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The benefits of time spent with children

Parenting pic

The more time a mother spends with her child between the ages of three and seven, the better that child’s cognitive and social skills will be, according to a new study by Professor Emilia Del Bono with Professor Marco Francesconi from the University of Essex and Professor Yvonne Kelly and Professor Amanda Sacker from University College London.

The study also finds first-born children tend to benefit more from early investment of mothers’ time than children later in the birth order. The research, which analyses representative data on more than 8,000 children and their mothers, finds that the positive effect of mothers’ time investment on early child outcomes is quantitatively large. It corresponds in magnitude to 20-40% of the advantage that young children get from having a mother with a university degree as opposed to having a mother with no qualifications.

The researchers also find that the level of education attained by a mother and the birth order position of her child within the family (oldest, youngest, etc) has an effect on early years development. For example, time spent doing educational activities, such as reading, between the ages of three and five with a mother who has been educated beyond the minimum school leaving age, leads to an increase in verbal skills at age seven that are significantly greater than those achieved by children whose mothers are less well educated.

In addition, early time investment by the mother in first-born children is more productive than in subsequent children. Mothers are also likely to change how much time they spend with their children in the early years in accordance with how those children are progressing.

The study is the first to look at the effect of time spent with mothers on their children. It uses data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) based at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies. The MCS is a nationally representative longitudinal study of infants born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002.

The results emphasise that the time spent by mothers with their children has a noticeable influence on early child development. Mothers are also likely to change time investments over the early years of life of their children in response to earlier outcomes. When this is the case, the socio-economic gradient in outcomes observed at later points of children’s lives may be driven by variation both between and within families.

This suggests that there may be limited scope for later policy interventions that aim to affect mothers’ time availability or inform them about the effectiveness of their time investments.

Photo credit: Anthony Cullen