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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Randomized Chilhdoods

Parents, especially first-time parents, have all kinds of worries and questions. Is it best to breastfeed? Does Baby Einstein really make a difference? The list of anxieties goes on and on as various "experts" bombard parents with mixed messages about vaccines, sleeping positions, parental work, etc.

Last week's New Yorker featured an article by Jerome Groopman, former surgeon general, on food allergies- another anxiety-ridden topic.  The Peanut Puzzle discusses the decision of the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise mothers to limit their young children's exposure to nuts, eggs, and even dairy, to help prevent their kids from developing an allergy.  That 2000 recommendation has now been overturned.  One expert is quoted as saying, "I try to emphasize with my patients not to feel guilty that they did or did not do something that would have resulted in their child having a food allergy.  Even the experts are not certain what to advise."

Why is it that medical experts are not able to offer better advice on important childhood health matters? Shouldn't we be able to establish guidelines, to the best of our current scientific knowledge, on these important questions around childhood development?

As I have studied children and education over the past several years, and child health more recently, I have been dismayed by our lack of knowledge on questions like food allergies, or how children learn best in a classroom.  A big part of the problem is that it takes many, many years to sort out whether a particular situation or action helps or hurts a child in the long-term.  That type of research is costly both in terms of money and in terms of time (especially in a system of higher education that rewards researchers for publishing as many journal articles as quickly as possible-- but that's a discussion for another time!).  It also is quite difficult-- what defines someone as successful and healthy in their twenties? Income? Educational attainment? Marital status?

A group of economists (shameless plug, this group includes my husband, John Friedman), have recently been able to investigate the long-term effects of being in a small kindergarten classroom on all kinds of measures at age 27.  The quick answer is that your kindergarten classroom size, and your teacher and peers, do indeed matter later in life (for the long, academic version of the paper, which is forthcoming, click here; for a condensed NYT version, click here).

But the type of data they have don't come along every day. It is rare to be able to track individuals on so many measures over time. More importantly, especially when it comes to children, it is rare to have such a large number of kids participating in a randomized experiment.  I think this is especially true when it comes to health and education issues. What parent is going to voluntarily enroll their child in an experiment that could place that child at risk in some way? Most parents, with few exceptions (perhaps many economists though!), are going to be willing to take the chance to jeopardize their child's health, even in a small way, or their education.

While much of life, and childhood, is random, we still turn to medical experts and education scholars to guide or decisions, even if their recommendations are based on limited data. Would you be willing to take a chance to advance (social) science?  Even if it turns out 25 years later that your child was randomized into the less effective group, potentially hurting their life chances?


  1. #
    Helen Marrow yes
    23 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman You are a good social scientist!

    On things that are so uncertain, it's hard to say... But obviously we can't figure many things out without study. In an age of informed consent, this can be hard, I think.
    23 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Amy McLeod Friedman
    No, I wouldn't...your point is very valid. All your topics beg me to ask what you and John will do with your little ones someday!! Very interesting topics! Most parents, including myself, tend to make decisions based on various factors -... personal background, current peer decisions, local thought leaders (physicians, school superintendents, etc.), social and economic backgrounds, as well as the most simple act of where one lives! It seems as though there are too many variables to have many controlled studies!

    We are enrolling Camden in Kindergarten now so believe me it is a topic at every birthday party we attend...where are you sending your kid to school? To the pricey 25,000 dollar a year private school or to the local public school which is on the list of top 100 school systems in the U.S. At some point, as a parent, you have to make decisions based on your gut and how well you know your child / their needs!!

    Makes me beg the question- does anyone ever get everything right? I think not....

    Look forward to future thoughts from you... And really can't wait to see how things may become more clear and/or confusing when you have little ones of your own....

    Congrats on the house by the looks beautiful!!

    Amy See More
    20 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    Karen Quaderer Sellke A fascinating topic!

  2. how does one measure classroom size of home educated children,public, parochial or private school 22 years ahead as economists state. ergo how will educators follow students that move out of state amy states how does one justify $25,000 in kindergarten

    jfl in scottsdale

  3. JFL- The trick is being able to follow the same people, who had an intervention (for example, the size of their kindergarten classroom), and follow them for 5-10-15-20-etc. years. With SSNs, or even just names and birthdates, researchers can track people and keep tabs on them over time. Some longitudinal panel studies do this, but access to government data is a wonderful thing for social science researchers.