Investing in children to make Ukraine smarter | VoxUkraine

Investing in children to make Ukraine smarter

Photo: Астра
10 December 2014

As Ukraine’s economy is in a severe crisis, many Ukrainians are looking for ways to help their country. Obviously, there are no miracle solutions and many small improvements, both at the individual level and at the country level, will need to be implemented to put Ukraine again on a track to sustainable development.

My personal favorite way to improve the Ukrainian economy is spending quality time with my young children. Let me explain.

By now there is a large literature on the importance of early childhood development for economic prosperity of both the individual and the country. In 2009, Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, one of the leading researchers in this area, summarized the findings of this literature as follows. First, cognitive (IQ) and non-cognitive skills (like perseverance, attention, motivation, self confidence) affect many major economic and social problems like dropping out from school, crime, bad health and so on. Already very early in the life of children, a gap in terms of cognitive and non-cognitive skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children appears, which is linked to the family environment of children. If parents and the society intervene early enough they can improve the early life of children, which will affect their later schooling and hence their development throughout life. Because of this compounding effect, early investments in children have a high rate of return, higher than interventions later in life (like stimulating university education or retraining of unemployed people) .

Unfortunately not all is well with early childhood development in Ukraine – According to a 2012 Survey by UNICEF in Ukraine, less than half of all Ukrainian children between 3 and 5 who were surveyed are considered ‘developmentally on track’ in terms of literacy and numeracy. To be developmentally on track, children in this age category have a to be able to do at least 2 out of the following 3 activities  – identify 10 letters of the alphabet, naming the numbers between 1 and 10 and reading at least 4 words. About a third of the children of 3 and 4 years old is not able to do any of these activities.

Table 1. Literacy-Numeracy Score

Score % of children Average Parental Involvement
3 17,7 10.1
2 26,3 9.3
1 24,3 9.2
0 31,7 8.4

The score counts the number of things the child can do and hence varies between 0 and 3. A score of 2 or more means a child is on track. Average parental involvement is the average number of interactions (defined in the text) parents or other adults in the household have with children, for children with a given literacy-numeracy score.

Several explanations for this high percentage of children who start their life at a disadvantage are possible. First, Ukraine, together with Russia, is one of the few countries in Europe where iodized salt is not widely used. Iodine deficiency in utero and/or during the first years of life, which is common in Ukraine, has been shown to be one of the leading causes of preventable mental retardation in the world. A recent study by James Feyrer (Darthmouth College), Dimitra Politi (University of Edinburgh) and David N. Weil (Brown) shows that the introduction of Iodized salt in 1924 in the US had a substantial positive effect on the average IQ of the population. In US regions where natural iodine was lacking , the average IQ of people born immediately after the introduction of iodized salt was 15 points higher than the average IQ of people born immediately before the introduction of iodized salt. It should come to no surprise then that many countries, but not Ukraine, have made the iodization of salt mandatory. Given the low cost of iodizing salt, following those countries’ example should be a no-brainer for the new Ukrainian government.

A second possible explanation is the limited involvement of fathers in Ukraine in the life of their children. The same Unicef survey mentioned earlier shows that in Ukraine, about 20% of the children aged 3 or 4 live in a family where the natural father is absent. What’s more, many of the fathers, even those living with their children, do not interact much with their children. UNICEF asked whether within the last 3 days anybody in the household had engaged with their 3-4 year old child in the following ways: read books; told stories; sang songs; took outside; played; named, counted or drew things.

More than 30% of the children aged 3 or 4 did not interact in any of these ways with their father. 54% of all children interacted within the last 3 days in all of these ways with their mother, while only 6.2% interacted in all of these ways with their father. Mothers are active in all areas, while fathers rarely sing or tell stories and only about a third of all fathers is involved in reading, naming, counting or drawing. Only a small majority of fathers does play with their young child and/or goes outside with them.

Table 2 – interactions of 3-4 year olds with family members

% Mother Father Other family members
Read 89,2 33,6 31,2
Told stories 83,7 25,4 32,8
Sang 70 9,2 29,9
Took outside 83,4 56,2 38,7
Played 84,2 59,5 40,9
Named, counted, drew 83,8 35,6 29,1

Percentage of children aged 3-4 that interacted with mother, father or other family members of 15 years or older. Based on data from 1924 children.

Table 1 above did not only indicated how well children scored on the development criteria, it also gave a measure of parental involvement. It shows that, on average, children with parents who are more involved, also score better in terms of early development. A more formal analysis confirms this. For example, using regression analysis, I find that if fathers would increase their engagement to the level of mothers, the percentage of girls and boys in Ukraine being developmentally on track at age 4 would by 5 to 6% points (or about 10%) higher than it currently is (roughly, from the current 45% to about 50%).

Hence, if you want to improve the economy spend more quality time with your children, your nephews or nieces – or volunteer at the local orphanage or school. Interact with children and teach them the cognitive and non-cognitive skills (like perseverance, attention, motivation, self confidence) that will help them to be successful and responsible citizens. You will enjoy it so the return to this activity for yourself will be immediate – the benefit for Ukraine will take some more time but who would not agree that Ukraine will benefit a lot from more smartness and less stupidity.

The article is published in Novoe Vremja



The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations