Influencing child happiness and development

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Professor Paul Anand explains how one of the first economic studies to look at young children's behaviour can give insights into family life


Professor Paul Anand

In recent research, I looked at data on German mothers and children with a colleague and, using economic tools of analysis, we uncovered a number of findings that could be relevant to either the policy or practice of child-rearing.

Much is already known from psychological research, but using economic methods gives us the opportunity to either support well-known findings using different methods or derive novel insights from these newer methods, and we think our study, which looked at more than 800 German children and their interactions with parents, does a bit of both.


While economic factors can make a vital contribution to child development, money is by no means everything. The dataset that we used allowed us to produce models of ways in which income affects the activities that are offered to children: in some cases, such as painting, reading and play, the connection to income is positive, but this is not the case for all activities, as the negative relationship between income and watching TV and shopping illustrates. The particular situation a parent finds themselves in is a key determinant of what is right and matters to people, and of course parents should not feel guilty about the choices they have to make to keep a family afloat.

Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that the parenting regime shapes the kinds of activities that children do in a variety of ways. Family composition is also sometimes a factor. Siblings do compete for parental attention, but they offer alternative sources of learning: on the other hand, single family units do not report significantly fewer activity involvements.


Activity in childhood promotes development, and we estimate models that seek to understand how activities help. For speech, we find significant relationships with singing and reading to a child, as might be expected, but the picture is different for other kinds of skills.

We find, for example, that a child’s social skills are related to visiting other families, among other things, and this helps to underline the fact that family units cannot do everything on their own but also, perhaps more importantly, that different kinds of skills require different kinds of activities.

Perhaps a parent has particular interests that favour some activities over others, or perhaps a child has particular needs that suggest putting more emphasis on related activities. Beyond the home as a general learning environment, we find, in short, that activities closely related to the skill in question are particularly relevant.


Finally, we tried to find out what makes kids happy. The issue is important to children and parents alike, and may well feed into developmental issues: much is known about adult happiness, but a lot less about the happiness of children. Statistically, a mother’s self-reported happiness and her evaluation of it are positively related. But also certain activities such as reading and shopping stand out in models of happiness, and we think this is not because other activities fail to make children happy, but that these are restricted in some way. Reading to the very young is often about cuddling up to hear a great story, and there is some evidence that more education helps mothers engage in this activity. We would definitely recommend reading to very young children as it seems to be a potent combination of learning and bonding.

Boys seem to be a little less happy on average than girls, but we don’t yet know why, and there is a similar question mark as to why those children living in the former East Germany appear to be happier than their West German counterparts. There is also some evidence that time with a grandparent has a positive impact on happiness and that time in daycare has a negative impact, but these findings need to be read with caution. They certainly don’t argue against one form of care over another for everyone at all times, but they do highlight some of the trade-offs that we make when opting for one form of care over another. Care by family members seems to be good for a child’s emotional development, but inevitably, contact with other children makes kindergarten a great place for developing the social skills needed to get along with non-family members.

There may be no right or wrong answers for individual families, but there are some general themes emerging from our analysis, and knowing what works for families on average can definitely help parents focus on some of the activities that matter most for their children’s well-being.

  • The development and happiness of very young children by Professor Paul Anand of LSE, the Open University and Columbia University, and Dr Laurence Roope of the University of Oxford is published in the journal Social Choice and Welfare
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