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Nate’s Notes 15: The Matthew Effect

By August 3, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

When my daughter Kyla was two years old, I taught her to read. I hadn’t initially planned to teach her to read when she was two, and I don’t think Kyla was necessarily unique in her ability to learn to read at such a young age (though Kyla, I of course still think you are special, as I know you will listen to this episode).

But I did teach Kyla to read at a young age for one specific reason: The Matthew effect. The Matthew Effect, states that one advantage in life can lead to another advantage in life that can lead to future advantages in life. The name, the Matthew Effect, refers to a verse from the Bible in the 25th chapter of Matthew, verse 29 which reads: “To every one who has, more will be given. But from him who has not, the little that he has shall be taken away.”

In other words, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, so to speak. A stark example of the Matthew Effect, also called the theory of accumulative advantage, was discovered by researchers examining elite Canadian hockey players. What they found is that 40% of elite Canadian hockey players had birthdays between January and March and 30% had birthdays between April and June. However, only 20% had birthdays between July and September, and just 10% had birthdays between October and December. In other words, having a birthday earlier in the year was a huge advantage if you wanted to be an elite hockey player. But why?

The researchers determined that the advantage could be traced back to when the hockey players were children.  As children, those with birthdays earlier in the year were, on average, bigger, stronger, faster, and simply better, than those with birthdays later in the year. And because the slightly older children were better than the younger children they competed against, the older children were selected to more travel teams, received better coaching, and played more hockey each year, creating a virtuous cycle. One advantage early in life led to large advantages later in life…the Matthew Effect.

The Mathew Effect has been found in education as well, specifically in regard to reading ability. And that’s why I prioritized reading education with my daughter, and then with each of my subsequent children.

Early success in reading skills usually leads to later success in reading skills. This is because children who learn to read well at a young age can transition from learning to read, to reading to learn. For example, proficient readers are able to focus on completing assignments, rather than focus on simply reading instructions for those assignments. Furthermore, those children who fall behind in reading tend to read less, further increasing the gap between them and their peers…the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And because education-level is linked to so many important outcomes, such as money earned over a lifetime, and even life expectancy, few things are more important for kids than learning to read.

Teaching children to read is crucial for academic success, but simply talking to kids is also crucially important. A well-known study in education studied 42 families from varying socioeconomic statuses, and found that all parents said and did basically the same things for their children…with one glaring exception: parents from the higher socioeconomic status, also called SES, talked to their children more—a whole lot more, than parents from the lower SES. Children from the highest SES would have heard 48 million words by the time they started kindergarten compared to children from the lowest SES, who would have heard only 13 million words. It’s not hard to guess which group of children would understand the kindergarten teacher better.

But the advantages don’t stop there. According to Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen: “A child who has heard 48 million words won’t just have 3.7 times as many well-lubricated connections in its brain as a child who has heard only 13 million words. The effect on brain cells is exponential. Each brain cell can be connected to hundreds of other cells by as many as ten thousand synapses. That means children who have been exposed to extra talk have an almost incalculable cognitive advantage.”

Again, a small advantage early in life leading to a large advantage later. When I first learned about the Mathew Effect, and started teaching Kyla to read, I was taking a creative writing class at Stanford. For that class, I started writing about my experience with Kyla. Those writings eventually turned into the book, “Little Miss; a father, his daughter and rocket science.” In the beginning I wrote about the techniques I used, and the research that inspired me. But by the end of the book, I had come to a realization. The journey was the reward.

Kyla and I had read thousands of books together, taken thousands of journeys together, and vicariously resolved thousands of conflicts together. And through that process, Kyla had learned to love reading….and she continued to read a lot. By the time Kyla was in 4th grade, she was already reading at a college level. And unless children love to read, they simply won’t read much. For that reason, one of my favorite sections of Little Miss is the list of our 250 favorite books…the books that helped Kyla, and eventually all of my children, learn to love reading.

But so what. Why does this matter? As I think about the Matthew Effect, I’m reminded of the Proverb, Train up a child in the way they should go: and when they are old, they will not depart from it. Making good decisions when you’re young…for example, prioritizing education, love, friendship, self-control, honesty, service…can lead to large advantages later in life.  Every time you develop a skill, you can use that skill to develop new skills, and progress exponentially. So please children, don’t waste your youth. Use the Matthew Effect to your benefit, not your detriment….because making bad decisions now can lead to massive disadvantages later in life. Learn now to prioritize those things that will make you happy both today and tomorrow. Remember, small advantages early in life can lead to large advantages later.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

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