Reflections on how a child’s home life affects her development

Mother and child

Young Lives has just published a new working paper ‘Parental Background and Child Human Capital Development Throughout Childhood and Adolescence: Evidence From Four Low- and Middle-Income Countries’.  The working paper’s purpose is to analyse the links between parents circumstances and characteristics, such as parental education or wealth, and children’s development outcomes. The working paper is embedded in development economics and so the language (human capital/non-cognitive), literature used and techniques (econometrics) reflect these origins.

So for a broader audience, what is it saying? 

The first point regarding the paper is its scope. Lots of papers examine single countries, or one outcome. This paper uses data from 4 countries and with multiple outcomes. By testing children’s outcomes at different ages (from early childhood to mid adolescence), the paper also examines what factors are persistently linked to children’s development.

The next point is the caution. This is an analysis of observed data, it is not an experiment. That means the paper gives important pointers but the paper carefully avoids claims of causation, not least as there isn’t all the data needed to show this. Instead what is done– using a powerful 'real world' set of techniques- is to test to see if links between parent and child's development remain after taking account of a variety of possible drivers (using regression analysis). By taking account of multiple drivers the paper helps identify key underlying relationships.

So now to findings, and it’s worth saying the ones reported here are pretty consistent across the countries and persist at different age points (from age 5-15 years).

First to child health.

This is measured by child height adjusted for the child’s age. Being shorter /taller for your age provides a summary measure of children's health. Here the message is crystal clear. Mother's height is consistently predictive of children’s height; having a tall mother increases the chances you would be taller. That’s not very surprising – there is a genetic link, but importantly mother’s height is a summary of her own healthy development during childhood. Improve mother’s earlier health, therefore and there could be important intergenerational improvements too. Of the other indicators tested it is household wealth (in this case household wealth means a combination of basic services, consumer durables, and housing conditions) which is most significant and not parental education. That is not to discount the well-recognized importance of early care and stimulation, but if you want to reduce child stunting this evidence suggests you should not to overlook the basic environment around the child (including social protection, food security and basic services).


Next to children’s cognition. For this the paper used the PPVT, which provides a test of the child's vocabulary. Again the analysis then examines how other parental factors shaped children’s vocabulary. One limitation here is there is no information about the school children go to. However and perhaps not surprisingly the key factors are the parents' own education, and also wealth levels. So it’s not an ‘either or’ - both are fairly consistently important across countries and ages. So to raise children's learning, this is evidence of the importance of parental education but again we expect to see a payoff here from poverty reduction measures. At its most basic level, poverty might affect how children learn, not only because children might just get a less good education but that pressures in the household might undermine learning (for example hunger, less available space, or time to study).

And finally to children's psychosocial development, here called ‘non-cognitive’ in line with language used in economics. What’s been done is to add together answers on a number of questions which give insight into children's self-esteem and self-efficacy. These types of characteristics matter for children's wellbeing but are increasingly being discussed in relation to the labour market. So what shapes these? First there is not a strong link with wealth levels (it's there, but it is not statistically significant. That’s not to say that poverty -or another factor - isn’t itself undermining mothers wellbeing, but the relationship is less direct than with health or learning). The paper does find a clear link between children’s psychosocial development and mother’s psychosocial wellbeing (reflected in self-esteem and self-efficacy) and social capital. Both are potential entry points to consider for policy and programming. The former by supporting the mother herself, and perhaps reducing the stresses she faces; the latter through supporting stronger networks and creating a sense of inclusion in the community and trust among community members.

Read more in our latest Working Paper Parental Background and Child Human Capital Development Throughout Childhood and Adolescence: Evidence From Four Low- and Middle-Income Countries.