The Family Firm (2021) explores the latest research on pre-teen child development. It explains how parents can make data-driven decisions on important parenting decisions like a child’s school, bedtime, diet, and extracurricular schedule.
Approach parenting decisions like a business leader.
The art of parenting and the art of business have more in common than you might think. When good business leaders need to make hard choices, they gather evidence and process data to determine the best way forward.
In these blinks, you’ll discover how parents can take a similar approach.
You’ll unravel the latest research from the field of child development and learn what the evidence really says about the most pressing questions you face as the parent of a five- to twelve-year-old child. From how much sleep your child needs to healthy diets and screen time, this is your how-to guide for optimized parenting.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- how to get your kids to eat vegetables;
- the link between parental work and school grades; and
- why helicopter parenting has its perks.
Getting enough sleep is the foundation for your child’s success and well-being.
In addition to being a parent, the author is also an economist. She specializes in looking at how we can use data to make better decisions. But data doesn’t only exist in economics. As the author has found out, scientific studies have a lot to teach us about hot-button parenting topics, including something as universal as sleep.
Everyone on the planet needs to sleep, and your child is no exception. But sleep isn’t just about recharging a child’s batteries; studies show that it’s crucial for their development and well-being.
One study that looked at 3,000 high-school students in Rhode Island found that children who had less sleep and later bedtimes also got the worst grades. Not only that, but these children were also more likely to suffer from depression.
The key message here is: Getting enough sleep is the foundation for your child’s success and well-being.
The link between grades and sleep time isn’t a simple one. A 2010 meta-analysis that looked at the sleep habits of 20,000 children found that the biggest predictor of academic performance wasn’t actually the amount of sleep. Instead, it was children’s levels of daytime sleepiness. This suggests that each child may need different amounts of sleep to get them through the day without feeling sleepy.
But does poor sleep actually cause poor performance in school? Could another factor, such as poverty, cause both poor sleep and poor grades? Luckily, researchers have come up with an answer.
In one experiment, researchers asked children between the ages of eight and twelve to sleep one hour less each night for a whole week. Then, the following week, the researchers asked the children to sleep one hour more. Now, this might not sound very much. After all, many children often wind up having an hour more or less sleep per night, depending on their schedule. But surprisingly, the researchers discovered that this one hour makes all the difference. At the end of the week in which the children slept less, they performed worse on memory and math tests and also had more emotional outbursts.
This study suggests that, even within the recommended range of nightly sleep time, more is probably better. For kids in elementary school, around 11 hours is a good idea.
Working outside the home might affect your kids’ academic performance and their health.
What difference will it make to your children’s lives if you work full-time? Many parents – and sadly, still women most of all – grapple with this question a lot. But what does the data say? What’s really best for your kids and for you?
Of course, the data can’t tell us everything. It can’t say much about whether working or staying at home will make your child happier or improve your relationship with them. These things are just too difficult to measure. But the data can tell us about the effects of parental work on two child outcomes: academic performance and obesity.
The key message here is: Working outside the home might affect your kids’ academic performance and their health.
According to the research, when mothers work outside the home, their children tend to get better grades. However, the effect is very small and it changes depending on what kind of family you are. The biggest positive effect on kids’ grades was found in the cases of working mothers from low-income families and families of color. There’s also evidence that having a working mother is more beneficial for daughters than for sons.
On the other hand, for high-income families, the research shows a very small negative effect on academic performance when the mother works. This might be because time that the mother spends working would otherwise be spent on doing enriching activities with her children.
When it comes to the link between parental work and child obesity, the evidence is stronger: children whose parents both work full-time are significantly more likely to suffer from obesity. Again, this is especially the case with high-income families, although researchers aren’t sure why that is. What we do know is that, on average, children with parents who work full-time eat less healthy food, drink more soda, and watch more television, all of which are risk factors for obesity.
But what effect does working outside the home have on your well-being? Well, if you’re a mother, you might find the evidence slightly dispiriting. While research shows that having a career makes women happy, and that having a family makes women happy, it also shows that the two don’t gel.
In other words, having both a career and a family at the same time is a recipe for stress. Mothers who work full-time report being more frazzled, tired, and miserable than mothers who stay home.
People’s tastes stay with them for life, so offer your child healthy food.
Ever find yourself pleading with your child to eat their vegetables, or wrestling candy bars away from them? Feeding children can be a source of worry and frustration for most parents. But what does the data say about kids’ diets?
