Parents, Kids, Schools

By Kevin Hartnett:

Thesis: Parent time and education with children is of more value than which school kids attend.

Social scientists have long tried to determine why some children grow up to be successful adults and others don’t. The causes are hard to untangle. High school dropouts tend to attend underperforming public schools and to come from poor families with unmarried, undereducated parents. Ivy League graduates more often attend good K-12 schools and come from well-educated, affluent, two-parent families. Because these characteristics cluster together so frequently, it’s hard to determine which attributes drive success or failure — and which are just along for the ride.

In a 2001 study, Greg Duncan, now a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, measured the impact that the people in a child’s life — siblings, neighbors, classmates, best friends — have on how well the child does in school. To test these relationships, Duncan and his collaborators compared scores on a standardized vocabulary test across 20,745 kids. When I think about where I want James and Oscar to go to school, I usually think about the kinds of classmates I want them to have: smart, high-achieving kids.

But Duncan and his team found almost no relationship between how students did on the test and whom they sat beside in class, whom they hung out with after school and who lived on their block. The only meaningful link they found was between siblings, and identical twins in particular.

“Schools and neighborhoods might have some effect,” Duncan says, “but I think it’s pretty clear that a lot more of the action around child development takes place at home.”…

In the mid-1990s, Lareau began one of the most in-depth observations of American parenting ever conducted. She spent a month each with 12 families (six middle- and upper-middle-class and six poor or working-class) and observed how these parents interacted with their children. Lareau concluded that middle-class parents convey substantial advantages to their children in three ways: by cultivating their interests, enriching their thinking and speaking skills through informal conversations, and teaching them how to navigate institutions such as colleges and workplaces that serve as de facto gatekeepers for success in America. Success in those areas is much more related to the amount of time parents spend with their children than where they send them to school.

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  • I suppose some would have intuited this one: but not only is it nice to have some investigation to support that guess about parents (and siblings) being the important influence toward a fruitful adulthood, we also get debunked any other guesses that where you attend [high school/college] or who you attend with has prevailing influence upon your “success” as an adult.

  • Deets

    How much more are these principles true for spiritual training. Great youth groups don’t make the difference than the influence of a great family.

  • AndyM

    Deets – fully agree. We tend to outsource the spiritual education for our kids when the primary role for instruction is with the parents. How many of us have got even a rough idea of what we’d like to teach our kids in the next year, or what things would mark “success” (however measured) in terms of our child’s catechesis?

  • Steve Williams

    These are big issues for parents and churches who care about succeeding at generational faith transmission. Certainly parents and their competencies are a key link in the causal effect chain…
    And then of course there are the anomalies, the kids who do well anyway despite little to know parental support or those who don’t do so well despite the parental supports. I don’t think there is a linear cause effect line between one single cause and effect…like most of life there are patterns of likelihood but no fail safe formulas. Still identifying the cause and effect patterns is a large part of wisdom.