Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Why Parenting Is More Important Than Schools

A new study shows that parental involvement matters more for performance than schools, but that doesn't mean going to PTA meetings

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Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study published earlier this month by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend. Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

(MORE: Why Third Grade Is So Important: The Matthew Effect)

So parents matter — a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families. But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents — a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three — more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking. Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference earlier this year.

(MORE: Born to Be Bright: Is There a Gene for Learning?)

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago — knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world — how big or small or round or sharp objects are — predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization” — setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job). Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.

MORE: Failure Is Not a Bad Option

31 comments
pendragon05
pendragon05

Good luck - right now our "education system" stresses sports over real academics. So long as sports are held king, we need to expect to be last behind other countries in terms of academic performance.

stevepr309
stevepr309

When will America's 40 year old education problem be fixed?   Will we become a 3rd world country with 3rd rate education system and students that are essentially illiterate?  I found this book to be an eye- opener.  It is written by a retired educator.  Can we ever get back to common sense education ?   It's well worth reading: "America's Biggest Hoax," available on Amazon or Kindle.

Manturo
Manturo

The article is fine and provides interesting studies.

 But you need a follow-up on how to deal with the kids and the parents specifically who DON'T engage in these behaviors and thus the child is disadvantaged throughout life because of the laissez-faire approach to parenting, especially those who grow up to be chronically jobless because of these intellectual deficits. That is the harder question to answer. What would work for them?

susannah008
susannah008

@McXochitl Damn, girl, you're awesome! Not that I didn't already know that. :)

jonbecker
jonbecker

@ryanbretag talk with, being the key. Talk to, notsomuch.

joemacias2
joemacias2

Peer pressure is the answer. If the schools and teachers could figure out a way to apply peer pressure to learning, children would put in more effort. As for my children, I will prepare them to succeed in school, but I am also going to make sure that they mainly associate with achievers. 

karen
karen

It's disingenous to present school as 15% of a child's day when eight or more of those hours are spent sleeping. When considering waking hours in which a child has to the opportunity to interact meaningfully with others, it turns out that his time at school over a year is closer to a third of his life. This is not to say that a superior school is more important than a positive parent-child dynamic, but that doing our part to provide a stimulating and supportive environment both at school and home is essential for raising our children well.

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

Parenting children especially moms' is more important than schooling because students stay maximum time with their parents, not that much in schools.

   - A.R.Shams's Reflection - Press and Online Publications. http//:arshamssreflectio.blogspot.com

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

I am a 4th year HS math teacher in GA, who changed careers from information technology. I hear all the time that schools need better teachers. While this might be the case, the parenting aspect is the single most important indicator of student success. Just like my students' rising to meet my level of expectations, they will do the same with regards to their parent's expectations. Sure, we need better teacher evaluation instruments to remove the occasional bad teacher from the classroom. Sure, heavy union states need to find ways to curb union power. But in the end, strong parenting backed up by students' "can do" attitude is what's sorely missing in many cases.

turningpointparenting
turningpointparenting

I absolutely love the emphasis on the parent / child connection.  Even brain science shows how critical that parent/child bond is at developing and shaping their minds.  It's important to show our children we care by being involved in their day-to-day lives.  Thanks the awareness!

JoshuaCintron1
JoshuaCintron1

Why is research required for an adage our parents, parents did? If current society put down the electronic devices and stopped crowding time with senseless, self-serving things than maybe our children wouldn't have to rely on the educational system, which by all accounts lacks governmental and parental support anyways.

nickdleblanc
nickdleblanc

@aweiner87 incentivize parents with free fit certificates to wal mart

thekidscoach
thekidscoach

@LetsShareABook thank you Judith for the RT

BethThouin
BethThouin

@jsullivanmtl Great article. Thanks hon! Have a great day.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

Did there need to be a study?  Isn't this one of those antipodal / thought experiment kind of things that we all just know?  The problem is in a societal fraud that says "you can have it all" and "if you don't have all the junk we want to sell you you're not happy".  These pressures have parents running on a rat wheel trying to help the corporations meet next quarters earnings projections instead of focusing on whats important.  If we could somehow change the emphasis to be one that values families, children and humans in general while skipping the profit motive we be well on our way.  Rant over..thanks for the piece. 

HCNicolaBrewer
HCNicolaBrewer

@mignonhardie hi - hope all going well at FundZa.

StephenRaimo
StephenRaimo

@Fuller0727 I agree so much with the power of talk as a parenting/educational vehicle. Something tells me you do too!

MarthaHp
MarthaHp

This is a terrific article because it counters the bad advice that nearly all parents receive about raising good students. The good news is that, because parents exert a tremendous influence on their children from birth onwards, children's scholastic potential can be influenced positively (with very few exceptions, children are not born slow learners, inconsistent homework finishers, bad test takers and paper writers etc.). It is a myth that genes and other inborn traits determine what kind of student a child will be. The parenting book, Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating, and Enjoying Your Child (www.smartlovepress.com) shows parent how to encourage and create good students from birth through adolescence - before children can talk and when they are deluged with homework.  Parents are more influential than educational institutions and we need to harness parent power to create better students!

BV83
BV83

Nice article! There should be more forums for parents than there are forums for students if having better parents is more effective than having better teachers. Maybe that's the key to overcoming our 'problem'?

DivaCrawford
DivaCrawford

@TIME @anniemurphypaul @timeideas easier said than done! I'm a parent coordinator In NYC and its not that easy! Come to district 7 and test.

DivaCrawford
DivaCrawford

@TIME @anniemurphypaul @timeideas easier said than done! I'm apparently coordinator in NYC and its not that easy! #disagree

wayneconsults
wayneconsults

@TIME @anniemurphypaul @timeideas Schools cannot overcome home life. Top students have supportive parents rather than quality teachers

M2Chicago
M2Chicago

@TIME @anniemurphypaul @TIMEIdeas I couldn't agree more, and I have NO REGRETS being a 100% attentive Stay at Home Mom!

feesey@telus.net
feesey@telus.net

A recent Frontline documentary on a high school with a very high rate of drop-outs made it clear that it was the students' home life that was the biggest factor.  This was not stated explicitly, but you could tell that students worried about their parents being deported as illegal aliens or about where they would sleep that night couldn't really focus on school.  The school staff, no matter how devoted and caring, couldn't overcome their students' problems outside of school.

Nathaniel_M_Campbell
Nathaniel_M_Campbell

We needed studies to show this?  Ask any good teacher and they will give you the same advice, free of charge.  (And if anything, the fancy technological gadgets actually impede the development of independent and critical thinking skills because they become crutches.  As my wife pointed out in response to a recent TV ad for some toddler learning gadget that hooks up to an iPad, the interface inherently limits the child's imagination to the pictures that appear on the screen.  Ask anyone whose childhood toys were sticks and blocks and rocks, and they will tell you just how many things you create with them.)