What makes a good parent? The search for that answer has sold books, started arguments, and kept a lot of parents up at night.
Researchers from The Kellogg Foundation think they have found the answer -- one that is incredibly simple and impossibly complicated at the same time. The secret to good parenting, Sendhil Mullainathan and Saugato Datta write, is ... money.
Theirs is an elegant and complex argument, and I'd recommend reading the entire essay here. The authors identify a category they call "psychic resources," which they define as such things as "patience", "self-control", "attention", a good night's sleep and other intangibles that get you through the day. Poverty drains those resources. Money creates room for them.
Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate. To take a simple example, everyone may face the same bank overdraft fees - but steering clear of them is pretty easy for the well-off, while for the poor it requires constant attention, steely reserve and enormous amounts of self-control. For the well-off, monthly bills are automatically deducted and there is still some slack left over. For those with less income, finding ways to ensure that rent, utilities and phone bills are paid for out of small, irregular paychecks is an act of complicated financial jugglery.
Poverty, in short, serves as a giant magnifying glass, with each bump and obstacle looming large. For example, a car that won't start:
For the well-off, a broken- down car is little more than a temporary annoyance; if needed, they can "just take a cab." For those with less income, it necessitates real, meaningful trade-offs and painful sacrifices. If taking a cab becomes unavoidable, it may mean having to spend less on groceries. It may mean cutting back on the time spent with a child on account of having to work extra hours to make up for the unexpected expense. Equally, trying to avoid shelling out the cab fare may mean taking an extra couple of hours to get to work, with less time and energy left over for other things, not least supervising a child's school- work and keeping tabs on his social life.
True, all of us worry, and feel stress, the authors conclude, and all of us periodically "lose it" as a result. The difference between rich parents and poor parents, then, is that money can cushion the bumps while lack of money can amplify them. We all start out with the "same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention", they write, but those with less income use up far more of those resources just getting through the day. "Put in this light," the authors ask, "is it any surprise that low-income parents look like worse parents?"
The Kellogg commentary comes at a time when money, or the lack thereof, is the focus of other childhood and parenting research. In the New York Times recently, reporter Sabrina Taverise examined the wave of studies and concluded that the education gap between rich children and poor children is widening even as the same gap between black and white children is narrowing. This is true, she says, however you define and measure educational success -- standardized test scores, completion of college. And it would seem to mean that the "bad parenting" that the Kellogg authors recast as "stressed parenting" leaves impoverished parents (who are statistically less educated themselves) without the psychic resources to best help their children succeed in school.
So, what are the practical take-aways -- the policy implications -- of turning this new lens on parenting? Of seeing it as a function of economics more than parental "training" or "worth"?
After all, this is not the first anyone has ever noticed that poverty makes parenting harder. As James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, tells Tavernise, "the danger," of this psychic resources analysis "is we will revert back to the mindset of the (1960s) war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it's a mistake."
True. But the recalibration since those days, the Kellogg essay notes, has been, essentially, to give poor parents more to "do." And that, they argue, has not worked either: "Many standard policies that aim to improve outcomes for children from low-income families impose additional conditions -- take your child to an additional program, monitor his progress, attend regular meetings - that amount to a further tax on already limited available mental bandwidth. Behavioral science thus suggests that such policies by themselves are unlikely to be as successful as one might hope."
What, then, is the alternative? They start with a few suggestions: "stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be "parenting" programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be, they allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful."
Do you have any to add? And do you agree with the overarching premise? Is "making life easier" possibly the answer to improving parenting in poor neighborhoods? Is it an idea so simple that it can't be right? Or that it must be?
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin