Little Differences, Big Differences

The other day, when listening to a news story on a recent research study, I was reminded of the famous short story by Ray Bradbury called “A Sound of Thunder.” In this science fiction narrative, time travelers are able to go back to the age of the dinosaurs to hunt and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex, just minutes before the beast is about to become extinct. Before they leave, the travelers are warned not to wander from the path, lest even their tiny alterations to conditions in the pre-historic era somehow snowball to generate much larger changes millions of years later. Of course, such warning is unheeded by one of the story’s characters and he accidentally kills a butterfly in his wandering from the designated path. When the characters then return to their current time, the world they know is subtly, but dramatically different. An alternate course of history had been set simply with the demise of a single small creature.

So, what was this research study that brought this story to mind? Believe it or not, it was a study that examined how parents in three countries spent time differently with their young children, depending on if the child was a boy or girl. Overall, they found that parents spent equal amount of time with their children, regardless of gender, but that parents tended to spend more time with girls as young as 9 months old in activities that were more educationally-oriented, like going to libraries or reading to their child. The differences even showed up among parents of fraternal twins.

The authors of the paper then speculate that this subtle difference in the ways in which parents spend time with their very young children might—might!—be a reason why girls tend to perform better on math and reading assessments in primary grades. After they conduct an analysis to determine if such a correlation exists, they conclude:

boy-girl differences in parental inputs make some contribution to the corresponding differences in their preschool cognitive scores. While [these differences] are relatively modest, the tests are recorded at young ages, and so the impact may cumulate at older ages if learning deficits and advantages are cumulative.

In other words, small differences in the way that parents spend time with their very young children can potentially generate lasting (and even widening) gaps in learning as children wend their way through school. Without realizing it, the way parents spend their time, like the time travelers in Bradbury’s story, alters the course of their child’s history in subtle but still dramatic ways.

Now, on the one hand, this basic finding is nothing new. We’ve known for decades that children’s development at early ages has enduring consequences for their prospects in school and beyond. On the other hand, this study does augment the idea that environment and, very specifically, the ways in which children spend their time are partly responsible for the course of this development.

And what is true for childraising in the home surely has implications for educators, as well, the clearest of which is that time should be spent in ways that foster more learning and more curiosity about the world. If educators train their collective focus on this one point, our children will clearly benefit.