Well-educated parents often have well-educated kids. But why? Is it in their genes? Is it the result of better financial stability? Or is it something else? Now, a new study weighs in, finding that the amount of time parents spend with their kids affects how well they do academically.
The new study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Labor Economics and is available to read here. The team wanted to determine whether a parent’s presence affects how well their “human capital” – a person’s knowledge, skills, and experience – is transferred to their children.
Using a novel approach, they studied 22,000 Israeli children who had lost a parent by age 18, 77,000 whose parents had divorced, and 600,000 who had experienced neither of these situations.
The researchers then assessed whether their participants had passed the matriculation exam, an important test that must be passed in order to attend college in Israel. Roughly 57 percent of teens pass this exam.
Interestingly, they found that if a child had lost a parent, that parent’s education had less of an influence on the child’s success than that of the surviving parent, suggesting it’s not just about genes.
“We found that if a mother dies, her education becomes less important for whether her child passes the test, while at the same time the father’s education becomes more important. If a father dies, the reverse happens,” study co-author Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University, said in a statement. “These relationships are stronger when the parent dies when the child is younger.
“Student success is not coming just from smart parents having smart kids.”
The findings contradict the idea that academic success is simply the result of financial stability because the loss of a mother – who tends to spend more time with the kids – had a greater impact than the loss of a father, who traditionally earns more money.
Contrary to what fairy tales might have you believe, the researchers also found that the negative impact of losing one’s mother could actually be partially mitigated if the father remarried. However, gaining a stepfather made no such difference. The impact of losing a parent was found to more strongly affect girls than boys.
When it came to the children of divorced parents, the researchers found similar patterns, with a mother’s education having the most significant impact on the child.
“We found similar results in those children who experienced parental death and parental divorce. That provides strong evidence that our results are more general than just for children who suffered a parental death,” Weinberg explained.
“Other studies show that highly educated parents tend to spend more time with their children. Our results may suggest one reason why they do: It has a strong impact on academic success.”
While spending time together is clearly an important contributor to a child’s success, it is still just one of many. Previous research has shown that many factors, from genetics to how rich your parents are to whether you play video games, can all play a role.
Still, spending more time with your kids might be a good way to start. For more tips, check out this list of things the parents of high achievers tend to have in common.