Study Finds Links Between Generations On School Performance, Not Aggression

December 21, 1998

CHAPEL HILL - Widespread concern that aggressive, violent behavior invariably passes down from one generation to the next may be reduced because of a new long-term University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study showing that's not necessarily so.

Children whose mothers were aggressive or violent during childhood were no more aggressive or violent on average than other youngsters whose mothers behaved better, according to the study.

On the other hand, researchers found a strong correlation between children's academic performance in school and how their mothers had fared in the classroom a generation earlier. If mothers failed as children or teen-agers, later their children tended to earn poor grades as well.

The research involved testing and following children for more than 17 years as they grew and later had children of their own. From two original samples in the Carolina Longitudinal Study totaling 695 subjects, researchers concentrated on 57 pairs of teen-age mothers and either sons or daughters, who also were tested. Subjects' positive and problem behaviors were analyzed annually even if they had moved from North Carolina.

"In our society, there is a pervasive general assumption that there is a cycle of violence and aggression that is transmitted automatically from parents to their children," said Dr. Robert B. Cairns, Boshamer professor of psychology and director of UNC-CH's Center for Developmental Science. "But evidence that this might be true is very modest despite the public's belief that there's overwhelming evidence."

Cairns and his colleagues found no significant link between behavioral problems the women experienced during childhood and adolescence and trouble their children got into at the same points in their lives. In addition, they uncovered little evidence that subjects who were aggressive or violent as girls showed poorer than average parenting skills after they bore children.

A report on the findings appears in the December issue of Developmental Psychology, a major professional journal. Besides Cairns, authors - all at the UNC-CH center -- are Beverly Cairns, director of social development research; Hongling Xie, research associate; Man-Chi Leung, assistant director for computing and analysis; and Sarah Hearne, research assistant.

Why no direct relationship could be found linking violence and aggression in girls who became mothers and in their children is not clear, Cairns said. One reason may be that other people such as fathers and grandparents play significant constructive roles. Another is that being newly responsible for an infant may mature a girl such that she tries to help her children avoid the problems she experienced.

"What we think our work suggests is that windows of change sometimes occur naturally in unlikely places, and we can't cast young people away just because of a lousy beginning or hellish adolescence," Cairns said. "We also think our findings will be pretty important in the long run because they challenge the conventional wisdom. Although the new results will be controversial, they are good news for folks who hope to make positive changes in our society."

Leaving aside whatever contribution genes make to children's academic performance, the psychologist said mothers who performed poorly in school themselves tended not to create the kind of stimulating atmosphere children need during their first five years to be successful academically.

A particular strength of the study was that it followed subjects closely up through adolescence and parenting, from the childhood of the parents to the childhood of their offspring, Cairns said. Almost all previous comparable studies involved looking backward through subjects' lives when key information was missing or incomplete. Limitations included the modest size of the group analyzed and that the study so far tracked children only through the second grade.

The National Institute of Mental Health, the Spencer Foundation and the MacArthur Program on Human Development and Criminal Development supported the research. Findings from a Canadian study at Concordia University appearing in the same journal parallel the UNC-CH findings, Cairns said.
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Note: Cairns and his co-authors can be reached at (919) 962-0333 on Friday, Dec. 18. On Monday, Dec. 21, he can be reached at (207) 348-5290 (tel. and fax) or (207) 348-5618. Copies of the paper are available by calling (919) 962-0333. Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596 or Mike McFarland, 962-8593.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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