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“New research links children’s cognitive skills to time spent with Mother”

A new study reported in the Guardian on the 4th December 2016[1] suggests that children’s cognitive skills are linked to the time they spend with mother, particularly between the ages of 3 and 7. The study, carried out by academics from the University of Essex and University College London, published in this week’s edition of the Economic Journal, finds that a young child’s cognitive and social skills are improved considerably by spending more time with their mother in these years.

It also found that first-born children tend to benefit more from an early investment of their mothers’ time than siblings born after them probably because younger siblings learn from older ones.

“The researchers also found that the level of education attained by a mother has an effect on early years development. Time spent engaging in educational activities, such as reading, between the ages of three and five with a mother who has been educated beyond the minimum school-leaving age, leads to an increase in verbal skills at age seven that the authors suggest is significantly greater than achieved by children whose mothers are less well educated.”

Such findings tend to stir the sensibilities of working parents who, with the best intentions  struggle to find a work/family balance and are often forced to make difficult choices.  It is also confusing for parents when studies produce apparently conflicting findings in the space of just a few weeks.

For example, research released from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Oxford in November 2016 found conversely that young children whose mothers are not working have lower capabilities in terms of talking, social skills, movement and everyday skills[2].  A summary of these findings in Science Daily reported that,

“There was also an assessment of which activities had the most impact on skills. Reading or telling stories and singing children’s songs are both found to have a positive impact on talking capabilities. Less obviously, visiting other families with children has a positive impact on talking ability.

Singing children’s songs and painting and doing arts and crafts are found to have a positive impact on the development of movement skills, which researchers linked to the actions associated with songs and the hand skills needed for arts and crafts. Taking walks outdoors is negatively associated with movement skills, which is surprising but may be because children spend long periods in a buggy and spends less time doing other activities which appear to promote skills. Children with more siblings have better skills in all four areas, perhaps suggesting that they are learning from older siblings, despite having less time interacting with a parent.”[3]

The authors of the first study acknowledged that their findings failed to examine the role played by fathers because fathers’ non-response rates in the Millennium Cohort Study from which data was extracted were “extremely high”, resulting in a paucity of data.

How do parents begin to unravel what is important from these apparently conflicting findings?  The author of the Guardian article suggests that parents should give “as much time as they can afford” to their children in these formative years.  Sensible advice, particularly in the context of observers and experts in child development over many generations who have all concluded that the first seven years lay the foundations for life. But, “how much they can afford” is highly variable across socio-economic groups.

What matters most is not the politics of parenting, increasingly engineered by successive governments keen to entice women back into the work place, but what children need in terms of their biological, emotional, physical and social needs at different stages of development.  These biological needs remain remarkably constant across cultures and the changing fashions of generations which include: secure attachment to the primary source(s) of love (parents); physical and social engagement with the primary sources of love and an extended family around them (family and carers);  access to stories, reading, songs and games, which stimulate not only a hunger for the written word but also the building blocks of sounds and  the matching of visual symbols to sounds, which support literacy; and interaction with the physical world around them.

Parents are the most important people in a child’s life and it is logical to conclude if parents can provide this, then the child will flourish.  But, we should not pretend that other well qualified adults who are consistently involved in a child’s care cannot be good substitutes, and if a parent is unable to provide either time or involvement, then others can make up the gap.   It would seem that much boils down to how much positive active involvement a child has with adults in their ken with whom they are securely attached.  In this context, parents will always be the favourites but in a world in which parents have so many demands, as a society we should value the role of parenting just as much as we support parents who go out to work.  The most recent study confirms what has always been known, that parents really are the architects of society in the future.

[2]  Annand P, Roope L, 2016. The development and happiness of very young children.  Social Choice and Welfare. DOI: 10.1007/s00355-016-0993-9

[3] Young children of working mothers have better skills than those of stay-at-home mothers, study suggests,  Science Daily, November 16, 2016

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