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Genes Influence Children’s Success, Directly and Indirectly

Parental genes can influence a child’s educational success, inherited or not.

Key points

  • The genes one inherits directly from their parents are most likely to shape their educational achievement.
  • Non-inherited genes also shape educational success by shaping the environment children grow up in.
  • Despite using genetic methods, a study also offers evidence that the environment matters for education.

by Jean-Baptiste Pingault, Ph.D. and Maria Tennant

A child’s educational success depends on the genes that they have inherited from their parents, as well as the genes they haven't, according to our new study, now published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, our study—a systematic review and meta-analysis of prior evidence of genetic impacts on educational outcomes—confirms that genes a person inherits directly are most likely to contribute to their achievements in education. But parental genes that aren’t directly inherited, but that have shaped parents’ own education levels and subsequently influenced the lifestyle and family environment they provide for their children, are also important and can affect how well a person does at school and beyond.

Children resemble their parents because of nature (the genes they inherit) and nurture (the environment they grow up in). But nature and nurture effects are intertwined. Mothers and fathers each pass on half of their genes to their children, and although the other half of their genes are not passed on, they continue to influence the parents’ traits and ultimately influence the traits in their children. For example, parents with a higher genetic propensity for learning may have a greater interest in activities such as reading that, in turn, nurture learning in their offspring.

This concept—that parents’ genes influence outcomes for their offspring by shaping the environment that they provide for them—is called genetic nurture. It describes how parents’ genes indirectly shape children’s characteristics.

In this paper, we reviewed and analysed 12 studies in several countries and used a method called polygenic scoring to study the influence of millions of genetic variants on educational attainment in nearly 40,000 parent and child pairs.

We found that genetic nurture had about half as much impact on education success as genetic inheritance.

Genetic nurture effects captured by polygenic scores in the studies explained at least 1.28% of variance in educational outcomes, while direct genetic effects explained at least 2.89% of variance in educational outcomes. The study reports that the findings are underestimated, given that polygenic scores only capture a fraction of heritability in educational outcomes; the actual genetic effects could be multiple times higher, but direct genetic effects would probably still be roughly double those of genetic nurture effects.

We discovered that genetic nurture has a significant effect on a child’s educational achievement. The effects were mainly down to their parents’ education and how it influences the environment the parents then provide. We also found that fathers and mothers had similar genetic nurture effects, suggesting both parents are equally important in shaping and fostering an environment favourable for a child’s learning.

This study illustrates how complex the relationship between genes and the environment is. Although our study uses genetic methods, it provides strong evidence that, as well as genetics, the environment really matters when we talk about education.

Two aspects are complementary here: First, some of it depends on the genetic lottery, so parents do not have complete control and not everything comes down to what they do. That said, what parents do, and the choices they make, do seem to matter. Our findings show that socioeconomic status and parental education are probably key. It is important to understand how educational attainment (years of education, highest degree obtained) and achievement (scores and grades achieved) are passed on through families, and how this knowledge could help us break cycles of disadvantage across generations.

It is too early to say what’s most important—what happens within a family (such as parents reading to their children) or outside of it (such as parents choosing the best school and activities). We hope to work out which pathways genetic nurture operates through and if it changes during different stages of development, and we aim to identify what aspects of the environment are most important. This will be key to designing new interventions that encourage and support the success of all children.

The study was conducted by researchers at UCL, King’s College London and the Universities of Leicester, Bristol and Oslo.

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