In a couple of weeks, America’s children will head back to school, with high hopes for all of them to achieve and succeed. But in reality there will be stark differences in the home lives of these children. Some will come from resource-rich homes where they live with their married, college-educated parents, have access to all kinds of extra-curricular activities, and experience predictable, secure environments.
Others will come from homes where only one biological parent is present. Often, they will have seen their high-school educated parents split up and multiple other partners enter the scene. For them, resources are scarce and TV is often the only “extracurricular activity” they experience. They are likely to feel they just aren’t good at school, and have no real hope of catching up to their peers.
Although children from these different realities are likely to experience fairly similar environments and instruction at school, their home lives will have everything to do with whether or not they succeed in that school environment.
For decades, scores of interventions from high-quality pre-K programs to longstanding anti-poverty programs like food stamps and child care support have attempted to make resource-poor families look more like resource-rich families. Some of these programs have shown some success. But there is a truth that no government policy or intervention program can escape — home life matters for children, and it matters far more than anything else in setting a child’s life trajectory. Interventions that mean anything in the long-term only work when they impact life at home.
Professor David Armor’s extensive research on factors affecting children’s academic achievement concluded, “Family environment plays a key role and possibly irreversible role in shaping a child’s intelligence. …” Children’s achievement “was strongly related to family characteristics but only weakly, if at all, to school resources and programs,” including “school expenditures, teacher experience, teacher education levels, teacher certification and class size.” This is not to say that educational interventions and smaller class sizes have no effect, but their effects are usually inconsistent and weak. Even parent IQ, which has long been considered the dominant predictor of a child’s academic success, is not as strong a predictor as the combined effect of home environment.
Without question, financial resources play a significant role in the quality of home life for resource-poor families. But policies that impact the “whole family” will have the most promise for increasing financial resources and helping those resources directly benefit children. In David Armor’s words, policies that aim to “restore two-parent families, reduce the number of children outside marriage, emphasize the role of fathers and improve parenting skills” have the potential to address all of the major risk factors children experience in home life.
While resource-rich families often experience more family stability, the quality of home life for these families also shouldn’t be taken for granted. A growing number of children from upper income families report anxiety, depression and just plain activity-overload. The “drive for success” through academic achievement can overshadow the power of simply bonding together at home. In an effort to help children “really achieve,” resource-rich parents may forget how much the ordinary, but critical, connection-building experiences of family life mean for their children’s happiness and ultimate success.
One of the most striking findings of the 75-year Grant study of 238 Harvard students was that, beyond a certain point, IQ and academic achievement do not predict a successful and happy life. What does matter is the quality of our relationships, especially in early life. Those who had warm relationships with their mothers in childhood ended up earning an average of $87,000 more per year, while those who had warm relationships with their fathers experienced less anxiety and greater life satisfaction. The quality of relationships experienced throughout life mattered so much that the study’s lead author George Vaillant concluded after 75 years and $20 million for the study, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Whether families are resource-rich or resource-poor, the quality of home life and strength of family relationships is the critical foundation for children’s ultimate success and happiness. Finding ways to strengthen that foundation is the best way to ensure America’s children will succeed in school this year.
Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University.