This piece is published in partnership with INSEAD’s Knowledge blog, a leading online magazine engaged with innovative ideas about the business world.

A growing body of research indicates that income inequality is playing an ever-greater role in shaping the destinies of children across the world. From health to education, the statistics show that rich and poor kids are on increasingly divergent tracks, a global condition with grave implications for the future of developed democracies. Perhaps even more troubling than the numbers themselves is the lack of political consensus about what should be done, not to mention the political will and capacity to take timely action.

Some believe that affordable higher education is the most effective counterweight to mounting inequality. In his address of the State of the Union in January, President Barak Obama laid out a proposal to offer two tuition-free years of community college. Others have argued that the most effective way to help those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder would be through tax interventions, for example, through expanding the earned income tax credit.

But the literature on early childhood development strongly suggests that such measures would touch many people too late in life. One’s chances for success as an adult, many studies show, largely depend on the acquisition of certain intellectual and interpersonal skills in early childhood – skills that are more difficult to obtain in conditions of economic hardship. As inequality lengthens the distance between rungs on the class ladder, helping poor families understand and cultivate these skills early in a child’s life becomes essential to maintaining social mobility.

The Self-Control to Succeed

Research across multiple disciplines from economics and sociology to neuroscience and developmental psychology suggests that many important predictors of future success take shape even before a child enters school. “Self-control” – whether a person foregoes short-term temptations to prioritise higher pursuits – in particular has been implicated as a major causal factor in a child’s later life successes. One of the best-known studies on self-control is Walter Mischel’s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mischel, then a psychology professor at Stanford, ran a series of experiments where he placed nursery school students in a room and gave them a treat.

He made the following deal with the kids: they could eat the marshmallow right away, or wait 15 minutes until the tester returned to the room. If they waited, they would get two marshmallows. Mischel followed the children over time and found that the children who had shown the ability to resist the temptation to eat the treat right away got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater success on the labour market, and even proved better at staying in relationships. Mischel concluded that self-control and patience and being able to tame one’s impulses are just as important as intelligence in predicting life success.

But is self-control a purely innate quality, or is social conditioning involved in its development? In 2012, a group of psychologists from the University of Rochester re-did the marshmallow experiment, with a key difference: Before offering the marshmallows, testers established their own credibility or lack thereof by promising the preschoolers a set of crayons and fulfilling that promise for only half the kids. All but one of the kids for whom the crayon promise was broken didn’t wait for the second marshmallow; the majority of the fulfilled-promise group did.

This experiment shows the development of self-control is strongly conditioned by social trust. Kids growing up in an environment where promises are always broken and outcomes are far from reliable – circumstances seen more often in working-class contexts than wealthy ones – will likely find it rational to opt for immediate over delayed gratification.

Growing Up at Risk

Children from low-income families are at a much higher risk of adverse experiences associated with poor adult health, alcoholism, drug use, depression, and poor job performance. In our recent study, we analysed data from the 2011/2012 National Survey of Children’s Health

and found that children from poor families are more likely to lose a parent before turning 17 and to live with a parent who has served time in prison than children growing up in wealthier families. Low-income children are also more likely to have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence or violence in their neighbourhood. Low-income children are also more likely to grow up in households where one resident parent suffers from mental illness or substance abuse problems.

The Comfort Gap

Fortunately, the negative effects of early stress can be mollified if not totally canceled out by the right type of parenting behaviour. Parents who have a warm, nurturing relationship with their children can help them to build resilience. Psychologist Gary Evans observed middle school children playing the frustration-inducing game Jenga with their mothers and found that for kids whose mothers were particularly emotionally responsive during the game, life stresses such as poverty and divorce had little to no effect on stress hormone levels. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth found that babies whose mothers were quick to react to their crying became more self-reliant and intrepid adults.

However, there is a significant class difference in the amount of warmth and affection parents show their children. Analysing data from the 1997 Panel Study on Income Dynamics, I found that 75 percent of mothers with less than a high-school education hug or show physical affection to their child at least once a day, compared to 87 percent of mothers with a high-school diploma, 91 percent of mothers with some college, and 94 percent of mothers with college degrees. Similarly, more college-educated fathers (77 percent) report hugging their child daily than do fathers with less than a high-school education (68 percent) or fathers with a high-school diploma (70 percent).


A key insight stemming from the research on early childhood development is that the major determinant of child disadvantage is the quality of the nurturing environment, rather than just the number of parents in the home or financial resources available. Another important insight is that if we want to make a difference, we have to start early.

In a 2014 report, the U.S.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission called for a shift in funding priorities to improve childrens’ health with an emphasis on early childhood education, community revitalisation, and a broader scope of healthcare. “Although the United States invests significantly in [these areas]”, the Commission wrote, “it does not invest as heavily in the earliest years when children’s brains are developing.” The report called upon leaders to “ensure all children have access to early childhood development programmes by 2025.”

Of course, we cannot ignore that the welfare of parents and children are deeply interwoven. Mothers who have had their share of adversity and insecure attachments in early childhood are less likely to establish a secure, nurturing relationship with their own children. To end the vicious circle of childhood adversity, we should design programmes that help mothers to overcome these problems.

This piece is published in partnership with INSEAD’s Knowledge blog, a leading online magazine engaged with innovative ideas about the business world.

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About The Author

Kaisa Snellman
INSEAD Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Kaisa Snellman is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Kaisa's main teaching and research interests are in the areas of economic sociology, culture, organisations, social capital, and social networks. Her current work examines increasing economic and social inequality in the United States and the consequences of these trends for social mobility. In particular, she interested in the role of social networks and neighborhoods in producing or maintaining inequality. Her recent work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on increasing health inequalities in the United States. Her previous work has examined the changing role of knowledge production in the economy, and the “Americanisation” of corporate governance practices in Europe. Her research on the diffusion of the shareholder model in Finland received the Louis R. Pondy Best Dissertation Award from the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management in 2012. She was also a finalist for the William H. Newman Award from the Academy of Management. Kaisa’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The LA Times, Forbes, Businessweek, and The Huffington Post, among others. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Stanford University, an MA in Sociology from Stanford University, and an MSc degree in Economics from Swedish School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. Kaisa blogs about economic inequality and culture at Harvard Business Review.