During one week in 1946, 14,000 babies were born in Britain. From their first breath to old age, scientists have tracked and recorded the lives of each one.
New cohorts of babies have been added multiple times over the decades. At this point, there are five generations participating in the study. And the total number of participants is 70,000 and counting! That adds up to a boatload of data. It’s enough data, in fact, that the research has generated over 6,000 academic articles and books. These are some of the best-studied humans in the world!
Science journalist Helen Pearson says that this research tells us a lot about how children develop and how we can be better parents.
Pearson is the Chief Magazine Editor of Nature, the world’s most prestigious science journal. She is also a parent. Her interest in this study was both professional and personal.
Pearson says that the most important findings have to do with a child’s first few years of life. Studies have found that children born into disadvantaged families are more likely to do worse in school and then get lower paying jobs. In fact, by the age of 3, poor children have been shown to be 1 year behind wealthy children on educational tests.
Worse, studies show that they often grow up to not be as healthy. They have higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure. In old age, their memory tends to fail them earlier and they often die sooner.
The good news is that parenting can turn this around. The research data suggests that children can beat the odds if their parents show interest in their lives and express ambition for their future. Small things like listening to their children and responding warmly have a big impact. Reading to children every day, teaching them their numbers and letters, and showing an interest in their education were also correlated with later life success.
Pearson has written an award-winning book about this groundbreaking research called The Life Project. Ironically, researching the book was so time consuming that she noticed that she was seeing her own children less and less. So, she made changes according to her findings. She now has “talking time” with her children – just 15 minutes of discussion every night. She listens to her kids, asks them about their days, shows interest in their lives, and tells them she believes in them.
Pearson believes we can learn a lot from science about how to raise children. Even more important than listening to science, though, is listening to the children themselves.