving support in raising their children. This might put them at risk for developing harmful parenting practices. Rand Conger, from UC Davis, describes this as the “Family Stress Model”. According to this model, economic hardship can have an adverse effect on parents’ emotions, behaviors, and relationships, and can affect parenting efforts negatively. This increases the risk that their children might suffer developmental problems, which carry long-term consequences in their schooling and employment outcomes.

It’s no secret that being a parent is anything but easy, whether you are well-off or not. But for poor parents it’s often difficult to meet their children’s needs. Because of this they should, from the very beginning, receive support in learning what’s crucial for their child’s development. Early childhood development programs have the big responsibility of building parenting skills and helping families understand the crucial importance of the quality of the relationship and the interactions they have with their children every day. For example, these programs can inform parents about the importance of small demonstrations of love and affection, such as loving hugs. I would like to learn more about efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean that are working with families in this direction.

Daniela Philipp is a consultant in the Social Protection and Health Division of the IDB. Daniela’s work focuses on health, nutrition, and early childhood development.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Valentina Saenz B

    Es cierto que los niños (e incluso adultos) que reciben más expresiones de cariño corporales como abrazos y caricias, se sienten mas fuertes emocionalmente para enfrentar momentos difíciles.

    Pero ademas es necesario aclarar “pobres” en que sentido. Se dice en este articulo que es más difícil para los padres “pobres” satisfacer las necesidades de sus hijos, pero entonces ¿que es de aquellas padres adinerados o acomodados que suplen las necesidades materiales de sus hijos , pero no las emocionales debido a la falta de tiempo para compartir con su familia? ¿ De qué necesidades se habla entonces?
    No es claro el propósito de este articulo, finalmente ¿cuales son las necesidades importantes? ¿las emocionales o las materiales que no pueden suplir los “pobres”?

    • Daniela Philipp

      Dear Valentina,
      thank you very much for your important comment. I´m very sorry if my article lead the misunderstanding that poor parents cannot be good parents. This is not at all what I wanted to say. Instead, what I actually was trying to emphasize is that poor and disadvantaged families often have less access to receiving support than better of parents in raising a child. At the same time, poor parents often go through severe economic stress that can affect as well their behavior and relationship towards the child. For some parents this might not be a challenge at all, where as for others it is and early childhood development programs should support especially those parents who struggle. And of course, better off families might very well need the same support and should receive it. The key is that parents (regardless of their economic status) are not left alone with the challenge to raise a child. Unfortunately we observe that it´s often the poor and disadvantaged who find themselves without any kind support. We should do our best to change this.
      Again, thanks a lot for reading our blog and sharing your opinion with us.

  • Rob N

    Hi Daniela, interesting article and good basis/start for contemplation. In my humble opinion, it should not matter what your background is, healthy/wealthy or not. What matters is what lives INSIDE a parent (or any other human being). We should be thought, raised and be able ALL to give hugs, lots of hugs! It is my strong believe that so called poor people (whom are the real rich to me) do easier access to love and affection than the so called rich as these people are “seduced” to show love and affection by buying things… if they could not buy things they HAVE to show the love and affection via they own heart and not things… Big hug, Rob

  • Julia

    Hi Daniela,

    This is an interesting article, however I also agree that it was unfortunate poor/disadvantaged families were a bit alienated through your perspective. You make valid points that the challenges they face CAN potentially lead to stress that can negatively impact a child. However, this is true of any family in any socio/economical status. Stress, neglect, arguing, and abuse for that matter, can exist in any family household. A parent’s ability to successfully meet the emotional needs of their child is influenced by many contributing factors that may be completely unrelated to economical factors. A childcare provider (live-in nanny or au pair of a wealthy family, or city-funded program for underprivleged child) can have a huge positive or negative impact, as well. I’m a bit disappointed by the short-sighted perspective in this article.

    • Daniela Philipp

      Hi Julia,

      I totally agree with you, the social-economic background of parents has nothing to do with their parental skills.

      Raising up a child is a challenge for everybody, no matter how wealthy or poor a person is. I believe, parents in general, weather they are wealthy or poor, should receive from the very beginning, support in learning what’s crucial for their child’s development.

      Unfortunately, this support doesn’t always reach parents equally. As Meredith Row, from the University of Maryland suggests in her paper “Journal of Child Language”, higher-income mothers have more means to retrieve consulting services and receive a variety of information on child development outside their family circle. I think early childhood programs should support lower-income mothers/parents to gain access to the same information and consulting services.

      Thanks for reading our blog!


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