Want to Raise Successful Kids? The Largest Child Development Study In History Reveals 7 Secrets

Every parent wants their kids to be successful — however you (and eventually they) choose to define “success” — but there are many paths. 

Often, success stems from lessons learned. Experience taught Steve Jobs the power of asking for help. Over time, Oprah Winfrey realized success required learning which bridges to cross and which to burn. Making thousands of decisions helped Jeff Bezos realize he should stop wasting time deliberating over easily reversible decisions. Billions of dollars later, Warren Buffett decided ultimate success is when the people you hope will love you do, in fact, love you. 

But those were lessons learned as adults. How can you help your kids be successful and happy?

How can you help your kids take their first steps towards success in whatever pursuits they choose? 

As a parent, how can you help your kids to someday thrive?

Those are questions British researchers set out to answer starting 75 years ago through a series of longitudinal studies collectively known as the British birth cohorts. Over 70,000 sets of parents and children have been followed throughout their lives, generating data on education, employment, cognitive abilities, physical and mental health, and family and parenting.

Five generations of children later, it’s become the longest-running study of human development in the world.

The goal? To determine why some kids thrive, while others don’t — and what role their parents played in their overall “success.”

While individual differences certainly come into play, Helen Pearson, the author of The Life Project, a book based on those studies, as well as a very popular TED Talk, says seven parenting behaviors make the biggest difference.

Surprisingly, the list includes no, um, surprises:

  • Talking to and listening to them
  • Responding to them warmly 
  • Sharing your ambitions for their future
  • Teaching them numbers and letters
  • Taking them on trips and visits
  • Reading to them, and encouraging them to read for pleasure (my italics)
  • Establishing and sticking to a regular bedtime

Obvious insights? Absolutely.

Take talking to — and listening to — your kids. According to a classic study by Stewart Friedman and Jeff Greenhaus, the number of hours busy professionals spend with their kids each day does not predict their children’s physical and emotional health. The best predictor is whether parents are distracted when with their kids.

In short, time is good. But quality time is better.

The same is true for reading to your kids when they’re young, and later encouraging them to read for pleasure.  

A 2018 study of over 160,000 adults in 31 countries found that the more books were present in participants’ childhood homes, the more proficient they now were as adults in three important areas: literacy, math, and using technology to both communicate and gather and analyze information. (Eighty books resulted in “average” levels, with proficiency increasingly improving up to around 350 books, after which performance leveled off.) 

Data from the British cohort also shows that children who read for pleasure by the age of 10 are more likely to do better in school — not just in English, but also in subjects like math — throughout the remainder of their education.

And then there’s bedtime.

The study shows that children who go to bed at different times are more likely to have behavioral problems — yet when they switch to a regular bedtime, many show behavioral improvements. 

Why? A 2011 study published in Sleep Medicine found that irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, undermining brain maturation and the ability to regulate certain behaviors. (Eek.)

But there is one caveat to all those findings.

Children born into poverty or disadvantage tend to be less likely to thrive. And while “good parenting” can sometimes help them overcome early disadvantages and beat the odds, the study shows that good parenting only reduces the educational gap between affluent and poor children by about 50 percent.

Where you start, unfortunately, matters.

Fortunately, good parenting also matters. No matter what the circumstances.

And being the kind of parent who primes their children for success may be simpler — not easier, but simpler — than you might have thought.

Which is the best news of all.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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