Helping Parents Follow Through

This article is part of our special issue “Nudge Turns 10,” which explores the intersection of behavioral science and public policy. View the complete issue here.

The environments children experience at a very early age play an outsized role in determining their adult success. Childhood environment predicts the acquisition of cognitive skills, such as numeracy and literacy, and social-emotional skills, such as self-control and persistence. These skills are essential for economic success and psychological well-being in adulthood.

Public policy has largely focused on schooling as the way to narrow skill differences between advantaged and disadvantaged children. But the track record of school-based interventions is spotty. This is partly because by the time children reach school age, the gap in skills by parental advantage is already present. Moreover, children spend only 13-15 percent of their waking hours at school (taking summers and weekends into account), so the influence of nonschool environments is likely to be much greater than the influence of the school environment on children’s development.

Many school-based programs focus on providing information to parents about how to enable their children to succeed. Embedded in this approach is the assumption that disadvantaged parents lack this information. But survey data suggest that even economically disadvantaged parents know that spending time doing educational activities with their children will improve their children’s cognitive skills. For example, parents of children in Head Start programs believe that reading to their children each day and doing math activities will substantially improve their children’s standing in school. Most parents also report having both the time and materials that they need to do these educational activities with their children.

Behavioral science offers a new approach to narrowing the skill gap by parental advantage.

In subsidized preschool centers in Chicago, for example, data show that parents have access to books, know the importance of reading to their child, and have the time and the desire to read to their children. And yet, numerous studies show large disparities in how frequently parents in low-income versus middle-income households read to their children.

If parents know how to improve their children’s skills and have the time and materials to do what it takes to engage in these activities with their children, why don’t they? Behavioral science offers a new approach to narrowing the skill gap by parental advantage. Like every other decision domain, parenting decisions are typically well-intentioned but suffer from a host of cognitive biases that ultimately reduce their effectiveness.

Take present bias—people’s tendency to overweight short-term rewards over long-term benefits. Most parents know that consistently spending time reading to their young children will likely increase their children’s literacy and verbal aptitude. But these benefits occur in the long run. In the short run, parents may repeatedly fail to read to their young children because the near-term attraction of activities such as letting children watch television or play videogames is greater.

In a field experiment, we tested whether a suite of behavioral tools could close the gap between parents’ reading goals and the actual amount of time they spent reading to their child. During a six-week period we asked parents to set weekly goals for reading with their children. We then sent them text message reminders and provided weekly feedback on the objective amount of time parents actually spent reading to their child. We provided social rewards or parents who read the most in the form of public recognition by communicating their success to other parents.

Behavioral tools cannot overcome structural barriers, but they can help overcome cognitive barriers.

Parents in the treatment group spent nearly 2.5 times more time reading to their children than parents in the control group. This represents an effect size of a full standard deviation, a big effect in the policy world especially considering the low cost of this intervention. For illustration, this effect size means in theory that 84% of parents who use these low-cost, light-touch behavioral tools would read more to their children than parents who don’t use such tools. Moreover, three months after the end of the intervention the treatment parents were still reading more to their children than the control group parents.

In another field experiment, we found that low-cost nudges like text messaging could boost preschool attendance, too.

We know, of course, that these light touch interventions are not a panacea. Low-income families are more likely to face transportation challenges, unpredictable work schedules, and financial stress than advantaged families, all of which pose barriers that behavioral tools alone may not be able to overcome. Behavioral tools cannot overcome structural barriers, but they can help overcome cognitive barriers. Behavioral tools can support parents in going the “last mile” in reaching their goals for their child’s development so long as parents have the desire, knowledge, and minimally sufficient resources. Given the data suggesting that, in many cases, parents have all of these components, we are encouraged by the promise of behavioral tools to support parents and consequently improve children’s life outcomes.