Change and stability in the association of parents' education with children's intelligence

Sophie Nicole Cave, Megan Wright*, Sophie von Stumm

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Parents' educational attainment is one of the strongest predictors of children's cognitive development, which in turn exerts a pivotal influence on children's educational outcomes. However, no prior study has explored change and stability in the relative association of mothers' and fathers' education with children's intelligence (IQ) that may occur across generations. Here, we identified 5 population cohort studies with children born in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1994–1996, and 2000-2002 that were representative of the UK's population at their inception, and that assessed parents' educational attainment and children's IQ (total N in analyses = 48,175). Associations of mothers' and fathers' education with children's IQ ranged from r = 0.38 (CI 95% 0.36–0.41) to r = 0.19 (CI 95% 0.17–0.20) across generations. Fathers' education was more strongly related to children's IQ in the earlier cohorts but in later years, mothers' education emerged as more dominant. However, these differences in the strength of the associations were small and might be chance findings. Negative interactions between mothers' and fathers' education in the prediction of children's intelligence that may reflect compensatory effects were observed in all cohorts, but only reached significance before 1970. We conclude that parents' educational attainment has been continuously associated with children's intelligence across generations with medium to large effect sizes. While our results are based on analyses of large population cohort studies that span across six decades, the limitations of the data and study design warrant a cautious interpretation of our findings. Preregistration & data:

Original languageEnglish
Article number101597
Number of pages8
Early online date19 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank all participants for their contributions to the respective cohort studies. This work was supported by grants to Sophie von Stumm from the Nuffield Foundation ( EDO/44110 ) and the Jacobs Foundation .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


  • Cohort studies
  • Early childhood
  • Education
  • Intelligence
  • Parents
  • Secondary data analysis

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