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Updated 12:30 PM February 14, 2007
 

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Parental reaction determines how income affects children

How parents react to hardship—not income alone—affects children’s cognitive skills and their social and emotional competence, new research shows.

The study, conducted by researchers at U-M, New York University, the University of Chicago and Columbia University, appears in the January/February 2007 issue of Child Development.

“Our results suggest that providing children from low-income families with free enriching materials or experiences when parents are financially unable to do so can have the greatest impact on improving children’s behavior,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, the study’s lead author and a professor in the School of Social Work.

Researchers looked at 21,255 kindergartners, drawing from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Class of 1998-99. In the study, parents provided information about family’s economic situation, their own parenting and their children’s behaviors. Teachers provided additional information about behavior in school, and children’s cognitive skills were measured by standardized tests.

The study identified two ways family income affects children. First, parents who make more money are better able to buy educational materials, such as books, and provide enriching experiences, like visits to museums, that support their children’s academic achievement.

The second, the material hardship experienced by many low-income families, such as not having enough to eat, can lead parents to be depressed and fight with one another. As a result, parents may show less affection toward their children, leaving the children depressed or more likely to misbehave, researchers say.

By considering material hardship and family income together, the study’s results challenge the well-established finding that family income is directly associated with parents’ stress. The researchers found that only when increases in income were accompanied by decreases in families’ experiences of hardship did income lessen parents’ stress levels; added income alone was not enough. This distinction is important because the same level of family income can mean hardship in some parts of the country, such as large, urban cities, but not in other areas, such as small, rural towns.

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