Parents Impact Kids' Cognition More But Social Policies Still Matter

A new study of the factors that influence childhood cognition has found that the role of parents is more important than far-reaching public policies — but that public policies can make a difference.

“We looked at the effects of parental characteristics on the cognition of children in the U.S. and Great Britain,” said Dr. Toby Parcel, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of the study. “Basically, we wanted to see whether the welfare state in Great Britain gave its children an advantage.”

He noted that an earlier work by the researchers looked at children’s home environments and behavioral problems across the two countries.

“We found that parents were equally important in both places,” Parcel said. “In this study we looked at three things: pre-reading skills and scores of reading and mathematics achievement.”

For the new study, researchers at NC State and California State University, Northridge, analyzed two sets of data: A representative sample of 3,439 children between the ages of five and 13 in the U.S.; and a representative sample of 1,309 children in Great Britain across the same age range.

“We were able to do this study because the two data sets are comparable — same age range, same timeframe, and same measures of key variables,” Parcel explained.

The researchers discovered that parental characteristics were equally important in both countries in supporting stronger child cognition. However, there were some exceptions.

For example, the researchers found that children of single-mother families were at a disadvantage for verbal facility in the U.S., but not in Great Britain. Similarly, they found that a larger family size was associated with lower math scores in the U.S., but not in Great Britain.

“This may indicate that parents have fewer resources per child in larger families, and that the government in Great Britain has instituted policies that help compensate for that, whereas those policies are lacking in the U.S.,” Parcel said. “Those policies could possibly include the child allowances and National Health Service, which may help parents use their own resources to better support child cognition.”

The researchers also identified many ways in which the U.S. and Great Britain are similar. In both countries, low birth weight, health limitations, and larger family size were associated with lower verbal facility.

Child health limitations were also linked to lower math scores in both countries, and health limitations, male gender, and larger family size were associated with lower reading achievement in both countries.

The mother’s cognitive ability and stronger home environments were associated with higher verbal facility, math scores, and reading achievement in both countries, according to the study’s findings.

“Parents are equally important in both societies, and policies can’t replace good parents,” Parcel said. “But there do appear to be areas where policies can support families and help children succeed.”

The study was published in the journal Social Science Research.

Source: North Carolina State University

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito. Shared under a Creative Commons license..