ANN ARBOR—Dads who want their sons to get good educations and earn decent livings should play it safe: wear seat belts, carry car and health insurance, and salt away at least two months' pay. Oh, and they might also want to help keep the house clean.
These are some of the findings from a University of Michigan study illuminating how parents, especially fathers, influence their children's chances to become educated, productive men and women.
For the study, researchers at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and Northwestern University used information from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 children and their parents over a period of 25 years. They analyzed how a wide variety of parental attitudes, activities and characteristics influenced children's adult attainments.
The study, supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is based on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, funded mainly by the National Science Foundation.
"We wanted to see how fathers, as well as mothers, affected the children's development," says Jean Yeung, a co-principal investigator of the Panel Study and lead author of the report, "Putting Fathers Back in the Picture: Parental Activities and Children's Adult Attainments."
"Most previous research has been limited to fathers' economic contributions, without looking at other important influences they might have."
With co-authors Greg Duncan of Northwestern University and Martha Hill of the U-M, Yeung also analyzed the effect of various family activities, such as eating meals together, and conditions in the home, such as the level of cleanliness.
The study is based on children from intact, two-parent families who were no older than 12 when the study started in 1968. Researchers related the family circumstances when these children were growing up to their attainments 20 years later.
Among the findings:
—Eating family meals together had little effect on children's adult attainments.
—How clean the home was kept when children were in middle childhood and early adolescence was a highly significant predictor of adult attainment, especially for sons.
Sons who lived in homes the interviewer rated as "very clean" had one or two years more education and made 40 percent more money than sons who lived in homes rated "so-so," "not very clean" or "dirty." How clean the home was kept had smaller positive effects on the adult attainments of daughters.
"This finding raises more questions than it answers," Yeung admits. "Does the cleanliness of the home indicate how efficiently parents are able to organize their routines to meet family goals? Is orderliness itself a productive trait that is passed on from parent to child? Or is the cleanliness of the home reflecting something more basic about the level of care that parents provide?"
—Fathers who used seat belts, carried car insurance and put two months? income away in savings had sons with higher incomes than less cautious dads. In fact, each one of these three paternal behaviors boosted a son's adult income by 18 percent.
"These factors may reflect the general orientation of parents to take precautions and to provide a secure environment for the children and for themselves," Yeung suggests. "In addition, cautious fathers may have a particularly important role in reducing the generally riskier behavior of adolescent sons relative to daughters."
Among the more expected findings, parents' education, income and involvement in parent-teacher organizations had a positive effect on children's later income and education. Also, children whose fathers attended church had higher levels of education. "It's impossible to say whether religion itself is responsible for this," notes Yeung, "or a more basic willingness of fathers to care for their children and be involved in their lives that makes the difference."
For additional information about the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, access the study's World Wide Web homepage at www.umich.edu/~psid/
E-mail: swanbrow @umich.edu