Research Cases

What Can We Learn About Parenting from Big Data?

By April, 2016 No Comments
Father and daughters playing jump-rope

Ariel Kalil Ph.D.Professor, The Harris School of Public Policy, The University of Chicago; Director, Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, The University of Chicago

Agnieszka Tymula, Ph.D.Assistant Professor, University of Sydney, School of Economics; Visiting Affiliated Faculty, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Decision Making, New York University

Date Published
April, 2016

There is little doubt that parenting plays a significant role in determining children’s future health, educational and socio-emotional outcomes, over and above parents’ financial investments in children’s development (Kalil, 2014a; Kalil & Mayer, 2015). Although the causal relationship between parent-child interactions and children’s future outcomes is not well-established, the general conclusion in the field of developmental psychology and in other fields is that what parents do and how they engage with their children is key to their successful development. In fact, personal interactions between parents and children may be even more important than monetary investments made towards child’s future (traditionally the only factor considered by policy makers; Waldfogel & Washbrook, 2011). This is a very important policy point. It implies that, in principle, developmentally-skillful parenting could prevent undesirable outcomes for children and help ensure that children reach their full potential. It is thus vital to first learn what exactly skillful parenting is and then to figure out how to promote it among parents. If skillful parenting is indeed as important as it is currently believed to be, we should see benefits especially for the families at the bottom of the income distribution where parental attention to children has been measured to be lower both in terms of its quality and quantity (Kalil, 2014b; Waldfogel & Washbrook, 2011). It is however obvious that current studies linking parenting to children’s life outcomes suffer from two major flaws: 1) they are based on small, mostly unrepresentative samples and 2) offer limited (often self-reported) insight into parent-child interactions. These weaknesses in data prevent us from clearly and objectively defining skillful parenting and measuring its real impact. We review the literature on parent-child interactions and how they are believed to shape life outcomes in socio-emotional, health and educational domains. We then spell out the remaining big questions. Next, we argue that given the progress in technology and data collection tools in the recent years, these questions could in principle be easily answered, had the existing data, already collected by a mix of private companies and government institutions, been made available to the researchers. For example, we cannot help but notice that the idea that researchers study parenting using paper and pen logs of self-reported amount of time spent together is just simply time-wise and cost-wise inefficient, given that virtually every parent and many children in the U.S. carry with them a device (such as smartphone) that precisely monitors where (s)he is at each point of time providing real data on how much time family members spend together. In this part of the paper we also outline what specific measurements – biological, environmental and behavioral – would be of particular use to researchers. Finally, we suggest game theory and behavioral economics models as a framework to analyze, classify and give interpretation to the patterns of parent-child interactions revealed by Big Data. We illustrate why we find this approach to be particularly promising with practical examples from experimental- and neuroeconomics. The families who participate in The Human Project provide the perfect measurement opportunity for collecting data on all of the aforementioned factors in a single database simultaneously, providing insight into parental and other factors that play a significant role in a child’s future.