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How Nudges Can Shape Parenthood: Interventions on parental involvement and child-caregiver interactions

Family environments in the first years of life are key to a child's development. Recent evidence in the field of behavioral economics suggests that the quality of the interactions between parents and children can be challenged by behavioral barriers that preclude a good bonding between the caregiver and the child, and ultimately affect child development. 

Which behavioral barriers may interfere in early environments?  

Present bias or high discount rates. Parents may fail to internalize future benefits from their investment in parenting practices and make shortsighted investment decisions on their children.  

Complexity of the parental role, lack of attention, and diversion of the cognitive resources necessary to carry out the parental tasks. For instance, the stress associated with financial problems and social isolation can reduce self-control and consume cognitive resources that prevent their allocation to good parenting. 

Negative identities. When negative identities are prevalent, parents feel that they are not capable of positively influencing their children’s development and well-being. 

Parenting interventions, such as home visits, have been effective in improving parenting practices. These interventions, however, are too costly to be implemented at scale given that they need to be carried out by highly trained facilitators. The challenge is to design interventions that can be scaled up to broad fractions of the population. 

With a group of economists and psychologists, we designed Crianza Positiva, a low-cost intervention to support parents of children aged 0 to 2 in their parenting roles. The program leverages technology and consists of text and audio messages sent three times a week for six months. It is delivered after parents complete an 8-week parenting workshop.  

The messages aim to increase parental investment by activating several mechanisms.  First, they seek to highlight the benefits of good parenting practices, through reminders about the benefits of different parental behaviors. In this way, they attempt to mitigate present bias. On the other hand, messages seek to break down complex parenting tasks into simpler tasks with simple suggestions and concrete activities. Thus, they attempt to address inattention and cognitive fatigue. Third, the messages attempt to transform negative identities into positive ones, by stimulating self-care and the identification of existing parental resources. 

In Bloomfield et al. (2023) we evaluated the effects of the e-messaging program on parental investment through a randomized controlled trial. Participant families attended Uruguay’s ‘Children and Family Care Centers’ (CAIF) (publicly funded, privately managed early childhood centers). After attending the parenting workshop, families were randomly assigned into a treatment and control group. Families in both groups participated in the 8-week workshop, but only those in the treatment group received text and audio messages.

Results were promising: we found incremental effects over the workshop on the quantity of parental investment, as measured by the frequency of parental involvement with the child, and the quality of parental investment, given by measures of parental outreach for social support and parental reflective capacity. 

Our work contributes to a growing literature exploiting the combination of e-messages and nudges to boost early childhood development at scale. Our results suggest the large potential of these very low-cost interventions, based on mobile technology and the understanding of behavioral biases, to enhance parental behaviors, competences and attitudes.


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