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  • Today I want to confess something to you,

  • but first of all I'm going to ask you a couple of questions.

  • How many people here have children?

  • And how many of you are confident

  • that you know how to bring up your children

  • in exactly the right way?

  • (Laughter)

  • OK, I don't see too many hands going up on that second one,

  • and that's my confession, too.

  • I've got three boys;

  • they're three, nine and twelve.

  • And like you, and like most parents,

  • the honest truth is I have pretty much no idea what I'm doing.

  • I want them to be happy and healthy in their lives,

  • but I don't really know what I'm supposed to do

  • to make sure they are happy and healthy.

  • There's so many books offering all kinds of conflicting advice,

  • it can be really overwhelming.

  • So I've spent most of their lives just making it up as I go along.

  • However, something changed me a few years ago,

  • when I came across a little secret that we have in Britain.

  • It's helped me become more confident about how I bring up my own children,

  • and it's revealed a lot about how we as a society can help all children.

  • I want to share that secret with you today.

  • For the last 70 years,

  • scientists in Britain have been following thousands of thousands of children through their lives

  • as part of an incredible scientific study.

  • There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.

  • Collecting information on thousands of children

  • is a really powerful thing to do,

  • because it means we can compare the ones who say,

  • do well at school or end up healthy or happy or wealthy as adults,

  • and the ones who struggle much more,

  • and then we can sift through all the information we've collected

  • and try to work out why their lives turned out different.

  • This British study -- it's actually a kind of crazy story.

  • So it all starts back in 1946,

  • just a few months after the end of the war,

  • when scientists wanted to know

  • what it was like for a woman to have a baby at the time.

  • They carried out this huge survey of mothers

  • and ended up recording the birth of nearly every baby

  • born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week.

  • That was nearly 14,000 babies.

  • The questions they asked these women

  • are very different than the ones we might ask today.

  • They sound really old-fashioned now.

  • They asked them things like,

  • "During pregnancy,

  • did you get your full extra ration of a pint of milk a day?"

  • "How much did you spend on smocks, corsets,

  • nightdresses, knickers and brassieres?"

  • And this is my favorite one:

  • "Who looked after your husband while you were in bed with this baby?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, this wartime study actually ended up being so successful

  • that scientists did it again.

  • They recorded the births of thousands of babies born in 1958

  • and thousands more in 1970.

  • They did it again in the early 1990s,

  • and again at the turn of the millennium.

  • Altogether, more than 70,000 children have been involved in these studies

  • across those five generations.

  • They're called the British birth cohorts,

  • and scientists have gone back and recorded more information

  • on all of these people every few years ever since.

  • The amount of information that's now been collected on these people

  • is just completely mind-boggling.

  • It includes thousands of paper questionnaires

  • and terabytes' worth of computer data.

  • Scientists have also built up a huge bank of tissue samples,

  • which includes locks of hair, nail clippings, baby teeth and DNA.

  • They've even collected 9,000 placentas from some of the births,

  • which are now pickled in plastic buckets in a secure storage warehouse.

  • This whole project has become unique --

  • so, no other country in the world is tracking generations of children

  • in quite this detail.

  • These are some of the best-studied people on the planet,

  • and the data has become incredibly valuable for scientists,

  • generating well over 6,000 academic papers and books.

  • But today I want to focus on just one finding --

  • perhaps the most important discovery to come from this remarkable study.

  • And it's also the one that spoke to me personally,

  • because it's about how to use science to do the best for our children.

  • So, let's get the bad news out of the way first.

  • Perhaps the biggest message from this remarkable study is this:

  • don't be born into poverty or into disadvantage,

  • because if you are,

  • you're far more likely to walk a difficult path in life.

  • Many children in this study were born into poor families

  • or into working-class families that had cramped homes or other problems,

  • and it's clear now that those disadvantaged children

  • have been more likely to struggle on almost every score.

  • They've been more likely to do worse at school,

  • to end up with worse jobs and to earn less money.

  • Now, maybe that sounds really obvious,

  • but some of the results have been really surprising,

  • so children who had a tough start in life

  • are also more likely to end up unhealthy as adults.

  • They're more likely to be overweight,

  • to have high blood pressure,

  • and then decades down the line,

  • more likely to have a failing memory, poor health and even to die earlier.

  • Now, I talked about what happens later,

  • but some of these differences emerge at a really shockingly early age.

  • In one study,

  • children who were growing up in poverty

  • were almost a year behind the richer children on educational tests,

  • and that was by the age of just three.

  • These types of differences have been found again and again across the generations.

  • It means that our early circumstances have a profound influence

  • on the way that the rest of our lives play out.

  • And working out why that is

  • is one of the most difficult questions that we face today.

  • So there we have it.

  • The first lesson for successful life, everyone, is this:

  • choose your parents very carefully.

  • (Laughter)

  • Don't be born into a poor family or into a struggling family.

  • Now, I'm sure you can see the small problem here.

  • We can't choose our parents or how much they earn,

  • but this British study has also struck a real note of optimism

  • by showing that not everyone who has a disadvantaged start

  • ends up in difficult circumstances.

