You thought you knew how to be a parent? Wrong: it isn’t what you do, it’s who you are


An American economist has overturned our assumptions about society’s ills in a new book, Freakonomics. In our first extract, the crucial factors that will determine a child’s success – or failure – at school are outlined.

IN THE late 1990s the US Department of Education undertook a monumental project called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). This sought to measure the academic progress of more than 20,000 children from kindergarten through to the fifth grade (ages 5 to 11). The subjects were chosen from across the country to represent an accurate cross-section of American schoolchildren.

The ECLS measured the student’s academic performance and gathered typical survey information about each child: race, gender, family structure, socioeconomic status, the level of its parents’ education, and so on. But the study went well beyond these basics. It also included interviews with the student’s parents (and teachers and school administrators), posing a long list of questions more intimate than those in the typical government interview: whether the parents spanked their children, and how often; whether they took them to libraries or museums; how much television the children watched.

The data from these interviews was then used to answer questions about the role of a child’s home life, family structure, and economic resources in academic success. The study found that students living with both biological parents in traditional nuclear families consistently outperformed their peers from other family structures. Children whose parents had higher levels of education also performed better than those whose parents did not complete high school.  Finally, the study showed that children growing up in poverty are at a major disadvantage in terms of educational success.

The results of this study provide important insights into how to best support children’s academic achievement. In particular, the data suggests that providing resources to help single parents and families living in poverty can have a direct impact on their children.

When children have a support system and care-givers that are dedicated to their growth and success, they often exceed expectations. Regularly engaging with teachers and administrators at the child’s school, ensuring access to academic resources in the home, and providing a stable environment can all give children an advantage in their educational pursuits.

The study also highlighted how important it is for parents to be well informed about what is happening in their children’s lives and to take time to  discuss issues with their children. By being involved in the child’s education parents can be more aware of the challenges they face, and make better decisions on how to best provide support and resources to help them succeed.

A family playing connect 4. High-five from mom!


The result is an incredibly rich set of data — which, if the right questions are asked of it, tells some surprising stories.

So according to these data, does parenting have a clear impact on a child’s academic progress? Did all those Baby Mozart tapes pay off? What about those marathon readings of Goodnight Moon? Was the move to the suburbs worthwhile? Do the kids with PTA [the national Parent Teacher Association] parents do better than the kids whose parents have never heard of the PTA?

As a side note: Here’s an obvious example of a clueless parent!

The wide-ranging ECLS data offer a number of compelling correlations between a child’s personal circumstances and school performance. For instance, once all other factors are controlled for, it is clear that students from rural areas tend to do worse than average. Suburban children, meanwhile, are in the middle of the curve, while urban children tend to score higher than average. (It may be that cities attract a more educated workforce and, therefore, parents with smarter children.)

On average, girls show results higher than boys, Asians show results higher than whites, and blacks show results similarly to whites from comparable backgrounds and in comparable schools.

Consider the following list of factors. According to the ECLS data, eight of the factors show a strong correlation — positive or negative — with test scores. The other eight don’t seem to matter. Feel free to guess which are which.

1. The child has highly educated parents.

2. The child’s family is intact.

3. The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status.

4. The child’s parents recently moved into a better neighborhood.

5. The child’s mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth.

6. The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.

7. The child had a low birth weight.

8. The child attended Head Start (America’s pre-school program for children from low-income families).

9. The child’s parents speak English in the home.

As you can see, the first three factors all show a positive correlation with test scores. The fourth is somewhat less clear but still thought to have a positive impact on test scores, while the fifth factor has no measurable effect. The sixth and seventh both appear to be negative indicators when it comes to test scores, since they are associated with lower performance.

Giving your little ones a head start in life can have a lasting impact on their academic success! Taking the time to ensure that your child has access to quality early childhood education, nutrition, and other resources can help them succeed in school and beyond. The data above is just a small sample of how research has found that early childhood experiences may play an important role in future academic achievement. While this information is no guarantee of success, as parents, taking the time to invest in our children’s future can help them get the best start in life.

Thank you for visiting Life Happens With Kids! We hope that this information has provided you with insight on how to make sure your child is set up for success as they grow and develop. Please check back regularly for updates on child development research and other helpful tips and resources.

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