Whitney Houston sang, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” And while that song has been the subject of numerous parodies and cut-rate imitations, the words have more power than we realize.

Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman certainly believes children are the future. If you teach them well early, providing a solid early childhood education for both child and parent, then those children will grow up to become leaders around the globe.

Heckman’s work, work that spans more than five decades, proves that the combination of non-cognitive and cognitive skills formed in early childhood pay dividends later in life, both for the individual and the society as a whole.

Civil Rights

Heckman made his mark on the world of economics in large part to his ground breaking research on the positive effects that civil rights policies had on African Americans. Civil rights changes ushered in a new era of opportunity for a long-oppressed population. New laws and policies offered the chance to study directly the ways access to opportunity could affect an entire community.

In 1991, Heckman published a now much cited paper examining the efficacy of federal civil rights policy on African Americans’ progress. The decade following the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act marked the second period of economic improvement for African Americans in the 20th century.

Early Childhood Education: The Difference Maker

Since that 1991 paper, Heckman has turned his attention to the differences other initiatives can have on the economic and social movement of groups of people, most notably, the youngest children.

Early childhood education can increase a child’s IQ, can increase a child’s capacity for emotional intelligence, and can strengthen a child’s non-cognitive skills, a clear indicator of success later in life.

And the differences quality early childhood education can make aren’t insignificant either. The studies Heckman conducted could trace boosts in IQ for children who received quality early childhood educations through the age of 21, a most critical time for young adults in college and entering the workforce.

Curbing Inequality

The key barrier to providing a high quality early childhood educational experience for all children comes down to economic inequality, Heckman argues. Middle class families have the time, money and resources to devote to their children’s development, whether that means the ability to take maternity or paternity leave, the inclination to read to children regularly, or the resources to afford high quality daycare. Those all make a difference in the lives of young children.

Each new opportunity parents have to expose their children to enriching experiences is an opportunity that opens the door to new capabilities. Each new capability a child masters, whether it’s punctuality or conscientiousness, becomes an asset to translate later in life directly to earnings.

Heckman firmly believes investments in parenting, ending childhood poverty, and bolstering early childhood education programs in order to build these capacities in young children now to pay off in spades in their futures.

Children truly are the future. If we want them to lead us in that future, we need to prepare them now to become the kinds of thoughtful, capable, and intelligent adults we need them to be down the road.