Kids First: Pre-K, Pre-pre-K, Marshmallows, and Fish

Our kids come first – how often is this heard? From parents, politicians, and do-gooders alike. Children are our future; we should invest in them, with programs like pre-K.

UnknownWe do know that the first months or years in a child’s life are crucial influences on the future person and his or her success. Recall the famous “Marshmallow Test” – if a young child has the self-discipline to defer gratification for the sake of later rewards, this is a powerful predictor of flourishing in school and life. Pre-K education has also been shown very helpful in a person’s future trajectory. Modest societal investments like this, in youngsters, deliver huge returns – making productive citizens who contribute to society, as opposed to losers and criminals who detract from it and soak up resources.

imagesBut we actually should take it one level back. What’s the biggest influence on a child’s earliest years? Parents. Differential parenting is a huge explanatory factor for the kinds of people we become. And let’s be frank: parenting styles tend to differ greatly among social classes. For example, it’s estimated that by age 3, kids in lower socio-economic homes hear 30 million fewer spoken words than in affluent homes – and in the former, more of the words are discouraging rather than encouraging. Such factors tend to perpetuate divergent social outcomes from generation to generation.

images-1So Pre-K is all well and good, but we need Pre-pre-K: early education for parents. Teaching them how to break out of dysfunctional ancestral patterns, to equip their kids to pass the Marshmallow Test, and so forth. I can’t claim this as my own brilliant idea; in fact such programs do exist, notably at Harlem Children’s Zone. Investments in such efforts would generate gigantic future dividends, both economically and in quality of life.

As an example, The Economist recently noted a program in Jamaica teaching mothers of chronically malnourished youngsters how to play with them in ways that promote verbal and physical skills. Those kids grew up to earn higher incomes than “untreated” kids – even those who had not been malnourished.

The Economist was making a broader point about poverty. Many conservatives think the poor are basically responsible for their situation, while progressives blame society. Conventional economics suggests that the answer is to give people opportunities to earn their way out of poverty, and many millions have indeed done so. But it’s not quite that simple; poverty has a tendency to be self-perpetuating because of its behavioral effects. images-2Poor people often make bad economic decisions, not because they are irrational or foolish, but because they lack access to the necessary information; their poverty may make them feel powerless as well as overly risk-averse; and the resulting stressful existence is not conducive to calm deliberation. They also face structural obstacles – as I’ve written, it’s costly to be poor.

The Economist points out that whereas traditional anti-poverty programs stress supplying resources, a behavioral approach focuses instead on how choices are made and how they can be improved. For instance, sending kids to school should be a no-brainer for their future well-being; yet in many poor countries, parents often don’t send them; however, some Latin American programs giving cash payments to those who do have dramatically boosted school attendance.

images-3There’s some truth in the old saw about giving people fish versus teaching them to fish. But teaching fishing may not be enough. People may need to be taught to want to fish.

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6 Responses to “Kids First: Pre-K, Pre-pre-K, Marshmallows, and Fish”

  1. DAN FAREK Says:

    Regarding the last sentence in this essay, the people do not want to be taught to fish. Given the communist indoctrination in our school system for the last 20+ years they want the government to provide everything for them. Why should they work, the government provides all.
    I retired from Public school teaching some 12 years ago because I could not stand the Socialist system being imposed on us. The last year or so of my 41 year teaching career I went through the motions,
    as we were not allowed to teach anything. Basically all we did was
    teach to the standardized tests.

  2. Lee Says:

    Sure there are people who make irrational decisions out of lack of information, but they are fairly rare. Most of us are quite rational , thank you very much.

    The poor *are* properly teaching their children how to survive. They will not teach their children to delay taking the marshmallow, etc. until that time as such a behavior is actually net beneficial to the children. If we can put the disadvantaged into situations where such behaviors make sense, then a little education on how to negotiate the new environment would be helpful but, even without that education, the poor will figure it out.

    Humans are rational. Rationality is already dominating.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Lee, your willingness to see things from the other point of view is truly breathtaking (as in your Ukraine comment). The poor ARE properly teaching their children how to survive? Way too generous a view. Mostly, they are being inculcated to replicate the social pathologies that keep them poor. For example, abusive parenting is rampant, including corporal punishment and a lot of yelling and put-downs and discouragement. We know this blights the personalities of children subjected to it, who go on to treat their own children that way. This is NOT “actually net beneficial to the children,” Lee. The picture among affluent families tends to be very different, with more positive results. Likewise, inculcating the type of personality that flunks the marshmallow test. This too confers no survival benefit, but has entirely the contrary effect. But as an optimist, I believe these cycles of pathologies can be broken.

  4. Lee Says:

    Let’s take your example of “abusive parenting”. These children are being taught via a zero-tolerance policy not to step out of line. This will serve them well in avoiding run ins with other authorities, because daddy can’t simply pull some strings or pay a big fine to get them out of that fix. Having the creativity and ambition beaten out of them will hamper them in college but, oh, they are unlikely to get to college anyway — too expensive, and they wouldn’t learn that much anyway because of the jobs they have to hold down at the same time. Besides getting into college requires good grades, and who has time to study in high school, when you have to babysit your siblings while your single-parent works a swing shift … and how will you be able to make that PowerPoint presentation your English teacher requires for the final project? Being able to follow instructions without questioning is good training for that job at Walmart.

    We’ve already discussed the marshmallow test. When too much of what you try to save is begged, borrowed, stolen, or needed for someone else’s emergency then delayed gratification is of little use.

    I had foster children who lived this poverty when not in my home, and they did what they needed to survive. Being able to take the long-term view is a luxury. Absent the resources, the near-sighted approach is as optimal as you can get.

    Yes, the cycles of “pathologies” can be broken. Education is part of it, but without accompanying resources, its value is significantly limited.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    Perhaps I shouldn’t argue with you inasmuch as you obviously have more hands-on experience in this sphere than me. But, oh, you are so cynical. You are trying to make it sound like disadvantaged parents are in reality doing exactly the right thing. Well, sorry, I don’t buy it. Not judging by the typical results of, in most cases, replicating the dysfunction from one generation to the next. While SOME parents in that socio-economic milieu behave differently; and some children grow up to better outcomes by NOT following your baleful prescription.

  6. Lee Says:

    Not cynical, but optimistic I think. I believe that most people are rational most of the time on most topics. We do not have to massively reprogram a large segment of our population. Rather, if we can arm the needy with some needed resources then guidance short of full reprogramming will be sufficient to remedy much malady.

    Although escape from poverty can be a long-shot for many in poverty, obviously that varies from situation to situation. In those situations where the odds are not as steep, many parents will behave differently, and better outcomes can be achieved. Most of the time, I think it is the combination of the situation and the rational reaction to the situation that dictates the odds of better outcomes, not simply the adopting of behaviors that have worked for those in other situations. Most of the time, the best behaviors for a situation are best decided by the adults who are living through it.

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