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The awe-inspiring views of New York City were stunning from every angle on that clear, clear day of blue skies and glittering buildings. I observed a family of Indian origin. While the parents posed for and clicked pictures perched atop the tallest building in the Western hemisphere, the One World Trade Center, their three-year-old had his nose glued to a screen inches away from his nose. I nudged my husband and we thought back to the time when I had insisted on taking our two year old to Rome arguing that even if he did not appreciate Roman architecture he would still learn something from observing a world where the sights, smells and language were different from his home in London.

Looking at the little child strapped in his stroller clutching his iPad I shuddered at the thought of my future grandchildren dancing in virtual reality while the real world was a mere foot away from their tiny fingers.

New York Times blogpost by  1986, in a few of the poorest neighborhoods in Kingston, Jamaica, a team of researchers from the University of the West Indies embarked on an experiment that has done a great deal, over time, to change our thinking about how to help children succeed, especially those living in poverty. Its message: Help children by supporting and coaching their parents.

The researchers divided the families of 129 infants and toddlers into groups. The first group received hourlong home visits once a week from a trained researcher who encouraged the parents to spend more time playing actively with their children: reading picture books, singing songs, playing peekaboo. A second group of children received a kilogram of a milk-based nutritional supplement each week. A control group received nothing. The interventions themselves ended after two years, but the researchers have followed the children ever since.

The intervention that made the big difference in the children’s lives, as it turned out, wasn’t the added nutrition; it was the encouragement to the parents to play. The children whose parents were counseled to play more with them did better, throughout childhood, on tests of I.Q., aggressive behavior and self-control. Today, as adults, they earn an average of 25 percent more per year than the subjects whose parents didn’t receive home visits.

The Jamaica experiment helps make the case that if we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the adults who surround them.

Vandana Kumar

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...