Pregnancy and infancy are now recognised as crucial periods for child development, but parental influences extend well beyond the early months of a child’s life. A growing body of research suggests that good parenting skills and a supportive home learning environment are positively associated with children’s early achievements and wellbeing. Hence interventions to improve the quality of home and family life can increase social mobility.

Key findings

  • Before even starting school, differences are found in children’s cognitive and behavioural development according to parents’ income group. Children from higher income groups have higher cognitive assessments and fewer behavioural problems. An important part of these differences can be accounted for by ‘what parents do’ in terms of educational activities and parenting style.
  • A supportive home learning environment is positively associated with children’s early achievements and wellbeing and influences social mobility.
  • Changes in parenting behaviours could help close the inequality gap in terms of child development. For example, if, as one study indicates, half or all of the five-year-old children who were read to less than daily were instead read to on a daily basis there would be corresponding ten per cent and 20 per cent reductions in the proportion of five-year-olds with socio-emotional difficulties.
  • There are no significant detrimental effects on a child’s social or emotional development if their mothers work during their early years. The ideal scenario for children, both boys and girls, is where both parents live in the home and both are in paid employment.
  • Parenting is an important mediator in redressing the effects of poverty and disadvantage, but parenting quality is not a primary cause of poverty in the UK nor will better parenting skills remove the disadvantages of poverty. Parenting skills and poverty both have important but independent effects on children’s outcomes.
  • Good quality relationships between parents, and between parents and their children can make a significant difference to young people’s satisfaction with their family situation but no-one can yet assert with certainty what actually works in terms of changing behaviours.
  • Early mothers typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Women from higher socio-economic groups who have taken up educational and career opportunities tend to delay having children (if they have children at all). Therefore, a child born to a mother who was young when she first became a parent has already inherited a slightly disadvantaged start in life.
  • Fathers’ involvement is associated with a range of positive outcomes for children including educational and emotional attainment, and protects against later mental health problems.
  • There is room for developing policy aimed at closing the inequality gap in child development, and to do this programmes need to be more effective in improving developmental outcomes in disadvantaged children compared with their advantaged peers.

Topics