Women in control raise smarter children

Women who believe they are in control of their lives have children who score better on mathematics and science tests, new research shows

Psychologists from the University of Bristol in the UK looked at “locus of control” (LOC) scores for pregnant women and at academic test results for their children at ages eight, 11, and 13. The study used data from the university’s Children of the 90s project, a longitudinal study of 1600 pregnancies and the resulting children, born between April 1991 and December 1992. 

The results are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

LOC is a personality scale that ranges from “external”, where people think what happens to them is due to luck, fate, or other people, to “internal”, where people believe they have control themselves. Internal LOC has been strongly and repeatedly linked to academic achievement.

“It is widely known that the locus of control of a child is strongly associated with their academic achievements but until now we didn’t know if mothers’ locus of control orientation during pregnancy had a role to play in early childhood,” says Jean Golding, lead author of the new study and founder of Children of the 90s.

“If our findings, that mothers’ attitudes and behaviours can have an effect on their child’s academic abilities, can be replicated, it would suggest that more efforts should be made to increase the opportunities for mothers to feel that their behaviours will have a positive outcome for themselves and their children.

“It would help future generations raise healthy, confident and independent children.”

Further research is needed to determine if the results between LOC and test scores is causal, the authors note.

“From what we know about the LOC construct … it is likely that parental LOC orientations may affect how they may be able to deal with the everyday challenges of raising their children to be successful academically,” they write.

It’s not hard to see that external LOC – feeling that your actions have no impact on your life – would make it hard to carry out all the quotidian tasks that contribute to childhood learning.

Golding and her colleagues also looked at three types of factors that have “considerable evidence” to affect neurocognitive development: maternal health during pregnancy (particularly smoking and drinking), preschool parenting strategies (breastfeeding, reading or singing) and fostering educational achievement (such as parental interactions with school).

The additional statistical analysis shows that all three sets of factors also contributed to lower maths and sciences scores. Overall, the LOC-scores correlation was strongest for maths, but it was significant across all tests.

“Around half of the difference in the scores achieved by children of parents who were internally oriented is related to behaviors and choices made by the parents in regard to lifestyle, parenting, and schooling,” the authors write.

On a positive note, the researchers point to LOC as a parenting factor that can be changed.

“It is possible for a parent to change their outlook; we’ve demonstrated in the past that parents who become more internal … improved their parenting skills, which would have a positive effect on their children’s personal, social and academic lives,” says Emory University’s Stephen Nowicki, a co-author.

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