For parents of school-aged children, it can be difficult to ascertain if academic success a matter of nature or nurture. Do smart, rich parents raise smart, rich kids through genetics and socioeconomics— or by sitting next to them and helping with math homework? What role do father figures play in a child’s odds of succeeding at school? A new study in the Journal of Labor Economics suggests that the main factor, stronger than DNA, is involved, active parenting.
“In the ongoing debate over what helps children succeed academically, we show that genetics is not the only major factor,” said coauthor on the study Bruce Weinberg of The Ohio State University, in a statement. “It is also about the time that parents spend with their children.”
This is not the first study to emphasize the importance of involved parenting when it comes to a child’s academic achievement. One recent study found that parents’ enthusiasm for math homework— rather than ability — was the main predictor of a child’s success in math class. And several studies have shown that children with active, involved fathers and mothers are less likely to drop out of school, and more likely to attain high marks. But genetics plays a role too, and studies have shown that children with successful parents are more likely to thrive in school.
To demonstrate the importance of active parenting, as opposed to good genes alone, Weinberg and colleagues surveyed more than 22,000 children who lost a parent before age 18 and more than 77,000 whose parents divorced. They found that the educational achievements of the surviving (or, in the case of divorce, primary custodial) parent had more impact on the child’s success in school than that of the absent parent. In other words, if a brilliant, academically successful mother dies and leaves her child in the care of the father, a high school dropout, there’s scant evidence that her academically robust genes play much of a role in the child’s success. Children, this study suggests, act like the parents who raise them. Genes be damned.
The results are good news for adoptive parents, who may worry about the genetic baggage of their children’s biological parents. But it’s also good news for biological parents. The takeaway from this study is that your children are not hardwired to succeed or fail. It’s largely up to you, and how much of a role you choose to play in their lives. And that’s a secret that educated parents who are invested in raising academically successful kids have long understood.
“Highly educated parents tend to spend more time with their children,” Weinberg says. “Our results may suggest one reason why they do: It has a strong impact on academic success.”