On the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we would like to reflect on the need to strengthen parenting skills, especially in those mothers and fathers living in poverty. There are several programs and services in the region that use different approaches to support families, particularly those with the lowest socioeconomic status, in the tasks of childrearing and to promote child development. Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the most prominent young economists in the world for his pioneering research in behavioral economics, offers a provocative reflection on the matter.
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In a piece written by Sendhil [quoted here], he touches on how difficult it is for mothers and fathers who live in poverty to be good parents, precisely because poverty manifests itself through the reduced availability of psychic resources:
“There is no formula for how to raise children well, and likely there never will be. Yet the science does tell us how not to raise children. Don’t be inattentive. Don’t be inconsistent. Don’t be disengaged. Don’t place them in intellectually pallid environments. The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents.
Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources.”
What exactly are psychic resources?
Psychic resources are the cognitive skills that allow the brain to solve everyday problems. The hypothesis that Sendhil puts forth in his work is that people living in poverty, by virtue of the fact that they must devote much of their psychic resources to tackling the survival problems associated with their basic needs, have fewer resources available for other tasks, such as decision-making about their children’s upbringing.
The magnitude of this psychic resource deficit is considerable. The same researchers who developed these concepts propose a few of the policy implications that these ideas have. Specifically, public programs and services should not impose additional cognitive costs on poor people (for example, by asking them to complete onerous administrative procedures, fulfill multiple complex requirements, or fill out lengthy forms).
When thinking about child development programs and services, the reflections of behavioral economists also lead us to consider how the curricula and pedagogical models used in direct work with parents can make the best use of the limited psychic resources that mothers and fathers have available. In other words, this goes beyond transmitting knowledge and information, providing brochures and other materials, demonstrating games, reading stories, and teaching songs. It is equally important to think carefully about how these activities are carried out with families, giving particular consideration to the kinds of resources (psychic and otherwise: time, money, travel, work, etc.) these programs demand of the targeted families.
The questions posed by behavioral economists invite us to reflect critically on our own work. In particular, they lead us to consider which aspects of program implementation—frequency, intensity, scheduling, eligibility requirements, contributions of time or work required of families, to name a few—could be simplified to avoid depleting the limited psychic resources at the disposal of the families receiving these services.
Incidentally, for those interested in learning more about the work of Sendhil and how behavioral economics is changing the way we understand poverty, I recommend this excellent interview [in English with Spanish subtitles] presented by Universidad de los Andes.