Parents who believe their children can have a better future more likely to read, play with them – study

Every day, a small group of women make their way through the community of Sweetwaters, near the South African city of Pietermaritzburg, with bags of toys and books. They work as home mentors supporting families who signed up for an early childhood development intervention. They swap puzzles and stories and provide resourceful activities for children and caregivers. Even the older siblings often sit and join the stories and games.

An estimated 40% of homes in South Africa do not have children’s books, according to Unicef data. In Sweetwaters, my research team has found (and reports in a forthcoming academic article), that number gets up to 83%.

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Two decades ago a non-profit organisation, iThemba Projects, was established to partner with the community of Sweetwaters to provide opportunities for education and mentoring. (The word ithemba means “hope” in the predominant local language, isiZulu.)

The organisation’s child development intervention focuses on getting parents to read to, play with and talk to their children, whether newborn or already in school. The organisation believes that if it could change parents’ beliefs about children’s potential, this would instil hope in a community with the highest HIV infection rates in the world, high unemployment, and low access to early childhood education.

iThemba’s approach is in line with what’s long been established by developmental psychology researchers: that playing and reading time in early childhood has long-lasting positive effects.

In a recent collaborative paper involving my research team from the US and iThemba, we set out to understand how parental beliefs and behaviours changed throughout the intervention and what best explained their progress.

We know that playing and reading are parenting practices that positively influence children throughout their lives. But how can non-profits support parents in high adversity contexts? How long does it take to change parenting habits? And what are the necessary preconditions?

We used programme data from between 2019 and 2021 to answer these questions. We found that length of time in the programme before the pandemic influenced how much reading and playing happened during the 2020 Covid lockdown. We also found that parents who believed their children could have a better future than them were more likely to read and play with them.

What the research found

As part of iThemba’s programme, 157 homes were visited every two weeks by mentors – most of whom live in the community – for up to two years. The mentors tracked caregivers’ reading and playing behaviours on every visit and parents reported on their support system and beliefs about children every six months. The programme encourages parents to engage in some reading and play behaviours every day.

The best predictors for parental reading and playing were the amount of time people spent in the programme, whether they had friends they could depend on, and how hopeful they were about their child’s future.

South Africa had several strict lockdowns during the pandemic. The programme paused from March 2020 until November that year, then home visits resumed with masks and outside.

The pandemic disrupted the rhythms of most households and was especially stressful for those with young children. But the families who had been in the programme for at least a year before the onset of Covid were most likely to continue reading and playing with their children during the pandemic. Moreover, the parents who reported having people they could count on to help with childcare were more likely to read and play.

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When the programme restarted in November those same families were more hopeful than those who had not had much time in the programme before the first lockdown. As a psychology researcher who studies virtuous hope, I found this aspect especially striking.

Virtuous hope is morally driven. It is the desire for a better future that serves a common good, rather than hope for personal success or fame; it often involves personal sacrifice and long-term thinking. Even after accounting for programme engagement and support systems, parents who believed – and hoped – their children could have a better future were more likely to read and play even when their daily lives were altered by something as disruptive as a global pandemic.

Slow but sustainable

However, neither hopefulness nor childhood development can occur in a vacuum. The work of iThemba Projects in Sweetwaters suggests that a relationally-driven home visitation programme is a necessary catalyst. Unlike many other interventions, this one is focused on relationship building. It expects change to happen over two years rather than over the course of a weekend-long seminar. It recognises that parents and caregivers need support, not just information.

The parenting changes being measured are slow, yet sustainable. Caregivers slowly built habits of playing and reading with their children and reported higher beliefs that these practices were important for child development. Most existing parenting interventions in low and middle income countries are less than 12 sessions. Psychology is filled with micro-interventions, focusing efforts on brief workshops. However, we typically saw stable family improvements only after six months to one year (25 sessions). This should not be surprising. Forming new habits, establishing a support system, and building hope take time.

Hope cannot be studied in a vacuum. Nor can it be divorced from the human drive for the betterment of one’s community. This kind of hope cannot be quickly cultivated. It is sown through repeated visits, long-term family-community partnerships, and colourful children’s books.The Conversation

Kendra Thomas, is an associate professor of psychology at Hope College.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

William Murphy

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