You may have read about Harvard's Grant study, which followed 268 Harvard students for more than 70 years to figure out the keys to health and happiness (hint: the answer is just one word). The media has made a lot of hay out of the long-running research, oohing and aahing at its length and scope.

But I've got to tell you, the Harvard study is peanuts compared to the British birth cohorts.

After World War II scientists in the UK began what became a truly gargantuan undertaking. Interested in the conditions for mothers in the war-ravaged country, researchers decided to survey every woman who gave birth over a one week period in 1946. The result was some 14,000 detailed questionnaires about every aspect of birth in Britain at the time.

Then a generation later, they did it again, and again and again, surveying around 70,000 kids as they moved through their lives over a 70-year time period to see how they were doing in terms of health, education, and overall thriving. You can imagine the reams and reams of data generated.

What does it all boil down to? That is an enormous and ongoing question, but author Helen Pearson has a few powerful conclusions to share. In a TED talk last year (full talk below, hat tip to Swiss Miss) she explained what she learned as a scientist and mother from the experience of writing her book, The Life Project, on the cohort studies.

What does 70 years of data say about how to be a good parent?

Her first takeaway is both the least shocking and the most depressing: if at all possible, try not to be born poor. As just about everyone would expect, kids born into disadvantaged families grow up, on average, to do less well by any measure.

The trouble, of course, is that we can't choose our parents. Some of us win what billionaire investor Warren Buffett has called "the ovarian lottery" and some of us don't. And if that were all there was to it, the world would be unbearably sad. But thankfully, the cohort studies also reveal another profound truth.

"Parenting matters," Pearson declares.

By comparing kids born in similar troubled circumstances and then following them to see which ones beat the odds, the researchers are beginning to tease out which parental behaviors have the most impact when it comes to promoting kids' success and flourishing. And here's the happy news -- most of them are entirely within the reach of any parent, no matter their means.

Being a good parent is simpler than you think.

Pearson goes on to list an array of parental behaviors that the studies have associated with improved outcomes for even at-risk kids. Scientists can't say with 100 percent certainty that these interventions cause better outcomes (though follow up studies that test that question suggest at least some of them do), but these are the most likely contenders for actions that make a difference: 

  • Talking to and listening to your kids

  • Making it clear you have ambitions for their future

  • Being emotionally warm

  • Teaching them letters and numbers

  • Taking them on excursions

  • Reading to them daily (and encouraging them to read for pleasure)

  • Maintaining a regular bedtime

Wait, you might respond, all this stuff is dead obvious! Yes, it is, but it's just this sort of basic but essential parenting that can get lost in the craziness of modern life.

Take the concept of quality time, for example. These days many parents are so stressed about having quality time with our kids that we schedule countless activities and bonding experiences. Meanwhile, science shows "quality time" just means quiet moments where you really listen to and respond to your child. Which is, of course, just the sort of thing you crowd out when you're frantically driving between soccer practice and cello lessons all day.

So yes, these things are basic, but they can also easily fall by the wayside. Pearson herself admits that she was often so busy with work she barely had time for a proper conversation with her three boys. Since writing about the cohort studies she now always sets aside 15 minutes every night to talk to them about their days. And then she makes them go to bed.

"When you're shouting at your kids to go to bed on time, it really helps to have the scientific literature on your side," she jokes to knowing audience laughter.

The cohort studies show parental behaviors like these, which are simple to understand if sometimes difficult to maintain day to day, close the gap between kids with the best and worst starts in life by a startling 50 percent. (For the other 50 percent only social and political solutions will do, so at the bare minimum register to vote!).

When it comes to parenting, the little things matter and they matter a lot. You already know how to be a good parent, and it has nothing to do with fancy enrichment activities or tiny choices about which way your stroller faces. Now all you have to do is execute on it.

Published on: Oct 3, 2018