How do parents’ decisions impact a child’s development?

Prof. Ariel Kalil reflects on the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab's decade of research on families

Ten years ago, Profs. Ariel Kalil and Susan Mayer co-founded the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to better understand the science of decision-making among parents.

Over the past decade, the BIP Lab has conducted pathbreaking research that has strengthened families and improved children’s lives, while building partnerships with schools, governments and not-for-profits. We talked with Kalil, the Daniel Levin Professor at Harris, who co-directs the Lab along with Mayer, to discuss its impact—and what comes next:

What questions were you trying to answer when you launched the BIP Lab?

The central question, around which all others are based, is this: How do parents decide what they do to support their children’s development? It’s a big question. What makes a parent decide to read to their kid every day, or to choose a child care or pre-K environment? Similarly, how do they choose to show affection? Or what forms discipline takes? I wanted to understand what went into these decisions.

Parents aren't born to be types of parents: rather, parenting is characterized by the decisions parents make about how, and how often, they invest in their children to help them flourish. These decisions are shaped by an array of factors and subject to another array of constraints. As a developmental psychologist, this is how I think about what parents do.

Was this a natural next step in your research agenda?

Ten years ago, I was beginning to feel like the way I was approaching my research had run its course. I was mostly doing descriptive work with large-scale secondary data sets. I looked a lot like a demographer. I love demography, but I wanted something more ambitious and more challenging. There was a set of important, complex questions that I wanted to examine, but which required a vastly different approach for inquiry. First, answering these questions would require collecting my own data. Second, it would require an experimental approach, both in the lab and in the field. Third, it would require looking beyond developmental psychology for theories about why parents make the decisions they do. And, ultimately, it would mean taking those steps and innovating in a way that I hadn't done before.

Once I was set on this new path, I made the best decision of my career, which was to ask Susan Mayer if she was interested in joining forces. And thus we launched the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab in 2014. We’ve worked in lockstep ever since.

What are some of Lab's most important findings from the past ten years?

In simple terms: Parents procrastinate, parents are subject to cognitive biases and identity is important in parenting.

The bottlenecks to a parenting decision—like reading to your child before bedtime—are like the bottlenecks that can make it hard to do anything else in your life. Think of it as not going to the gym every day, despite signing up for a gym membership on January 1st, or not taking medicine every day, despite a doctor saying you should. These are basic activities that people forget about doing—or they know they should, and they just don't—and the same is true of parenting. Parenting is a series of decisions, just like anything else. The BIP Lab has been exploring how to overcome these tendencies people have.

We’re also discovering that technology helps overcome some of the barriers to parent-child engagement, because it can reduce some of the frictions that make it hard for parents to do what they intend. To that end, we’ve completed long-run experimental studies that have made a difference in areas such as decreasing chronic school absenteeism, improving early literacy skills, promoting early math skills, and improving parent engagement at home and with schools.

What are some other questions you’d like to tackle?

I’ve become really interested in exploring the idea that parenting is a team effort. We know this intuitively, but it doesn’t always get reflected in our analytic models. It’s not just performed by one person in the home.

I've done research revealing that kids get important inputs from all sorts of people who promote their development. In each day, kids receive time investment from not only their mother or father, but maybe also from a grandmother, an aunt, a friend, or a teacher. Many studies and programs consider only one parent at a time in thinking about promoting child development—an example of this is that parenting interventions are often designed for just one person, typically the mother.

I'd like to reimagine that. Raising children and investing in children is a group enterprise. It is conducted by individuals who are nested in families, who are in turn nested in peer groups, neighborhoods, cultures, and so on. I’d like to think more about how to measure and better understand this.

How do you think about the appropriate role for government to support child development?

Many government departments of education are, in effect, departments of schooling. But shouldn’t they really be departments of learning and education? The idea that education only happens in the school environment is flawed, and it leaves a giant hole in how we support kids' development. Children are at home most of the time, especially in the early years.

To this notion, I would like to see a wholesale re-understanding of the government's role in supporting parents. What should it be? How much should government reach into the sphere of the home environment? Not at all? A little bit? For what kinds of families? How would you do it in a way that respects privacy, and autonomy, and freedom of parents to choose what they want to do?

These are meaty questions that demand more study. And, for now, we lay a lot of responsibility on schools and teachers to educate children, and I find this perspective limited.

The BIP Lab has partnerships across Chicago and the state of Illinois. Why are partnerships so important?

At the heart of the BIP Lab is a partnership: the intellectual partnership that was formed between Susan Mayer and me. Our lab brings this ethos of collaboration and partnership to all the work we do. We are fortunate to have partnerships with hundreds of child care centers and school districts, with the State of Illinois (on our Governor Pritzker-backed Chat2Learn initiative), with the Museum of Science and Industry, and many others. We’ve been able to build relationships of trust with these organizations that help bring our work to the next level.

Each year, our projects get bigger and more powerful. Partnerships have helped us raise research funds and a big merit of this is the many UChicago undergraduate and graduate students whom we can support to have research experiences.

What moments have proven unexpected and exciting at the BIP Lab?

The Illinois State Board of Education came to us for help during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was very gratifying. They were looking to us for a solution that would help parents interact with their kids while preschools were closed and parents were at home with their kids.

In response, we developed a tool called Chat2Learn, which is a text message-based, beautifully illustrated, open-ended question prompt program. It's for parents of preschool aged kids, and it sends a interesting open-ended conversation prompt every day to help parents talk with their kids in a way that builds not only kids' vocabulary, but also their sense of curiosity.

Chat2Learn’s defining feature is that it is a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper. It doesn't tell parents, "Ask your kids how many socks there are when you're folding the laundry,” or “Ask your kids how many squares there are on this window." Once you extract an answer like that out of your kids, the conversation is over. Instead, Chat2Learn asks open-ended questions: “What it would be like to have a pet giraffe?”, and other creative prompts. That conversation can go anywhere. We’re working now with a fabulous team of computer scientists to leverage AI and machine learning to take this tool to the next level of scale and ease of use.

What do you hope to see in the next ten years at the BIP Lab?

We want to focus on the opportunities that make the most impact. As many are, we're interested in technology and how it’s going to change society, social interactions and public policy. It could change so many aspects of education and child development, including how parents interact with their kids. It could change the nature of the home environment, and it could change these things for good or for ill. There is much to learn here.

The “ed tech explosion” has opened new avenues for partnership that hold great promise. Here at BIP Lab, we are collaborating with computer scientists, we're collaborating with tech companies—we never would have anticipated that. They're sharing their data; they're allowing us to do experimentation. We're working to develop AI integrations into the tools we’re developing, so that they can be more personalized, give parents feedback, and stimulate better parent-child interaction.

The bottom line is we want to continue to do the work that is both scientifically interesting and policy-relevant. We want to learn and do what we can to help all children reach their potential. And we want to train the next generation of Harris scholars who can change the world.

—Excerpted from a story that was published on the Harris Public Policy website. Read it in its entirety here.