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Want Smart Kids? Here’s What to Do

Buy a lot of books.

That seems kind of obvious, right? But what’s surprising, according to a new study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, is just how strong the correlation is between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. It’s even more important than whether the parents went to college or hold white-collar jobs.

Books matter. A lot.

The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college.

For comparison purposes, the children of educated parents (defined as people with at least 15 years of schooling) were 16-percent more likely than the children of less-educated parents to get their college degrees. Formal education matters, but not as much as books.

From the paper:

Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class … Parents give their infants toy books to play with in the bath; read stories to little children at bed-time; give books as presents to older children; talk, explain, imagine, fantasize, and play with words unceasingly. Their children get a taste for all this, learn the words, master the skills, buy the books. And that pays off handsomely in schools.

Even a relatively small number of books can make a difference: A child whose family has 25 books will, on average, complete two more years of school than a child whose family is sadly book-less.

I wonder what e-book readers like the Kindle will mean to these statistics. On the plus side, a lot of e-books are free and those that aren’t are often discounted, so a family with a Kindle might be able to afford more books (assuming they can pony up for the device). But the books aren’t as easy to share and you probably don’t want your 5-year-old dribbling juice onto your fancy expensive gadget.

Plus, the Kindle doesn’t look as nice on a shelf.

(The article isn’t available online, but you can read the abstract here. The authors of the paper are M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac, and Donald J. Treimand.)

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