Twin study finds no appreciable effect of parenthood on young teens’ motivation to attend school and learn

An analysis of data from a large study of German twins (TwinLife) found no support for the idea that parental control, parenting activities, and extracurricular activities affect the development of noncognitive skills in young adolescents (10 -14 years old). The authors considered six non-cognitive skills, including motivation to go to school, to learn, education-related skills, self-efficacy, self-esteem and the degree of control teenager thinks he has on his own life. The paper was published in Sociological acta.

Parenthood is generally considered to be a major channel through which parents affect child development. Researchers distinguish between two aspects of parenting: parenting styles and parenting and extracurricular activities. Parenting styles create the emotional climate in which family interactions between children and parents take place. These are unique combinations of emotional warmth and control that parents apply.

Researchers tend to consider the parenting style defined by high levels of warmth and control, the so-called “authoritarian parenting style”, to be better for child development than other combinations of these aspects. Parenting activities refer to the behaviors parents engage in with their children in hopes of positively affecting their development. Some extracurricular activities are also seen as contributing to the development of non-cognitive skills.

Previous studies have provided much support for the hypothesis that parenthood affects skill development in early childhood. This was particularly the case for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. However, most of these studies are designed in a way that does not allow causal conclusions to be drawn, and few studies have examined the effects of parenthood on young adolescents.

To study the effects of parenthood on young adolescents, Professor Michael Grätz of the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and his colleagues analyzed part of the data from TwinLIfe, a large German panel of twins and of their families. They used data from two available time periods – one from 2014/2015 and the other from 2016/2017. The data they analyzed was collected from 756 sets of twins aged between 10 and 12 in 2014/2015, when the data was first collected.

The researchers analyzed data on six non-cognitive skills they considered relevant to educational attainment and other life chances. These included children’s academic self-concept (self-assessment of their education-related skills), intrinsic motivation to go to school (how motivated children are to go to school by them themselves, without external incentives), motivation to learn, self-efficacy (the degree to which children believe they can achieve their goals), self-esteem (their belief in being a valuable person ) and locus of control (children’s assessment of the degree of control they have over their lives).

They also considered data on parenting styles, defined as the degrees of warmth and control exercised by parents and parenting activities, an indicator of how often family members engage in activities with their children such as sing, read or visit exhibitions per month. Extracurricular activities were assessed in the same way, such as the frequency of these activities per month.

The researchers took into account whether the twins are monozygotic or dizygotic, in order to control for the effects of genetic variation. They considered the children’s intelligence as a control (Culture Fair Intelligence Test, CFT-20R).

“We find small positive effects of parental warmth on learning motivation, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and locus of control for DZ twins, and on academic self-concept, intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy for MZ twins. The strongest effect for DZ twins is found on self-esteem, and for MZ twins on self-efficacy,” the authors report.

They note, however, that the trend is not consistent between the different skills analyzed. Notably, when the researchers controlled for intelligence, birth weight, and prior non-cognitive skills, all of the effects of heat disappeared except for the effect on self-esteem in dizygotic twins. The study authors conclude that “the results suggest that parenting styles do not affect non-cognitive skills in early adolescence.”

Parental control had no appreciable effect, nor were there any specific effects attributable to particular combinations of control and warmth, i.e. parenting styles. Neither parenting nor extracurricular activities had any effect on the non-cognitive skills studied.

The study authors note that an important limitation of their study is that it is based only on variation in parenthood within families. Differences in parenting styles between families could have far greater effects on child development. There are also some limitations to generalizing the findings from the twin study. As a result, the results obtained on other groups of children and from different countries may be different.

The study, “The effects of parenting on non-cognitive skills in young adolescents: evidence from a sample of twins in Germany,” was authored by Michael Grätz, Volker Lang, and Martin Diewald.

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