Maternal time investment in early childhood

Researchers have shown that early childhood (pre-primary) education is quite important. Skill differences among children already exist by the time they start primary school, and they’re likely to persist over time. But how do these skill differences arise?

Factors including income, family structure, parental education, maternal employment, child care, school quality and neighborhood characteristics all play a role. But the subject of this post is maternal time investment in early childhood.

To address this question, Del Bono et al. (2015) (ungated) use data from more than 8,000 British children and their mothers. The children are between ages 3 and 7. Previous studies have found that time spent with parents seems to be one of the most important determinants of cognitive skills (but not of non-cognitive skills) between ages 1-9. Also, in adolescence the child’s own time investment in useful activities is found to be much more important than parental time investment.

Del Bono et al. (2015) look at two child outcomes: cognitive (e.g. verbal skills, IQ) and non-cognitive (e.g. emotional skills, pro-social behavior, interaction with peers).

Maternal time investment is measured in two different categories: educational time (reading, library, homework) and recreational time (drawing, painting, playing indoors/outdoors). But these are all activities that are done with the mother.

The authors also take a look at the effect of two other important inputs: non-maternal child care (which can be informal [unpaid, provided by a family member] or formal [paid nanny]) and parenting style (whether there is a regular routine for the child, e.g. regular bed times, rules on how much TV/computer time they get).

So the idea is to see the effect that maternal time investment and other inputs (non-maternal child care, parenting style) have on the outcomes (cognitive, non-cognitive skills). Of course, the authors control for a variety of important factors such as parental education and income.

Here are the most interesting findings drawn from this analysis:

  • Both education and recreational time have a significant positive effect on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. The effect of educational inputs is somewhat more important for cognitive skills. For non-cognitive skills both are about equally important.
  • The effect of both kinds of time investments is diminishing with age: it’s better to invest early.
  • The effect of educational time on cognitive skills is about 13% larger than the effect of having a college-educated mother as opposed to a non-college educated one. The effect of recreational time on cognitive skills is about 40% lower than this college premium.
  • There is strong persistence in maternal investment for cognitive skills. What this means is that early investments (e.g. at age 3) are good predictors of later outcomes (e.g. skills at age 5 or 7). This suggests that earlier investments are more important: it’s difficult to offset too little time investment at a young age, with a lot of time investment at later ages. This might be because cognitive skills are more malleable when young.
  • Time investment (whether educational or recreational) by better educated mothers is more effective.
  • The positive effects of time investment are much stronger for first-born children.
  • There are no easily identifiable gender differences. Both boys and girls react similarly to maternal time investment.
  • Neither paid (formal) nor unpaid (informal) child care has an effect on cognitive or non-cognitive skills.
  • A parenting style that involves some discipline (regular bed/meal times, limited TV/computer times) has some positive effects on skills. Though the evidence is shaky at best.
  • Consistent with evidence from other studies, income only has a small effect. And more so on cognitive than non-cognitive abilities. Income is less important than maternal time investment.
  • Maternal employment has no statistically significant effect. It might have a small positive effect on non-cognitive skills, but not on cognitive skills. This might turn into a larger positive effect later in life though.

So there you have it. It seems that not surprisingly maternal time investment in early childhood is very important for a child’s development. The effect is large: equivalent to having a college-educated mother instead of one without a college degree. But the benefits are diminishing with age: so try to get your time investments in early.


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