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.