Teaching disadvantaged adults about child development is an effective way to reduce inequality

Some recent research highlights the point I have made in the past that who your parents are matters for your future prospects. We all make choices as we emerge into the adult world, but the constraints that are dished up to us by our parents are in many cases more important in determining our future outcomes than the choices we make. The mainstream neoclassical explanation for income differentials focus on the choices – for education, training, and other career development pathways. From a policy perspective, I think it is more sensible to focus on the constraints as they are in many cases fairly easily altered by sensible government intervention. However, in the real world, not only are the constraints that individuals face conditioned by the circumstances that they are born into, but those circumstances also influence the choices the individuals make. Recent research has found that educational programs for parents in disadvantaged situations to show them what determines child development not only improves the lives of the adults involved but also delivers much better outcomes for their children. They are able to make better decisions which, in turn, improve the environment in which they are learning and building their skills. The policy implications are clear.

I wrote about these issues in this blog post – Parents are advance secret agents for the class society (June 25, 2015).

Some recent research (published December 12, 2021) – Addressing the roots of educational inequities by shifting parental beliefs – reinforces the analysis from that post.

I noted in that blog post that Dutch economist Jan Pen wrote in his 1971 book – Income Distribution – that:

Parents are advanced secret agents of the class society.

This observation tells us that it is crucial that public policy target disadvantaged children in low-income neighbourhoods at an early age if we are going to change the patterns of social and income mobility and address the root causes of income and wealth inequalities.

The message from Pen was that the damage was done by the time the child reached their teenage years.

While the later stages of Capitalism has found new ways to reinforce the elites which support the continuation of its exploitation and surplus labour appropriation (for example, deregulation, suppression of trade unions, real wage suppression, fiscal austerity), it remains that class differentials, which have always restricted upward mobility and ensured income inequality and access to political influence persist, are still well defined and functional.

And the class effects work through the parent conduit.

In terms of choices and constraints, this means that not only are the constraints facing children vastly different depending on the socio-economic background, but, that background also shapes the sort of decision-making we make – that is, our choices.

The two are interdependent.

I could write more about how this negates a lot of the mainstream neoclassical thinking in this area, which assumes that individuals are independent, maximising machines that always make the best choices available subject to their constraints.

The choices might be different but they are assumed to be ones that maximise satisfaction at any particular time.

The new research cited above seeks to answer the question:

… to what extent do differences in parents’ beliefs about child development explain the observed differences in parental inputs and child outcomes?

The authors and their associates have previously found that:

1. “Parental inputs are critical in the formation of children’s skills during the first stages of development”.

2. “these inputs substantially differ across socioeconomic backgrounds” – setting the templates up for inequality at an early age.

3. “as early as age three, and consistently until the end of high school, there is a clear gradient in child test scores by mothers’ level of education”.

In the latest research, the authors (List, Pernaudet, Suskind) all associated with the University of Chicago:

… analyse how parental beliefs differ across socioeconomic strata and experimentally test the malleability of these beliefs.

They find that:

,,, more educated mothers are more likely to believe that parental investments affect child development than mothers with lower levels of education are. (Beliefs are assessed right after the birth of the child.)

Their study creates “two field experiments” (interventions) which seeks to advance their research questions.

They involve training parents in child development strategies, covering for example ” linguistic interactions, encouragement, incorporation of math concepts into everyday conversations”.

The findings are stark.

Parental beliefs are “malleable” – that is, with appropriate interventions, the parents can begin to think differently about things.

This also accords with what I have written about in the past with respect to how we can change deep-seated ideas about how the monetary system works.

The cognitive linguist, Ronald Langacker says that:

Construal is our ability to conceive and portray the same situation in alternate ways. Every lexical and grammatical element incorporates, as an inherent aspect of its meaning, a certain way of construing the conceptual content evoked.

In a cognitive framework, there are many possible ways to view a particular situation or thing. This is the area of ‘construal’. A change in perception from one way of viewing something to another is described through the process of ‘construal’.

Different construals can be achieved by drawing on different conceptualisations and knowledge structures.

I wrote about that in this blog post (among several others) – The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism (June 19, 2018).

The Chicago researchers found that both a “less intensive” intervention and a “more intensive programme” of parental exposure to different viewpoints “improves parental knowledge” and persists.

