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Parents, here’s what actually matters for our kids


NDAB Creativity

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 01/20/24

The available data tells us these four things make the biggest difference, but ultimately God is in control of our children and their outcomes.
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Being a parent in the internet age is overwhelming! Everyone has a different opinion on how to raise children well, and all of those opinions are blasting you in the face 24/7 on all forms of social media. 

It’s a lot! And it’s hard to cut through all that noise. It’s natural for a parent to wonder, “What actually matters if we want to do right by our kids?”

As a mom of four young children, I find myself questioning my parenting sometimes after seeing something online. One article makes me worry we aren’t outside climbing trees in the forest enough; the next makes me stress that my kids haven’t started learning coding and computer technology yet. You get the idea! There are so many opposing opinions.

It’s all just too much. With so many possible options for kids, there’s no way we can do them all. Then, when we see other parents doing things differently, it’s tempting to question our own choices. 

I found it so refreshing recently to stumble upon this little analysis by Emily Oster, an economist who has become famous for her data-driven, no-nonsense approach to parenting pressures as laid out in her bestselling books, Expecting Better, Cribsheet and The Family Firm.

She shares in the article that a close friend of hers was expecting his first child, and because of her great expertise on parenting data, he sat down with her to ask what behaviors actually matter to help a child succeed. Surprised by the question, she didn’t answer at that moment, but found his question so thought-provoking that she wrote about it later.

She cites four things that matter most, according to the data available:

Reading to kids

“There is high-quality evidence to suggest that reading to young kids impacts outcomes, including their own literacy.” 

Talking to kids

“Researchers have noted the relationship between spoken-language exposure and language development.” (You can read more about “sportscasting” life for your young child here.)

Quality child care

“We do have evidence that neglectful child care — caregivers who do not pay attention to children, with limited opportunities for interaction, etc. — has negative impacts.”

Not spanking

“Physical punishment has been shown, in a variety of studies, to worsen behavior in the long term.”

She also quotes researcher Dr. Dana Suskind, who said in an interview with Oster, “There are two crucial and specific things children need to build a healthy foundation of cognitive and socio-emotional skills that will serve them throughout life: nurturing interaction with caregivers and protection from toxic stress.”

It turns out that what matters most is reassuringly simple. A warm, loving, nurturing environment and language exposure are at the heart of it. Meanwhile, so many other things we worry about turn out not to matter very much.

Of course, we also know that some children who receive the best of a loving environment still have negative outcomes, growing up to choose something very different from what their parents dreamed and hoped for them. Ultimately only God is in control, and we parents are entrusted just for a short time to care for the souls of these children who belong to God and not us. 

By giving these souls the best we have to offer, and knowing what matters most and what we can feel free to ignore, we can strive to fulfill the trust God has placed in us.

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