A new study by researchers at New York University found that educated mothers help their children succeed at school not just by expanding their academic knowledge, but by modeling behaviors and making social connections that lead to educational success.
A mother’s educational achievement is directly related to a child’s success in school. This is true even for adopted children or children whose mothers completed their education after they were born, researchers found. A father’s education has a similar effect, as reported in the Deseret News.
Often, greater educational attainment by children of educated mothers is attributed to a “language gap.” Educated mothers talk more to their children, and as a result, the child develops a bigger vocabulary that contributes to success in school. Interventions in low-income neighborhoods encourage mothers to talk to their children more often, according to a recent article in The New Yorker.
The NYU study looked beyond the language gap, examining other ways that educated mothers promote a child’s achievement. They identified three types of advantages for families with educated mothers: cognitive skills, cultural knowledge and social connections.
“Through education, mothers develop a set of skills, including cognitive flexibility, problem-solving ability, language skills and skills for gathering information,” researchers found. During their own school years, mothers have learned how to get the information they need to solve problems and to look at problems in a variety of ways. They model these behaviors at home. Educated mothers also tend to interact with children in ways that stimulate a child’s brain development — for example reading to children and doing art projects with them.
Mothers who have completed high school or college have usually learned how to act in a school environment, and they teach their children to do the same. Educated mothers “have more understanding of school structures and are thus better equipped to model and teach socially valued ways of interacting … such as speaking politely but assertively,” according to the study. These mothers also tend to expose children to activities that are valued in school, such as theater, art and music.
Well-educated parents tend to have well-educated friends and relatives, who as a group share their knowledge of educational opportunities and strategies. By talking to others, “mothers can gain information about who the best teachers are and advocate for their children to be placed with these teachers,” researchers found. Additionally, a parent’s high-achieving friends and relatives can serve as role models for children.
The study’s findings seem to point to a degree of unfairness in the school system, in which white, middle-class behaviors and ways of speaking are connected with school success. Teachers and administrators "recognize and value individuals who prefer high-culture activities (e.g., art and theater) and who exhibit particular linguistic structures and behavioral codes," the study found.
Both the ACLU and members of the American Anthropological Association have criticized programs aimed at closing the “language gap” as too intrusive and not respectful of minority cultures in which parent/child conversation is less important, according to the New Yorker article. Anti-poverty advocates counter that efforts to promote a child’s cognitive development and educational achievement are worthwhile regardless of culture.
Marsha Maxwell is an online journalist, writing teacher and PhD student at the University of Utah. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.