New research

Parenting, Child Behavior & Educational Inequality

A new study by Till Kaiser, Jianghong Li, and Matthias Pollmann-Schult pins down the role of parenting styles as a missing link between parents’ socioeconomic status (SES) and their children’s school grades. Parents with lower SES are more likely to be inconsistent and harsh in dealing with children than parents with higher SES. This can exacerbate child behavioral issues and in turn drag down school grades.

Children’s behavioral patterns are strongly influenced by the circumstances in which they grow up. Behavioral problems such as hyperactivity or aggression are more likely in children from lower-SES households and have repercussions for children’s life chances when they enter into adulthood. With lower school grades caused by these behavioral patterns, children have lower chances for accessing higher education later on. In their new study, the authors investigated the role of adverse parenting styles, especially inconsistency and the use of psychological and strict control, to search for a new explanation for the enduring (old) question: Why do children from lower socioeconomic background perform less well in school and have lower educational attainment than their higher SES counterparts? 

For the first time, the researchers built on the Family Investment Model and investigated parental behavior as a driver of intergenerational transmission of social inequality, using data from the Family in Germany, an extension of the German Socioeconomic Panel Study (SOEP) that has been tracking German families annually since 1984. Parents of nine- and ten-year-olds from 685 households rated their own parenting styles, reported their child’s grade in German and math, and described the child’s behavior. Researchers separated behavioral issues into two categories: internalizing problems, such as anxiety, depression, and having difficulty in socializing with other children; and externalizing problems, such as flaunting rules, being aggressive, and attention deficit and hyperactivity.

The results indicate a complex causal pathway. Whereas internalizing behavioral issues tended to lead to a lower grade in German, externalizing behaviors hampered attainment in both subjects. These behavioral patterns affected educational performance independent of parenting factors. However, when adverse parenting styles were incorporated into the analysis, an even more complex picture emerged: Parents with lower SES tended to be harsher and inconsistent in enforcing rules of conduct for their child, which in turn exacerbated behavioral problems and ultimately led to poor performance at school.

The study therefore highlights the importance of a holistic social policy that recognizes the symbiotic relationships between education, health, and the family.  Longitudinal studies that are based on a much larger national sample would be an important next step in shedding more light on the complex pathway leading from parents’ social status to their children’s educational outcome.

About the authors

Jianghong Li is a Senior Researcher with the President’s Research Group at the WZB.

Till Kaiser is a research associate at the Psychological Methods Lab at the Ruhr Universität Bochum. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the WZB between 2015 and 2017.

Matthias Pollmann-Schult is a professor of empirical social research at the Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg. From 2012 to 2017, he was a Heisenberg Scholar at the President’s Research Group at the WZB.