Can We Nudge Parents to Read to Their Kids?

BY: SYON BHANOT (SWARTHMORE COLLEGE) & CHRISTOPHER ZHANG (SWARTHMORE COLLEGE, CLASS OF 2019)

Many of us have fond memories of our parents reading to us when we were young. In the moment, these reading sessions were an opportunity for us to bond with our moms and dads (and for them to get us to sleep!). But in an increasingly busy world, many parents have a hard time regularly engaging with their kids. This is most true for low-income parents, with evidence suggesting that wealthier parents spend more time engaging with their children, particularly when it comes to educational activities (Lareau 2003; Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008; Kalil, Ryan, and Corey 2012). Why is this?

Some behavioral scientists have posited that low-income parents, strapped for time and money, may not prioritize the development of their children’s social and educational skills. In the language of the Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan’s transformative book “Scarcity,” these parents may be “tunneling” on immediate needs and forced to ignore other important considerations, like building bonds with their children. And while short-term priorities are often critical for low-income families, failing to connect with their children can have costly long-term implications.

In a new NBER working paper, “Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement: The Parents and Children Together (PACT) Intervention,” a team of researchers from the Universities of Chicago and Toronto present findings from a randomized field experiment that used behavioral nudges to encourage parents to engage more with their children. The participants in the study were 169 parents whose children were enrolled in a subsidized preschool program. All 169 parents received electronic tablets that were pre-loaded with over 500 children’s books and kept track of the amount of time parents read to their kids using the device. In addition, a randomly-selected subset of these parents received access to the “treatment”—the “Parent and Children Together” program, or PACT.

What was PACT? The program consisted of three nudges—a “soft” commitment device, reminders, and social incentives—designed to encourage parental engagement and provide information, in the form of educational videos and electronic documents about the importance of reading. The commitment device involved a research assistant requesting that PACT parents set a reading goal at the beginning of each week. Then, at the end of each week, all treatment-group parents were given a visualization of how many minutes they had read to their children using the device. The reminders involved a daily text message that stressed the importance of reading to children, and encouraged parents to do it more. Parents also received a congratulatory text when they reached their reading goal (in the form of a dancing bear, visible below). Finally, the social incentives involved a mass text message to all PACT parents that commended the parent who had read the most in a given week.

If parents reached their reading goal, they received a congratulatory text with this dancing bear.

What did the authors find? On average, parents who received PACT read 88.3 minutes more to their children than parents in the control group—an increase of over 100%. Given the simplicity and low-cost of PACT, this is a striking result. Additionally, the team found that parents in the control group who were more patient by nature read nearly 30 minutes more to their children. Patience here was measured using an experimental choice task called “convex time budgets,” which estimates how much people value the future relative to the present. However, the authors also found that PACT was especially effective for less patient parents. That is, the number of minutes read by less patient parents in the PACT treatment increased by much more than patient parents in the PACT treatment (see graph below), a sign that nudges like PACT can help close gaps in outcomes between more and less patient parents.

The effect of the PACT intervention on parent-child reading time for more patient parents and less patient parents.

The PACT experiment shows that behavioral nudges can increase parental engagement and benefit children. It is important to note, though, that the sample for the study was drawn from a self-selected group of parents, who valued preschool programs enough to enroll their children in one. How would a PACT intervention work with less enthusiastic parents? It is hard to know the answer, but this experiment shows that the gains may be significant. And surely we can all get behind a nudge that encourages parents to read their kids their favorite bedtime story just one more time before lights out.