United Families International: Dedicated to informing you about the issues and forces impacting the family.
Contributed by Tori Black
While many families were busy sending their children off to begin a new school year, I spent much of my time August 26 through 28 at the United Nations Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City talking to attendees about “family capital.” Family capital is much like human capital and social capital and represents the knowledge, skills, talents, nurture and financial resources that exist in a family that benefit individuals in the family and the family as a whole. Families that are strong in family capital are able to use that capital to bless not only themselves, but also their communities and society as a whole.
Sometimes, when we raise the topic of the family with individuals, they look at us like we are crazy. What does the family have to do with addressing the pressing needs our world faces? It is common for politicians and influencers to see the family as a burden and consumer of government efforts, and it is true that policy should support and strengthen families – they need it. But placing the family in such a negligible light fails to appreciate it as a primary resource and agent for good in strengthening society. The family can and needs to be a partner in addressing the challenges faced by communities.
The impact of family structure
This is abundantly clear when it comes to the education of young people. We frequently hear that if they hope for success in their children’s education, parents must be involved. The image that comes to mind is helping with homework, volunteering in the schools and helping with the local PTA or PTOs. That is all good, but a family’s impact on educational success is much more intimate and immediate than that. It begins with family structure and the stability children experience in homes headed by married, biological parents that leads to academic success .
The importance of family structure in academic performance is nothing new. As early as 1966 sociologist, James S. Coleman, released a report that “concluded that the primary predictor of student academic success was not disparities in access to school resources such as textbooks, laboratories, library facilities, or even curriculum quality; rather, it was a child’s home environment.”
More recent studies back up the analysis presented by Coleman. A 2008 US Census Bureau report revealed that children from two-parent, married households were less likely to be suspended and more likely to be involved in extracurricular school clubs. Other studies indicate that students coming from married, two-parent families have: better economic support that positively impacts academic performance, a home environment that positively affects homework completion, and social and financial factors that motivate students to excel.
It is when families break down that we see the need for interventions to make up for what is missing when children live in less than optimal family environments. Family income is one factor in student success. Studies have long highlighted the financial struggles of single parent homes with solo parents more likely to live in poverty. Economics professor Joseph Price and IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox have studied the association between family structure and economic growth and have found that married households earn and save more than unmarried or divorced. This is one reason that married, two-parent families are able to provide a resource-rich environment that improves their children’s chances of academic success.
The marriage factor
Families headed by cohabiting parents also have their share of problems that impact the academic performance of children. Cohabiting households are inherently less stable, and children need stability in order to thrive. Cohabiting parents are less likely to see their relationship as a vital part of their lives. Children born to cohabiting parents are more likely to witness their parents’ break up. Cohabiting parents also tend to bring less to the table that contributes to family capital. One Brookings Institute report outlines how “married mothers and fathers are over four times more likely to hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree than cohabiting biological parents.” That same report shares US Census data that indicates that cohabiting biological parents earn less than any other type of family structure. In the case of cohabiting households, family finances, structure and home environment combine to put children at risk academically. When it comes to children’s well being, marriage matters.
Despite the correlation between socio-economic status and educational achievement, there are children from poor families that do well at school and students from wealthy families who struggle academically. An over-emphasis on the school environment and academic success neglects the impact family structure and home environment has on student performance.
Providing the best for our kids – it’s not about money
David J. Armor is a professor of public policy at George Mason University who has studied the factors that impact a child’s academic success. His research indicates that “family environment plays a key role and possibly irreversible role in shaping a child’s intelligence.” Armor found that educational interventions such as class size, school funding, and teacher experience and education levels had less impact on student performance than the home environment provided by the family.
So what does that optimal home environment look like? It is a supportive structure where children “enjoy more stability, more money, more consistent discipline, and more attention than their peers in other families.” It is built on a foundation of two married, biological parents. It features nurturing relationships of children with both mother and father.
After all we can and should do as communities to improve our schools and our children’s chances for favorable academic outcomes, when it comes down to it, the best predictor of student success isn’t found at school. It’s found at home.