What Parents of the Most Successful Children are Doing Differently

Parental engagement in their child’s learning at home is the single most important and changeable factor in student achievement. But what is it that the best parents are doing differently?


Parents of the most successful children say about six encouraging statements for every discouraging one.

After spending over a decade in the living rooms of thousands of families of all income levels, a team of researchers found that the average child in a professional family was accumulating 32 affirmative positive statements, and 5 prohibitions, per hour from their parents. Put simply, for every single discouraging statement made, parents said 6 encouraging statements. In working-class families, the ratio was entirely different. Children were hearing 12 affirmatives and 7 prohibitions per hour; a ratio of roughly 2 encouragements to 1 discouragement. On the other hand, the average child in a low-income family was accumulating 5 affirmatives and 11 prohibitions per hour; a ratio of 1 encouragement to 2 discouragements. In a 5,200-hour year, that equated to 166,000 encouragements and 26,000 discouragements in a professional family, 62,000 encouragements to 36,000 discouragements in a working-class family, and 26,000 encouragements to 57,000 discouragements in a welfare family. Successful students heard about 140,000 more encouraging statements and 31,000 less discouraging ones every year  than children who were the least successful.


Parents of the most successful children talk with, and read to, their children.

Along those same lines, The Millennium Cohort Study found that at the age of 5 children from the most advantaged families were over a year ahead in vocabulary compared to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. While this, too, appears to be related to income, the reasons were more nuanced than this. It turns out that the amount of time spent engaged with children, uninterrupted, was substantially higher in professional families. Specifically, the children who are the most successful in school were exposed to nearly 33 million more words in the first four years of their lives than children who were the least successful. Even when parents read the same books and sang the same nursery rhymes over and over again, children were still more advanced in their ability to use vocabulary, syntax, structure and sequential thinking. In fact, just 15 minutes of uninterrupted time talking with (not to) a child each week was correlated with improvements in literacy, and eventually better grades.


Parents of the most successful children do not always know the answers, but they care that the answers get found.

After pouring over mountains of research, it turns out that parents of successful students were not those who were reading in class, going on trips, or even attending parent evenings. Surprisingly, these parents were not necessarily helping with homework either. This means that even if parents never stepped foot onto the school grounds, they could still have positive impacts on behavior, grades, learning, and social skills. What made all of the difference was the attitude toward learning in the home. Parents of the most successful students expressed positive attitudes toward making mistakes and trying again, took an interest in their child’s learning, and made an effort to offer guidance and moral support.