For better or for worse, the food children eat matters – even more than you probably think. Why? Because childhood diet has a huge impact on what people eat later in life. Incredibly, tastes for certain foods can even develop in the womb. One study found that children whose mothers ate a lot of carrots while pregnant later reported liking carrots much more than other children.
The key message here is: People’s tastes stay with them for life, so offer your child healthy food.
Even as adults, people stay deeply attached to the foods they ate in childhood. One study of college students found that not only did they still like the foods they ate as children – they still ate them regularly, too.
Another study looked at people who grew up in a traditionally rice-eating area of India but as adults moved to an area that mostly ate wheat. Even though rice was more expensive there and many of the people were living in poverty, they still chose to eat rice.
Of course, getting your children into the habit of eating healthy food is easier said than done. Can the data help?
It can! When it comes to eating vegetables, the evidence suggests that repetition is the key. The more times you expose your children to veggies, the more likely they are to enjoy them.
One study gave preschool children red pepper and squash and then asked the children to rate how much they liked them. The first time, the average response was “yucky.” But after six tries, the average response had nudged up almost to “yummy.” What’s more, by the time the study ended, the children were eating more than four times more vegetables than they were at the start!
So don’t just offer your child a food once and give up if they don’t like it. Instead, give it to them again next week, and then again, and again, and again.
Helicopter parenting doesn’t deserve its bad rep.
What kind of parent do you want to be? Are you a tiger mom, ferociously pushing your kids to achieve? Or a free-range chicken parent, taking a hands-off approach and letting your child roam free? In this blink we’ll be focusing on the helicopter parent: the type of mom or dad who constantly hovers around their kids, doing everything for them.
What does helicopter parenting look like? For starters, a parent who acts as their child’s alarm clock, making sure she gets out of bed on time. By then, the helicopter has already laid out their child’s school clothes and moved on to preparing her breakfast. Then they’ll check that her backpack is packed and walk her to school.
Helicopter parenting has a terrible reputation. But is it really that bad? The data suggests not.
The key message here is: Helicopter parenting doesn’t deserve its bad rep.
One recent study found that greater parental involvement was correlated with better academic performance in high-school students. Larger meta-analyses that have reviewed lots of studies, including those involving much younger children, have also found that more parental involvement leads to better grades.
This makes sense. Consider a ten-year-old child who gets up on his own every day, packs his own backpack, and remembers his own homework. He might do this reasonably well most of the time. But he’s still a child, so he’ll inevitably forget things and some days he’ll run late. The child with the helicopter parent, on the other hand, won’t. So over time, she might have an advantage.
This being said, helicopter parenting can easily go too far and lead to negative outcomes, especially when children are older. Several studies of college-age kids have found that heavily involved parenting leads to young people who are less engaged with peers and have higher levels of anxiety and depression. This suggests that it’s important to reduce your hovering in order to foster independence in your children before they head off to college.
Is there a particular type of parental involvement that leads to good outcomes for children? The data suggests that it’s best to consistently encourage your children and show them what a good attitude looks like. In other words, it’s about being highly supportive and teaching them about what matters in life.
Doing their homework for them, on the other hand, is going a step too far; studies have shown that this isn’t beneficial.
Data can help us understand what a good school looks like.
How much time will your child spend at school? Well, if the typical school day lasts eight hours and he attends for thirteen years, not counting holidays, then he’ll wind up spending close to 19,000 hours there! So it’s bound to be worth choosing the school that gives him the best chance of success.
But how can you identify a great school? You guessed it: let’s look at the evidence.
It turns out that great schools have a few key features in common – first and foremost, great teachers.
The key message here is: Data can help us understand what a good school looks like.
Everyone knows that teachers are important. But how important? You might be surprised. One study found that people who were taught by experienced kindergarten teachers not only performed better in kindergarten, but also pulled in a bigger salary in their late twenties.
Another study, which also included older children, found that having a high-caliber teacher was associated with lower rates of teenage pregnancy as well as higher earnings in later life. A great school is often also a small school: studies show that smaller class sizes lead to greater achievement not just in school, but also over the long term.
If you’re based in the United States, you may also be trying to decide whether to send your child to a public school or a charter school. Evaluating which type of institution is truly better is notoriously difficult. That’s because families whose children attend charter schools are likely to differ from families whose children don’t in other ways, too, and it may be these differences that impact academic performance, rather than the schools themselves.
This being said, school districts in several states use a lottery system to randomly decide which children are eligible to attend charter schools. Data from these school districts shows that the children who attend charter school go on to perform better academically than those who don’t. The boost in performance isn’t small, either; it’s roughly equivalent to six IQ points. This suggests that you might want to select a charter school over a public one if you find yourself in the position of being able to choose.
