There was an article in the Sunday New York Times a while back that was titled “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.” It was written by Paul Tough and was an excerpt from a book he had written called “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.” The article cited a long-term study that started in 1986 and has followed the subjects constantly to the present.

The study proved that children who lived in poverty did substantially better than their peers, into adulthood, if one simple thing was changed in their homes during their first three years of life. If their parents received coaching from trained researchers who encouraged them to play with and stimulate their infants, for example, by reading to them, singing to them and playing peekaboo, the kids did much better.

Parents were taught the importance of these face to face exchanges in creating attachment, warmth, and trust between parents and children. This, in turn, helped create a more stable, nurturing environment in the impoverished homes, which are usually plagued by stress, neglect, and instability.


It’s hard to believe that some people don’t know that they should talk to and play with their infants and young children. But if no one ever did that with you when you were a child and no one later taught you how important it is, how would you know?

The impact of this easy and low-cost intervention was off the charts. The study showed that the children who had the play counseling had higher IQ’s, less aggressive behavior and better self-control than the control groups. They also had better ability to focus, follow directions, interact calmly with others and cope with disappointment and frustration. In other words, they improved intellectually, socially and emotionally. All this just by receiving the kind of attention that most of us take for granted every child automatically gets.

dad & baby

It turns out that adults can be taught to create an environment that fosters success for their children. Why isn’t this being done in every poor neighborhood in the world? Or at least in this country?

This is particularly frustrating for me because my father proposed the same type of in-home interventions in the 1960’s and no one listened to him. My father was a well-known psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and sociologist who stressed the importance of the first 3 years of life. He also did a study that showed how little stimulation and affection a large number of black children living in poverty in Harlem, New York, in the 1950’s were receiving from their parents. He suggested doing exactly what the 1986 study did – send in trained professionals to teach the parents how to give their children the kind of nurturing they needed to thrive.

mom reading

Guess who shot my father’s idea down? The “liberals” of the day and the radical Black Panther movement. They said it was racist to assume that black people didn’t know how to be good parents. It was also considered paternalistic and condescending to send (often white) people into black homes to “tell them” how to deal with their own children. My father backed away from the conflict that surrounded his proposal.

smiles for Mom

Now, 50 years later, the idea is being proposed again. Think of all the kids who could have benefited in all these years! With so much poverty, even just in this country, you’d think this article would have been front page news. You’d think that politicians, as well as educators and mental health professionals,  would be jumping on the bandwagon and yelling from the rooftops. You’d hope that large numbers of “family counselors” would be amassing to go in and make a huge difference in the lives of millions of children.

I haven’t heard anything yet. But I’m still waiting and hoping.

mom & toddler


  1. I played a lot with Owen, but I was still a kid when O was born. Playing was easy for me. I think a lot of older parents tend to be awfully SERIOUS with their kids. They act like they need to start getting them ready for college before they turn three. I suspect that really large families find it hard to play with their kids All the people I know who were raised in really big families mostly learned about playing from older siblings. That’s just the way it rolls when you are the seventh or eleventh child.


    1. Good point about older parents. But I think the article was talking about disadvantaged, uneducated people who are culturally removed from the concept of playing with kids. That’s a whole other problem.


  2. My sister and I were very lucky because mum did play with us and read to us. She showed us how to play games of “Let’s pretend” with our dolls and often read to us or had us read our story books with her. I know I benefited as I was a big reader as a child. Mum was in her mid thirties when she first became a mother and had already done a lot of babysitting of nieces and nephews. It is hard for me to imagine parents not knowing to do that but times have changed, parents are often both at work and often so are the grandparents who might have helped them and of course there are a lot more distractions now with TV, computers and phones so I guess it is something that has to be learned.


    1. I was lucky too. My Mom was a natural with kids. We played together all the time and she laughed with me, read to me, sang to me, danced with me, you name it! I naturally did the same with my kids. Most people learn what to do with kids from their parents or siblings. It’s sad when generations of families have no idea what kids need or how to give it to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That just makes so much sense, Ellin. I worry about children who don’t see their parents because both are working and by the time they get home are too tired to read let alone make a meal for their family.


    1. I really worry about the two career families, where noone is able to be there fully for the kids. Ater work, when everyone is tired and cranky and dinner has to be made, is the worst time to have ‘quality’ time with kids. ANd it’s more important when kids have been in institutional daycare settings all day. They need the one on one from parents. And they can’t really get it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s sad that everyone doesn’t naturally know what kids need. And can’t naturally give it to them. Some things apparently have to be taught. Childcare is usually transmitted from one generation to the next. Except when it’s not! Unfortunately, it’s probably the exception rather than the rule that kids get quality play time with parents on a regular basis.


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