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  • A mother's education level influences her children's academic outcomes on many different levels. Tweet This
  • Mothers' education levels shape not just their parenting but also their social networks and cultural capital. Tweet This

Children's educational outcomes—their cognitive skills, grades, and educational attainment—are closely linked to their parents' level of education. This observation, well-supported by years of research, will come as a surprise to no one. Having better-educated parents means a higher household income, which for kids translates into attending better schools, among many other benefits. And more educated parents are more likely to marry before having kids and to stay married long-term, so their kids reap the benefits of family stability. Furthermore, since intelligence is linked to educational attainment and is partially heritable, children of college-educated parents may have inborn, genetic advantages over other children.

But the effects of parents' education do not boil down to these factors alone; according to a variety of studies, their education—particularly a mother's education—also has a causal impact on children's outcomes through many separate mechanisms. A new paper by Jessica F. Harding, Pamela A. Morris, and Diane Hughes in the Journal of Marriage and Family proposes studying the ways in which mothers' education affects children's outcomes through a three-part framework: mothers' human capital, cultural capital, and social capital.

Human Capital

The concept of human capital is easiest to understand. Essentially, it refers to individuals' knowledge, skills, and abilities, which they develop primarily through education and "capitalize" on in the workforce. In the realm of parenting, a college degree (or the knowledge and skills it stands for) seems to make people interact with their kids differently. Take the famous thirty-million word gap, for example: some scholars estimate that children of parents on welfare hear 30 million fewer words by the age of four than the children of professional parents.

The gap is not only about quantity, but quality: Better educated parents also use a wider vocabulary, and they dole out affirmations (not just complimenting kids, but repeating and building on what they say) more generously than less educated parents. Learning lots of words early in life is tied to better academic outcomes down the road, so parents' early conversations with kids have long-lasting implications.

Mothers' education also matters later in childhood: College-educated mothers are "able to more appropriately tailor cognitively stimulating activities to their children's developmental level," the researchers document, and they are more equipped to help kids do homework and study for tests.

Cultural Capital

Cultural capital revolves around "preferences and behaviors that, although not inherently better than others, are relevant for educational success because they are sanctioned in a particular society's educational settings." Think visiting museums and taking music lessons—the sort of activities that upper-middle class parents emphasize. Participating in such activities "has been associated with teacher-reported academic outcomes for children and adolescents in a number of studies that have adjusted for other factors," and it bolsters high school students' college applications.

Cultural capital also helps kids to navigate the education system successfully: more educated mothers are more comfortable with schools, so they are more likely to advocate for their kids there (say, requesting that their child be assigned a certain well-regarded teacher) and to teach their kids how to advocate successfully for themselves (for instance, telling a child how to request the opportunity to re-take a failed test).

Social Capital

Social capital encompasses "interactions that take place between mothers and people in their social networks or between people in mothers' social networks and children." It's about mothers' relationships to and connections with other people (whereas cultural capital has to do with mothers' "abilities to use behaviors that aid in navigating . . . social and institutional relationships"). College-educated mothers are more likely to be part of social networks containing "knowledge, skills, and resources that are relevant to children's academic success," the researchers propose. For instance, their relatives, colleagues, and friends are likely to also have college degrees, meaning mothers can easily pick up tips about the best schools or gain advice about the college application process. Plus, their children will be surrounded by highly educated role models; in their circles, graduating from college will be an expectation, not an aspiration.

An Equal Playing Field?

Harding, Morris, and Hughes explore these issues in much more detail than I can convey here. As they emphasize, some of the mechanisms by which mothers' education impacts children's outcomes are much more studied than others: human capital has received far greater attention than the more elusive forms of social and cultural capital. The entire paper underlines just how deeply children's lives are shaped by their parents' background. In a free country, it seems to me, that means there will never be such a thing as perfectly equal opportunity: People with different education levels and abilities  are always going to raise their kids differently, and no set of programs can entirely close the gaps that result. Nevertheless, it's well worth exploring how these differences play out so we can do our best to ensure all kids have a fair shot at achieving the American dream.