The influence of parents, parenting and public policy on childhood cognition

The first part of this interesting new study by researchers from North Carolina State University and California State University, Northridge is not to surprising: they find that the role of parents is more important than far-reaching public policies. Really? Who would have thought. But still: public policies do can make a difference. The study in highlights:

  • Does investment in child cognition vary between the United State and Great Britain?
  • Maternal cognition and children’ home environments are important in both societies.
  • The British welfare state may be important when parental resources are absent or stretched thin.


From the press release (bold by me):

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

“Our earlier work looked at children’s home environments and behavioral problems across the two countries, and we found that parents were equally important in both places,” Parcel says. “In this study we looked at three things: pre-reading skills and scores of reading and mathematics achievement.”

For this study, the researchers analyzed two sets of data: a representative sample of 3,439 children between the ages of 5 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 says.

Overall, the researchers found 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 says. “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 all 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.

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

Abstract of the study:

We compare family and parental effects on child verbal facility, verbal achievement and mathematics achievement in the United States and Great Britain. We study 3,438 5–13 year-old children from the 1994 NLSY Child-Mother Data Set and 1429 same-aged children from the National Child Development Study, also known as the British Child. Multivariate analyses suggest that the processes through which families invest in child cognition are similar across societies, with factors including low birth weight, child health, maternal cognition, family size and children’s home environments being consequential. We conclude that parental investments are equally important across the two societies. The more developed welfare state in Great Britain does not notably compensate for parental investments in that society, although it may play a greater role when parental resources are absent or stretched thin.

3 thoughts on “The influence of parents, parenting and public policy on childhood cognition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.