Using behavioral economics insights to improve parenting…

Catherine Rampell points to this interesting article by Sendhill Mullainathan and Saugato Dutta.

They ask what makes a good parent/bad parent?

Should parents be strict or permissive? Do “tiger moms” and “helicopter parents” raise more successful, happier, well-adjusted children than “slacker parents” do? These kinds of debates regularly litter popular magazines, parenting books and even the scientific literature. There is no formula for how to raise children well, and likely there never will be. Yet the science does tell us how not to raise children. Don’t be inattentive. Don’t be inconsistent. Don’t be disengaged. Don’t place them in intellectually pallid environments.

The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents

While there is agreement on the behavior, there is little agreement on why. Why are low-income parents not giving their children as much attention, help and encouragement as they need? Different ends of the political spectrum point in different directions. The left tends to see a lack of parenting skills. They look for solutions that emphasize improving these skills. The right tends to see more personal failures. They look for solutions that emphasize getting parents to take more responsibility.

The authors say beh eco guys feel something else is going on. They say parenting requires psychic resources. And when parents have low income their mind is already pre-occupied with many things which takes away the psychic resources reserved for parenting:

Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources. In that moment, fretting about the deadline, your psychic resources were depleted. Facing pressure at work, you did not have the freedom of mind needed to exercise patience, prioritize and do what you knew to be right. To an outsider, in that moment, you would look like a bad parent.

Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. 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.

And in tight times, things become worse.

When it comes to policy, the beh eco insights offers different solutions. Instead of the usual approach of asking parents to devote more time to children, beh eco says psychic resources should be freed. For freeing them attempts should be made to boost incomes of low income families:

This has dramatic implications for policy. For instance, 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.

Instead, a very good parenting program may not look like one at all. Deal with the economic instability that taxes psychic resources. For example, 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.

So, what does it take to be a good parent? Freedom of mind. And that is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford.

Hmmm.. But we have parenting problems with high income people as well. They also cannot devote psychic resources to children as mind id preoccupied with making more and more money, having better careers etc…Rampell says too much money is also a problem:

Of course there are plenty of counterexamples of families where more money means more problems at home (e.g., approximately one-third of all “Law & Order” episodes).

So, perhaps can be tried for low income families on an experiment basis and see its impact. Mullainathan has done some projects at MIT-PAL.  Should suggest this experiment to Duflo/Banerjee/Karlan…Will make an interesting reading for sure…

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