Buying advantage for toddlers for £3 a day

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 isn’t 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 isn’t the problem for young children, but only parental skills. But the study also found that there was a month’s developmental advantage for every extra £100 a month in the family’s income. £1200 a year (£3.27 a day) will boost your child’s development, regardless of other factors. (For our family, that effect would therefore considerably outweigh the graduate factor).

It’s easy to see how you can buy advantage for children at older ages or with more money (such as expensive forms of schooling). And it’s tempting to think that money isn’t an important factor in raising small children: I certainly wouldn’t 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 child’s development? Here are my attempts at suggestions:

1) £20/month on better food There aren’t many starving families in the UK, but at the bottom families are living on fairly cheap and nasty stuff. You don’t have to buy into all the theories about nutrition and development to feel that £5 more a week on a child’s 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 children’s 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 needn’t 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, it’s 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 child’s development depends on the parent (or other person) who’s 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 it’s 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 there’s also a special category for money you need when you or your child has problems. You can’t buy your way out of every problem, but it’s 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 it’s 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 L’s 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 couldn’t have given her on my own, but the cost was several hundred pounds a year.

So that’s one way how £100/month (plus an emergency reserve) could help boost a child’s chances. It’s possible to say for any of these categories that there are cheaper alternatives, but that’s not really the point. Doing things on the ultra-cheap normally requires extra time and energy, which is precisely what parents of young children haven’t got. It’s 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 it’s that, as much as some of the more tangible things I’ve mentioned, that helps better-off families aid their children’s development even at the youngest ages.

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5 thoughts on “Buying advantage for toddlers for £3 a day

  1. It is rather depressing that the gap between rich and poor has not closed in the last forty years; and the leaders of the UK’s capital city and next Prime Minister (barring scandal) are both Eton chaps…….so much for the classless society !

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  2. Then one goes to the supermarket and sees parents dragging young children around, trolley laden with beer and crisps. One walks up the high street and sees the obese young women, cigarette in hand, with baby in pushchair and another on the way. Would a few pounds a day help the child, or would it boost sales at the off-license? The problem in Britain is a lack of basic common sense and community values. The nation has had ten fat years in which ordinary people have become accustomed to live beyond their means. (I ran a travel agency, and became disgusted at the way in which British people were spoilt and self-important to a degree that one didn’t see amongst the French, Germans, Dutch, etc. The British had more in common with Eastern Europeans who had just discovered money after four decades of communism.) Money isn’t the answer – moral leadership is needed.

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    • If you look at household spending statistics the rich spend nearly twice as much on alcohol and tobacco as the poor: the poorest spend 10% £8.70/week, 2nd poorest 10% £7.60/week, top 10% £14.20/week, 2nd richest 10% £13.00/week. So there’s no reason to suppose that the poor are any more likely to spend extra money on booze than anyone else. And given that the poorest 20% spend less than a quarter of what the top 20% spend on restaurants and hotels, it’s probably not them buying fancy holidays from you.

      And tell me how moral leadership and common sense rather than money pays for bus fares or books for your child? You don’t need vast sums of money to give your child a good start in life, but it’s very hard to do it on benefits or the minimum wage and I’ve very glad I never had to try.

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  3. One can make a lot out of statistics. But the pub up the road from here, open to 3am and packed, isn’t frequented by the well-to-do. On the other hand, the single mothers who work as clerks in my employer’s office earning more or less the national average salary don’t smoke and drink little, and by all accounts their children are doing well in school. Very few people in Modern Britain are so poor that poverty necessarily holds their children back. I’ve lived in a Balkan village where children did their homework by oil lamp in one-room cottages, and many of them had encountered more literature than ordinary British children.

    So what is the solution? Perhaps give those who need help vouchers that buy school books and healthy food? That will provide a little leadership to those who lack common sense. Throwing money around clearly hasn’t worked.

    Incidentally, I sold basically quite cheap holidays. Usually it was lower middle class people who were most spoilt. People for whom EasyJet was like a taxi service. Individually they weren’t the most objectionable, but collectively they made our lives quite difficult enough. It’s a relief to work again as a humble engineer, even one who sometimes has to work a second job cleaning stables in the evenings in order to make ends meet.

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    • There’s a big difference between being on the national median wage (£393/week in 2007/2008) like the clerks you’re mentioning, and being in the bottom 20% (£236/week or less). It’s that kind of difference I’m thinking about here. There was a recent study that tried to work out what a basic minimum income might look like. This was based on discussions with members of the public. A lot of people with children, even if they were in work, couldn’t achieve a lifestyle that included such ‘luxuries’ as 1 week UK budget holiday a year and no money on smoking at all.

      But what got me writing the post wasn’t statistics like that. It was thinking honestly about my own experience of looking after a small child. I would have said offhand that I was fairly economical in my spending when my daughter was a pre-schooler. But when I think hard about whether I could have done what I did to help my child if I’d been on benefits, I’d have to say I couldn’t. I do not think that my middle class education on its own could have compensated for being that poor. My daughter’s well-being would have suffered.

      It’s tempting to point to exceptional cases and say that poverty doesn’t necessarily hold people back. But if Oscar Pistorius can run faster than most of us with no legs, does that mean that it’s not a disadvantage for most disabled people to run in a race with the able-bodied? I can truthfully say that I’ve not been at my best when I’ve had serious money troubles. I’ve found it harder to be calm and happy and positive and responsive to others when I’m wondering how I can make ends meet. That kind of stress has a big impact on how well you can look after a child.

      It’s always easy to say that there’s no point in giving money to the poor because they’ll just waste it. But the government haven’t been throwing money at the really poor: benefits only go up by inflation, for example. I’m not sure exactly how you can deal with the kind of long-term poverty that the UK seems to specialise in (though other EU states are doing rather better). But certainly blaming the poor for their plight while pretending that we would do far better in similar circumstances doesn’t seem to me helpful.

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