Social justice

Children's skills: the crucial role of interactions with parents

Picture by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

Picture by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

Although little studied in economics, the parent-child relationship is a crucial subject, intimately linked to fundamental socio-economic issues such as inequality, growth and education. Researcher Avner Seror looks at the nature of this interaction and the impact of screens within it.

By Avner Seror

Avner Seror

Auteur scientifique, Aix-Marseille Université, Faculté d'économie et de gestion, AMSE

Sophie Bourlet

Sophie Bourlet

Journaliste scientifique

Widely explored by disciplines such as medicine and psychology, the acquisition of cognitive and social skills remains little-known territory for economists. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman paved the way by theorising a model of human capital to be developed from childhood. It shows that investing resources in young children has a better return than at any other stage of life.

In his article « Child Development in Parent-Child Interactions » published in the Journal of Political Economy, researcher Avner Seror looks at the interactions between parents and their children, the development of the youngest children and the impact of exposure to screens.

Attachment theory

Parent-child interactions have been the subject of numerous theories in developmental psychology. One of the best known comes from the psychiatrist James Bowlby, who introduced the theory of attachment in the late 1960s. This theory is based on the idea that a young child needs to develop an attachment relationship with at least one person who cares for him on a consistent and ongoing basis, a caregiver. Through care, tenderness and positive reactions, a parent enables her child to construct mental representations of himself as a loved and competent being. These mental representations shape children's non-cognitive, or socio-emotional, skills by increasing their motivation to learn and explore their environment.

Cognitive and non-cognitive skills in young children: what do we mean?

Cognitive skills are the ability to learn and develop intellectual functions such as memorisation, language acquisition and numeracy. This natural process is closely linked to brain maturation, motor growth and genetic inheritance.

Non-cognitive skills, or socio-emotional skills, are all skills that relate to behaviour and state of mind, such as concern for a job well done, perseverance, emotional stability, creativity or cooperation.

In the model developed by Avner Seror, the child must choose an action for which only the parent knows the optimal behaviour, for example sharing a toy, learning to walk or avoiding a danger. The parent communicates with the child by sending a signal about the optimal action and rewards the child for behaving appropriately.

An illustration of this model is the example of the cooing baby. The mother approaches him, looks at her offspring, smiles and imitates his cooing. The delighted infant will make an effort to coo again. He'll be rewarded with smiles, hugs and other positive reactions. Thanks to the mother's positive reaction, the child learns to see himself as loved and competent, capable of making sounds that provoke reactions. This self-image is an essential non-cognitive skill for further learning. When he makes the sound "ma-ma-ma", the baby realises that his mother's reactions, convinced that she is hearing "mama", are even more positive than the other sounds. So he's going to reproduce it. Through this interaction, words begin to acquire meaning for the child.

a mother and her baby sharing a moment together

Picture by Prostock Studio on Adobe Stock

By deciphering the parent's signal, children develop their cognitive skills. The parent's rewards enable the child to develop non-cognitive skills and build a representation of himself as a loved and competent being. These non-cognitive skills increase the child's motivation to choose optimal actions. As a result, there is complementarity in the formation of cognitive and non-cognitive skills: as children learn from their parents, they acquire cognitive skills while developing non-cognitive skills that increase their motivation to learn, and so on.

Quality interactions

How can we create conditions for ideal interactions ? Two resources are needed: money and time. This is a first factor of inequality: blue-collar and white-collar workers, especially the least qualified, are the most likely to work at night or to start work early in the morning. This can reduce the amount of time spent with children. Financial resources also make outings, books, games, discoveries, etc. more accessible. These can encourage interactions, but they can also generate inequalities.

Only the best actions should be rewarded. Those that do not meet parental expectations will be less valued. Always wanting to give children positive feedback to make them happy in the short term is not a good investment for the future. Conversely, the ability to project one's own development will enhance learning. In this research, another parameter explored is the ability to interact and spend quality time with the child. You may have more or less preference for interacting with children, depending on their age too. For example, in the case of post-partum depression, which follows birth, the mother is temporarily unable to interact positively. A final condition built into the model is that you should be altruistic towards your children, dividing your own resources between yourself and your child.

Screens are not affectionate

Over the last fifteen years or so, with the arrival of tablets and smartphones, these unwelcome guests have intruded into the educational relationship. Average exposure to screens continues to rise1 , while health recommendations are rarely followed. According to Public Health France, in 2023, a two year old child will spend  an average of 56 minutes a day on a screen, and up to 1 hour 34 minutes for children aged 5 and a half. Although the sciences, whether economic or medical, do not yet know exactly what the effects will be,

  • 1According to the 2022 Digital Barometer, 87% of French people own a smartphone.
Landscape shot of a child hypnotised by a tablet screen.

Picture by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In his article "Child Development in Parent-Child Interactions", Avner Seror demonstrates a negative effect of screens. The many screens do not encourage human interactions. On the contrary, they monopolise the attention of children and parents. If children are exposed to screens, they will devote less effort to learning from their parents. Thus, their ability to see themselves as competent and loved leads to a lower motivation to learn more from their environment.

By becoming childminders and nannies, screens are widening inequalities. An affluent person will be able to hire a childminder or cleaner, allowing them to spend more quality time with their children. Conversely, someone who lacks free time might put their children in front of the TV so that they can do the housework when they get home from work, creating inequalities in the quality of interactions.

A world made of interactions

The conclusions of this study provide guidelines for action by parents and public authorities. It is important to encourage children to limit their use of screens, but even more important to offer other activities to recreate parent-child interactions. For example, playing games, reading a story, involving the child in tasks such as hanging out the washing or putting a saucepan away in the kitchen, etc. The use of screens is still a taboo subject, and is rarely discussed in group settings such as schools or crèches.

A child on his father's lap reading a book

Picture by Picsea on Unsplash

Childcare programmes should take better account of inequalities and target disadvantaged families in particular. Greater consideration should also be given to the mental health of parents, in the case of depression for example, to ensure the healthy development of children. These parenting support measures should be put in place right from the start of the child's life, to build stable foundations from the very first months.

Because the world is but a sum of interactions where we exist through the eyes of our parents, then through the eyes of our peers. Everyone shapes their identity and understands the world through these interactions. It is therefore a key issue for a more fulfilled society.

Translated from French by

Translated from French by Cate Evans


Seror, A., 2022, « "Child Development in Parent-Child Interactions », Journal of Political Economy, 130(9), 2462‑2499.