Pebbles in a Pond

This is one in a series of stories about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s landmark achievements, which continue to inspire us as we address future challenges.

The conventional wisdom used to be that a child born to a poor, teen mother was a lost cause.

Back in the 1970s, a bright young assistant college professor named David Olds simply didn’t buy the conventional wisdom. He believed that a targeted intervention by a specially trained nurse—before the baby was born—could lead to a more mature, capable mother, and a happier, healthier child. An intriguing notion—but would it really work?

Olds believed—and we believed, right along with him—that this bold new approach would work. This intervention held the potential to yield results well beyond the immediate mother-child relationship. Olds hoped his approach would prevent abuse and neglect. But he had an even broader vision; he thought that the timely, gentle guidance of a nurse could alter the future trajectory of a child’s life.

It was like casting a pebble into a pond, and we cast it together, back when the Foundation was just starting to establish itself on the national scene.

Early results were encouraging. Babies were born at healthier weights. Young pregnant women ate healthier foods, and they cut back on smoking. Moms finished high school and found jobs. Child abuse and neglect dropped 80 percent.

But, again, would it work?

Fifteen years later, when the first babies to pass through the program had become adolescents, Olds conducted a formal evaluation. Here's what he found: These kids didn’t run away from home as often as their peers. They had fewer arrests, convictions, and parole violations. They smoked and drank less, and had fewer sex partners. They really had a head start on a brighter future.