Sports have some long-term benefits for kids, but potential risks too.
Dance class, soccer practice, tennis lessons: the dizzying array of athletic activities available to the 21st-century child can seem overwhelming. You could easily feel like you spend half your life dragging your kid from one sports club to the next. But what does the scientific literature say about the benefits and pitfalls of children’s love of sports?
Many parents report sending their child to after-school sports clubs for the sake of their health and fitness. But just how much do sports benefit children’s health? Maybe not as much as you think.
The key message here is: Sports have some long-term benefits for kids, but potential risks too.
When it comes to obesity, the data shows that taking part in sports has very little effect; it won’t safeguard your child against gaining too much weight, and studies have even found that for some sports, such as American football, the children who play them are actually more likely to be overweight.
Of course, overweight children may just choose to play football more often, but we don’t know for sure. While athletic activities almost certainly don’t make children overweight, it’s also true that kids who take part in them have been found to eat both more nutritious food and more junk food.
There are other health benefits to participating in sports. One study looked at Swiss children, some of whom began a program of extracurricular sports and some of whom didn’t. Even two years after the program ended, the children who played sports retained a higher level of aerobic fitness.
Other studies have found evidence of another long-term benefit of childhood sports: getting involved as a young child is associated with exercising more as an adult, too.
Unfortunately, there are potential costs as well as gains. Specifically, some sports might benefit your child’s body but pose a risk to her brain through concussion. Scientists now know that repeated trauma to the head can leave indelible marks on the brain and lead to neurological problems later in life.
Some of the most popular extracurricular sports involve movements that make this kind of trauma more likely. American football carries the highest rate of concussion of any sport, closely followed by soccer – particularly girls’ soccer. Wrestling and basketball are also high risk. If these potential costs seem too high, you could encourage your child to take up sports with a low risk of concussion instead, such as running, tennis, or swimming.
The data on kids and screen time is mixed.
Are you concerned about your child’s screen time? Most modern parents worry that their kids spend too much time staring at either the television or another type of digital screen, whether it’s video games, social media, or Netflix. But how anxious should you really be about this?
Undoubtedly, some of the fear surrounding screen time is simply because screens are new. Although it’s hard to believe now, when novels became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, people worried that they might have a bad influence, too.
And much as you might worry about screen time today, the data on this issue isn’t quite what you might expect.
The key message here is: The data on kids and screen time is mixed.
The average American child watches 24 hours of television a week, but it’s not clear whether television itself is doing them any harm. While studies have found that children without access to TV get better grades, that could be because these children spend more time doing something else that benefits their school performance, such as homework or reading.
When it comes to video games, the evidence is also shaky. Laboratory studies have found that children who have just played violent video games behave more aggressively than children who have just played non-violent ones. Added to this, people who play violent video games are more likely to exhibit violent tendencies themselves.
But researchers aren’t sure whether people with a propensity for violence are more likely to choose violent games, or whether video games actually make people more violent.
Many parents also worry about their child becoming addicted to video games, but evidence suggests that only a small minority – between two and ten percent of children who game – show signs of being addicted. What’s more, there’s some evidence that these children have preexisting tendencies towards addiction anyway. So if they weren’t addicted to gaming, they might have become heavily involved with, say, alcohol or drugs instead.
However, one firm conclusion about the negative effects of screen time can be drawn: it’s bad for sleep. Children with a television in their bedroom report getting less and lower-quality sleep.
What’s more, studies show that children who look at a screen in the two hours before bedtimes sleep worse. This applies to adults, too. So there’s one habit you should encourage your children to break – and probably yourself, too.
The key message in these summary is that:
The decisions you make for your child can impact them throughout their whole lives. To set your child up for success, focus your energies on ensuring they get good sleep, eat healthy foods, and attend a school with great teachers and small classes. While you may want your child to be independent, there’s nothing wrong with packing their homework for them and making them breakfast on a school day. In fact, it will help them stay on track.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Make time for family meals.
If you want to give your children a better start in life, try and have dinner together as much as possible. Studies show that, compared to kids who rarely or never eat family dinners, kids who do so every day are much less likely to consume alcohol or use tobacco. They also enjoy much lower rates of depression, are at lower risk of an eating disorder, and tend to be more engaged at school. Any way you look at it, family dinners are the way to go.
About the Author
I’m an economics professor at Brown University, a writer of books on pregnancy and parenting and the author of the Substack newsletter “ParentData”. My goal: creating a world of more relaxed pregnant women and parents.
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