The more intensive program worked best and changed the way parents interact with their children and “increases the number of child vocalisations”.

They found that:

Children in the treatment group have significantly higher vocabulary and maths skills than children in the control group, and they also have better socio-emotional health, both immediately after the intervention and six months after.

Which means that even though the parental background – wealth and income – remains a limiting factor, the children in the intervention group increased their own skills, which promotes more flexibility in outcome.

The contribution of parental belief systems is also found to be significant.

After following the parents and children for four years – “starting at age one” – they found that by 22 months “18.7% of the variation in child language skills” can be explained by this intervention with parents.

What does this mean for policy makers?

The body of research in this area clearly points to the fact that early interventions are essential if long-term inequality is to be reduced.

The cited research hightlights parental belief systems, which means that policy interventions should include with working with parents directly over a sustained period to “change parental beliefs about the impact of parental investments” on the readiness of children to prosper in a learning environment (that is, school).

So the focus is on parents and that becomes a rather sticky wicket to bat on – especially in this era of ‘freedom’ marchers.

In Australia, there was a major controversy when the conservative Federal government in 2007 introduced what became known as the Intervention as a response to the damming report on the way indigenous children fall behind through parental abuse.

The policy was targetted at 73 indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and involved a series of actions – withholding 50 per cent of welfare payments (to be allocated to food etc), banning alcohol, compulsory health examinations for children, more cops, and, the sanctioning of government powers to confiscate private property.

It was very controversial and it split communities and thinkers.

The problem was that it didn’t really go to the core of the problems of child abuse and domestic violence.

It was a big stick type intervention that trampled over the individual rights and imposed a centrist dictate rather than embracing the local community networks.

These sort of ‘big stick’ interventions are common around the globe.

But the Chicago research shows us that even in circumstances where the parents have limited economic means, targetted educative interventions that aim to elucidate progressive concepts about child development are effective in improving both the parents’ awareness but also the outcomes for the children.

It is no secret that socioeconomic class can advantage or disadvantage a child from the start.

That is what Jan Pen meant when he said “Parents are advanced secret agents of the class society”.

And the era of fiscal austerity saw income and wealth inequalities widen which meant that the children of those at the lower end of the distributions inherit the disadvantage of their parents and it becomes a vicious cycle of poverty and alienation.

Breaking into this cycle isn’t easy

Of course, these disadvantages are exacerbated by the fiscal austerity cycle.

Fiscal austerity increases inequality and suppresses dynamic forces in labour markets that promote upward mobility.

Please read my blog post – The aftermath of recessions (January 4, 2011) – for more discussion on this point.

The full employment era (roughly 1945 to the late 1970s) to some extent, therefore, eroded the worst effects of the class differences that we discussed earlier.

However, once full employment was abandoned and governments adopted the austerity bias that is now chronic, the upgrading benefits that used to accompany growth have been hijacked by the rich and the vast majority of the population now miss out.


Early intervention is crucial if societies are to reduce inherited disadvantage.

They suggest a range of interventions (homevisits by nurses, quality child care, prekindergarten participation) etc. These are seen as “mitigating” the effects of poverty rather than solving (reducing) it.

But, the recent research also suggests educational programs for parents deliver outstanding benefits to both the adults and their children.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Bill notes: “Breaking into this (class-based parent/child interaction) cycle isn’t easy.” Difficult, indeed impossible, it is under capitalism, even in its more humanely-regulated forms. Only under some form of socialism could a truly level field be created for every parent and child to build their lives upon. In broken record mode, I urge Bill’s readers to catch Edward Bellamy’s compelling vision of a radically egalitarian society in his “Looking Backward” and “Equality” (both free on the net).

  2. and thanks all those bloggers who continue to recommend such rich sources of further reading including Newton E. Finn’s above

  3. Just listened to (since posting above comments’ and recommend the third Reith Lecture 2021 by Stuart Russell; ‘AI in the Economy’ … much of it dealing with the question of work and AI: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0012fnc. Pity Bill or Pavlina hadn’t been part of the invited audience. Pavlina is part of the ‘Democratising Work’ Movement; that whole movement will want to engage with the content of this lecture I think

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