The recent report by the National Equality Panel on An Anatomy of Economic Equality in the UK is chock-full of data, but the bit I find myself drawn to is in section 11.2 on inequalities in the early years (which in this case means before the age of 5). The fact that children in higher income families are more ready for school and have better vocabularies than those from poorer families, and that they are less likely to have conduct disorders isnt in itself surprising. There are a lot of interacting factors here: education levels of the parents, family structure, the fact that children from homes where English is a second language are more likely to be poor etc. But the study the panel draws on (the Millennium Cohort Study) also looked at ways of separating out these factors, by controlling for different aspects. They found that at age five the developmental effect of a mother having a degree as opposed to poor qualifications (GCSE D grade or below) was 6 months: so a child with a graduate mother would on average be performing as well at 4 years 6 months as a child with a less well-qualified mother at 5 years.
This might seem to imply that poverty isnt the problem for young children, but only parental skills. But the study also found that there was a months developmental advantage for every extra £100 a month in the familys income. £1200 a year (£3.27 a day) will boost your childs development, regardless of other factors. (For our family, that effect would therefore considerably outweigh the graduate factor).
Its easy to see how you can buy advantage for children at older ages or with more money (such as expensive forms of schooling). And its tempting to think that money isnt an important factor in raising small children: I certainly wouldnt have said that I spent a lot of money on L when she was 2 or 3. But this statistic got me thinking rather more critically: what could you do with an extra £100/month above a basic minimum that might affect your childs development? Here are my attempts at suggestions:
1) £20/month on better food There arent many starving families in the UK, but at the bottom families are living on fairly cheap and nasty stuff. You dont have to buy into all the theories about nutrition and development to feel that £5 more a week on a childs food is likely to give him or her a healthier diet. It can also provide a more enjoyable diet: eating decent bread rather than the cheapest nasty loaf is a physical pleasure, and having a choice of what you can eat is also satisfying. A well-fed, happier child is easier to interact with, and that kind of positive interaction is vital to childrens development.
2) £30/month for trips out Short trips out are one of the easiest forms of entertainment/education for small children (as well as morale boosters for their parents), and as is often pointed out, they neednt be expensive. But cheap is different from free. If you need a bus into town, if you want to meet a friend for a coffee, if you take your child to a toddler group, the small sums accumulate: most trips are going to cost a few pounds at least.
3) £20/month for treats for your child You can borrow books for free from the library, and play with toys at a mother and baby group for a minimal cost. But realistically, its easier if you can buy some things for your own: the favourite stories that you can re-read to them till the book falls apart, the toys they are obsessed with, a variety of craft materials, a few comics that smuggle in number skills via count the fairies etc. (The most effective way for a child to teach themself to read is having a shelf-load of familiar books and no-one handy to read them to them).
4) £30/month for de-stressors for the parent/carer An awful lot of a childs development depends on the parent (or other person) whos the main caregiver. If they get it right, it makes a big difference. But caring for babies and small children is often tiring and stressful: the pressures can mount and make positive time with the child difficult. A chance to unwind, whether its buying a magazine to read, or going to a keep-fit class with a crèche, or being able to afford a trip to the cinema once a month with your spouse/partner can make a key difference in keeping your mental and physical well-being.
5) £1000 for help when needed The previous items are the kind of thing you need regularly. But theres also a special category for money you need when you or your child has problems. You cant buy your way out of every problem, but its remarkable what a difference some spare money can make. When I had postnatal depression, I could get private counselling immediately, rather than a wait for a month or more for free counselling via the NHS. (Given that poorer mothers are more prone to postnatal depression, and that its well known to have negative effects on the baby, this is an important area). Similarly, when L needed speech therapy, we did not have to wait for NHS treatment, but could go to a good, but expensive, private therapist. At a less urgent level, because neither my husband nor I are particularly sporty, I particularly wanted to encourage Ls physical activity and took her to Tumble Tots classes for several years. I think that helped make a difference to her physical confidence that I couldnt have given her on my own, but the cost was several hundred pounds a year.
So thats one way how £100/month (plus an emergency reserve) could help boost a childs chances. Its possible to say for any of these categories that there are cheaper alternatives, but thats not really the point. Doing things on the ultra-cheap normally requires extra time and energy, which is precisely what parents of young children havent got. Its not much use carefully hand-making a toy if it eats into the time for actually playing with your child. And having to watch your money obsessively, like having to watch your calories obsessively, is intrinsically stressful and often depressing. Perhaps the most important thing that £100/month extra (or more in my case) buys you as the carer of a small child is a measure of choice and a feeling of some control over your life, which are precious things in that situation. Maybe its that, as much as some of the more tangible things Ive mentioned, that helps better-off families aid their childrens development even at the youngest ages.