Many young children grow up without supportive home learning environments. One often cited study found that by the age of four, poor children hear about 30 million fewer words than wealthy children. This fissure manifests in great differences in children’s motor, social, emotional, literacy, and numeracy skills when they first start kindergarten, gaps that persist through school and into the labor market.]
Unfortunately, parenting has proven to be difficult to change. Most programs for parents take the form of short workshops that bombard parents with information and expect them to operationalize new, complex behaviors consistently over long periods of time. These workshops often conflict with childcare or work, and so it is not surprising that many parents do not show up for the workshops when offered. Even for those who do attend, there is rarely a benefit.
To be sure, not all parenting programs are ineffective. For example, nurse home visitation programs in which nurses visit parents, regularly modeling positive practices and providing additional services, have shown important effects for families facing some of the most difficult circumstances. However, these programs are costly, and as a result, are unlikely to scale at anywhere close to the quality required to support all families in need.
Parents are not the only adults for whom behavior change is hard. Job training programs for displaced workers are often ineffective, or not nearly as beneficial as traditional schooling, which is one of the reasons advocates support focusing funds on helping children and youth develop the skills they need in school so that they can be flexible in the labor market. While a lack of knowledge, skills, and resources can get in the way of adults making beneficial changes, even when individuals have these resources, ingrained behaviors can be difficult to change.
Research can help us understand why it is so difficult for us, as adults, to change, even when we want to. Why don’t we exercise regularly? Why don’t we save for the future? Why don’t we engage with our children as we want to? Behaviors that we have to do over and over again are simply hard to sustain. We loose focus, getting distracted by the details of day-to-day life. To make changes, we need to hold our attention, which can be hugely challenging especially when the consequences aren’t immediate.[vi] We often don’t see the benefits of exercise or savings until many years later. We need self-control to focus on long-term goals, and many of us don’t have enough. Parenting requires similar self-control. While regular educational interactions with children have some immediate rewards, many of the benefits come later. What makes matters worse, the benefits of alternative choices, such as washing the dishes or of talking with friends, can bring parents more immediate pleasure.