Copyright © 2018. Inter-American Development Bank. If you wish to republish this article, please request authorization at sph-communication@iadb.org

Interview by Andrea Proaño Calderon. 

Lee la versión en español aquí.

How do we make decisions when our lives are so complex? An increasingly popular way to approach this question is through behavioral sciences—the science of evaluating psychological, cognitive, emotional, cultural, neuroscience and social factors and their impact on decisions. To explore the intersection between behavioral sciences and public policies, the InterAmerican Development Bank has launched a series of webinars featuring renowned subject experts and convened by our co-editor Florencia Lopez Boo.

We spoke to Ariel Kalil, Director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy and Co-Director of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab at the University of Chicago, on the application of behavioral economics to Early Childhood Development policies.

A powerful thing you said during your webinar is that “parents are the single greatest influence on children.” How and why is the role of parents paramount to child development?

Usually when we think about child learning and development, we think about schooling and institutions outside the home. My hypothesis is that most people will say we can fix childhood issues through schooling. Consequently, the role of parents has become kind of lost both in research and policy. But if you look at where children spend their time, especially during their first and most critical years, it’s in a family environment. They spend less time in school versus in the company of their parents and caregivers. Even beyond caregiving, parents play a critical role throughout the years. For example, parents select their children’s environments all the time based on things they think are good for them, like neighborhoods, schools, etc., although some constraints exist. All this suggests parents are the number one influence on children.

How true is it that parents in low income contexts, usually under stress, tend to procrastinate more in their interactions with children than those in higher income contexts?

It’s the 20-million-dollar question… There’s a general notion that life is more complex and complicated in low-income contexts, and that as stress increases so does the probability of procrastination. Under stress, it might be more appealing to choose leisure time or watching TV for 20 extra minutes rather than reading to your child because you’ve had a long day and you think you’ll read tomorrow. There’s no question this happens in all families, but it might be more common in low income households because there are more – or different – kinds of stressors. This does not mean these parents don’t value the return on time investment in the early childhood. Surveys of parents of young kids show that parents have very high expectations for their children’s future and are therefore willing to invest in the present time to increase their cognitive development. But less educated or low-income parents have a harder time converting what they wish to do into what they actually do.

Do children in these contexts learn to procrastinate?

That’s an interesting question. Children behavior is modelled on their parents, and maybe if they grow up in households that don’t have routines or language about doing things today because it’s important for the future — such as: ‘You need to read today because you’re going to kindergarten tomorrow’— that can be possible. If children don’t grasp the idea that the reason you do things now is for a future reward, their horizon might be different.

Evidence suggests more educated parents spend more time with their children. What implications does this have for vulnerable contexts? What strategies can we implement to change this?

Assuming parent-child interactions have an impact on development, we should be concerned if one group of kids gets the benefits of parental time and another doesn’t. However, over time low-income parents have vastly increased the time they spend with their children. Less educated parents now spend the same amount of time with their kids than more educated parents did 30 years ago. But highly-educated parents have also increased their time investments over time, and thus we still see income-based inequality in parent engagement. If there’s a minimum threshold for time investment, parents in low income families have reached it, but a puzzle we still need to solve is whether there is such a threshold or if more is always better.

How to close these gaps turns out to be easier than we might have thought because we know low-income parents share the same aspirations for their kid’s development. They do not enjoy time with their kids any less, and they do not completely lack the tools to promote their development. Most homes have at least some books. But the answer is not to give them more books; rather, we must provide tools for optimal decision-making, where the optimal decision is parents doing the things they say they want to do.

Evidence also suggests parents with lower levels of education have just as much positive feelings about spending time in child care and with their children, even though they spend less time in those activities. What does this apparent paradox tell us?

 That given the opportunity, they would do it more and enjoy it as much. At the BIP Lab, we’ve learned a lot about why parents do or don’t do certain things, rejecting long-standing assumptions. For example, it’s not always true less-educated parents don’t do a particular thing for their kid because they lack information. When we survey them, it turns out they know a lot! So if they know, why are they not doing it? Behavioral economics places parenting in a decision-making framework.

 The decisions parents make on whether they read to their kids need not be different to any other decision to something not related to kids. It comes down to this: if you have an hour in front of you, how will you use it? This is a very new way of thinking about parenting. Interventions designed around this concept aim to create the conditions, so they can make decision A vs B: to read vs not; brush their teeth vs not, eat healthier vs not.

How to achieve this goal?

We want to help parents go from doing none of what they say they want to do most of the time, to doing at least a little bit of it much of the time. To do this, we need to manage different cognitive biases that are standing in the way of parents doing things they say they want to do. We want parents to be goal-oriented and think about the future by bringing the future to the present.

The tools we use are not expensive, don’t demand a lot of parent time, and work in many different income contexts.  For example, we send parents reminders via text about setting and meeting a goal for reading time with their kids that week. Or, if parents think other kids are missing school as much as theirs, we show them that might not be true, changing normalization patterns that get in the way of them doing things differently. It’s about finding the right match and tool, matching tools that already exist to behaviors you want to change.

To finish out interview, a very important question: you mentioned “the key to closing the gap in child outcomes is closing the gap in what families do with their children.” What are some examples of what parents could do to this end?

There are some key things parents should be doing, and cognitive stimulation is right up there: talking, reading, stimulating quality interactions and strong communications… There’s no app or media or TV that’s a substitute for active dynamic interaction with human beings, which takes many forms.

Second, children need consistency, so there needs to be routine in caregiving. They need to know where their next meal is coming from, metaphorically, to have confidence about their environment. Parents should be affectionate and warm, and they should be so consistently.

An important aspect parents need to care for is their children’s health. This unfortunately changes a lot between high and low-income households. Our research shows the number one infection in children, and also the most preventable, are cavities! This is largely a function of one behavior: toothbrushing. Most parents have what they need to prevent this: a toothbrush.

All this shows that approaching parenting through a decision-making lens and shaping parent behavior can definitely pave the way for children to reach their full potential. We need to be their best allies.

Which activities would you want to share with your children more? Leave your comments below or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

Andrea Proaño Calderon is the communications consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank’s Social Protection and Health Division.

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