Nobody needs a calculator to conclude that good parenting benefits families and society. But good parents are like vacations, everyone is in favor of more and better ones (!) — until the question arises of who will pay for them and how much they’ll cost. We would love to have a whole nation of wise parents who instill terrific values and habits, and otherwise nurture healthy, happy, productive citizens. But some parents need help getting there, and providing that help costs money. So, the question arises: What return does one get for a dollar invested in parenting?
A very well-written report captures what we know about that for the U.S.
Who Cared Enough to do this Study
The Partnership for America’s Economic Success*, a business, foundation, advocacy consortium commissioned this particular study. They wanted to learn what would be impact of investing in more widespread parenting education across the U.S..
What They Found
Let’s get the disappointing news out of the way: Using rigorous criteria, they found that most programs do not do the extensive (and expensive) long term and controlled evaluation studies that would give solid indicators of long-term effectiveness and return on investment. This needs to be built-in to more of the funding in the future in order to have solid estimates of societal value and efficiency.
On the brighter side, there is great detail about specific programs that provide parenting education, what existing evaluations reveal about their impacts, and whether those results can be extrapolated to calculate societal benefits and return on investment. Here are a few of those insights:
- …in a groundbreaking comprehensive longitudinal study of children’s early care and development, researchers found that family characteristics and parenting (e.g., sensitive caregiving, cognitive stimulation, and positive involvement) in the first years of life predicted pre-academic skills and socio-emotional development and behavior throughout the preschool years—even after controlling for the number of hours, quality, and type of child care the children experienced. In fact, the estimated effects of parenting were often larger than the estimated effects of child care (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003). Thus, despite the potential for early childhood education to foster positive child development, family environments typically accountfor greater variance in children’s outcomes, reflecting the indisputable fact that parents remain their children’s first teachers, and what they do matters for children.
- …review of home visiting parenting education programs, Gomby (2005) reported cost savings of approximately $3,000 per family (for the HIPPY program) and $26,300 per family (for the Nurse Family Partnership program) in 2003 dollars, or closer to $3,750 in 2007 dollars. Estimated benefits were even higher for higher-risk mothers: $41,400 per high-risk mother in the Nurse Family Partnership program (or $51,772 in 2007 dollars), and almost $11,000 per at-risk family (or $13,750 in 2007 dollars), on average, across numerous rigorously- evaluated home visiting programs. Benefit-cost ratios ranged from 1.8 (for the HIPPY program) to 2.9 (for the Nurse Family Partnership program, full sample), with even greater benefit-cost ratios for higher-risk families (5.7 per high-risk mother in the Nurse Family Partnership program, and 2.2 per at-risk family, on average, across numerous rigorously evaluated home visiting programs). Thus, every dollar invested in these parenting education programs returned, on average, between $1.80 and $5.70 (depending on the sample, the program, and the range of benefits considered in the estimations).
- A meta-analysis of the costs and benefits of home visiting parenting education programs for at-risk mothers and children found average net benefits of $6,077 per child (total societal benefits averaging $10,969 per child, minus an average $4,892 in program costs per child), suggesting that each dollar invested in home visiting programs for high-risk families yields $2.24 in savings from reducing unfavorable education, crime, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy, and public assistance outcomes (Aos, Lieb, Mayfield, Miller, & Pennucci, 2004).
- Despite limited empirical evidence that parenting education programs have long-term impacts of importance to child well-being, there is a strong theoretical base on which parenting education program are designed, and empirical evidence linking the targets of intervention—parenting attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behavior/practices—to child outcomes. These theories and research suggest that more widespread replication and implementation of empirically-validated parenting education programs could yield long-term benefits to society—it is just not clear whether and which investments would be the most cost-effective.
The full report, “Developmental and Economic Effects of Parenting Programs for Expectant Parents and Parents of Preschool-age Children” (2009) is available here.
In my research so far I had concluded that the key gap is in scale — not enough mothers and fathers getting to go through good available programs. I still think that is correct, and would put increased access to validated programs at the top of our national pro-child and anti-poverty agenda. But clearly, we also have a gap in impact evaluation. I hope some of you are in a position to help fill that one!
* That consortium is now ReadyNation, a program of the high-profile America’s Promise Alliance which focuses on increasing high school graduation through giving children access to “the ‘Five Promises‘ (Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, Effective Education, and Opportunities to Help Others)”)