  • As you know, many people have a tough start in life,

  • but they end up doing very well on some measure nevertheless,

  • and this study starts to explain how.

  • So the second lesson is this:

  • parents really matter.

  • In this study,

  • children who had engaged, interested parents,

  • ones who had ambition for their future,

  • were more likely to escape from a difficult start.

  • It seems that parents and what they do are really, really important,

  • especially in the first few years of life.

  • Let me give you an example of that.

  • In one study,

  • scientists looked at about 17,000 children who were born in 1970.

  • They sifted all the mountains of data that they had collected

  • to try to work out

  • what allowed the children who'd had a difficult start in life

  • to go on and do well at school nevertheless.

  • In other words, which ones beat the odds.

  • The data showed that what mattered more than anything else was parents.

  • Having engaged, interested parents in those first few years of life

  • was strongly linked to children going on to do well at school later on.

  • In fact, quite small things that parents do

  • are associated with good outcomes for children.

  • Talking and listening to a child,

  • responding to them warmly,

  • teaching them their letters and numbers,

  • taking them on trips and visits.

  • Reading to children every day seems to be really important, too.

  • So in one study,

  • children whose parents were reading to them daily when they were five

  • and then showing an interest in their education at the age of 10,

  • were significantly less likely to be in poverty at the age of 30

  • than those whose parents weren't doing those things.

  • Now, there are huge challenges with interpreting this type of science.

  • These studies show that certain things that parents do

  • are correlated with good outcomes for children,

  • but we don't necessarily know those behaviors caused the good outcomes,

  • or whether some other factor is getting in the way.

  • For example, we have to take genes into account,

  • and that's a whole other talk in itself.

  • But scientists working with this British study

  • are working really hard to get at causes,

  • and this is one study I particularly love.

  • In this one,

  • they looked at the bedtime routines of about 10,000 children

  • born at the turn of the millennium.

  • Were the children going to bed at regular times,

  • or did they go to bed at different times during the week?

  • The data showed that those children who were going to bed at different times

  • were more likely to have behavioral problems,

  • and then those that switched to having regular bedtimes

  • often showed an improvement in behavior,

  • and that was really crucial,

  • because it suggested it was the bedtime routines

  • that were really helping things get better for those kids.

  • Here's another one to think about.

  • In this one,

  • scientists looked at children who were reading for pleasure.

  • That means that they picked up a magazine, a picture book, a story book.

  • The data showed that children who were reading for pleasure

  • at the ages of five and 10

  • were more likely to go on in school better, on average,

  • on school tests later in their lives.

  • And not just tests of reading,

  • but tests of spelling and maths as well.

  • This study tried to control for all the confounding factors,

  • so it looked at children who were equally intelligent

  • and from the same social-class background,

  • so it seemed as if it was the reading which really helped those children

  • go on and score better on those school tests later in their lives.

  • Now at the start,

  • I said the first lesson from this study

  • was not to be born into poverty or into disadvantage,

  • because those children tend to follow more difficult paths in their lives.

  • But then I said that parenting matters,

  • and that good parenting, if you can call it that,

  • helps children beat the odds

  • and overcome some of those early disadvantages.

  • So wait,

  • does that actually mean, then, that poverty doesn't matter after all?

  • You could argue it doesn't matter if a child is born poor --

  • as long as their parents are good parents, they're going to do just fine.

  • I don't believe that's true.

  • This study shows that poverty and parenting matter.

  • And one study actually put figures on that,

  • so it looked at children growing up in persistent poverty

  • and how well they were doing at school.

  • The data showed

  • that even when their parents were doing everything right --

  • putting them to bed on time

  • and reading to them every day and everything else --

  • that only got those children so far.

  • Good parenting only reduced the educational gap

  • between the rich and poor children by about 50 percent.

  • Now that means that poverty leaves a really lasting scar,

  • and it means that if we really want to ensure the success and well-being

  • of the next generation,

  • then tackling child poverty is an incredibly important thing to do.

  • Now, what does all this mean for you and me?

  • Are there lessons here we can all take home and use?

  • As a scientist and a journalist,

  • I like to have some science to inform my parenting ...

  • and I can tell you that when you're shouting at your kids

  • to go to bed on time,

  • it really helps to have the scientific literature on your side.

  • (Laughter)

  • And wouldn't it be great to think

  • that all we had to do to have happy, successful children

  • was to talk to them, be interested in their future,

  • put them to bed on time, and give them a book to read?

  • Our job would be done.

  • Now, as you can imagine,

  • the answers aren't quite as simple as that.

  • For one thing, this study looks at what happens

  • to thousands and thousands of children on average,

  • but that doesn't necessarily say what will help my child or your child

  • or any individual child.

  • In the end, each of our children is going to walk their own path,

  • and that's partly defined by the genes they inherit

  • and of course all the experiences they have through their lives,

  • including their interactions with us, their parents.

  • I will tell you what I did after I learned all this.

  • It's a bit embarrassing.

  • I realized I was so busy working,

  • and ironically,