Published: May 20, 2021

Klein, M. & Kühhirt, M. (2021). ‘Direct and Indirect Effects of Grandparent Education on Grandchildren’s Cognitive Development: The Role of Parental Cognitive Ability’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2021-06. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland.


Markus Klein & Michael Kühhirt

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2021-06

Non-technical summary:

Whether and to what extent grandparents’ resources influence grandchildren’s developmental and educational outcomes net of parental influence is a central question in the social stratification literature. The socioeconomic status of the grandparents can be beneficial to grandchildren’s early outcomes by providing greater financial resources or direct stimulation of their cognitive development via frequent contact and interaction. The majority of studies in the grandparent literature found a direct effect of grandparent socioeconomic characteristics on grandchildren’s outcomes net of parent socioeconomic characteristics.

A concern in this literature is that studies did not adequately capture parental characteristics and therefore falsely concluded that grandparent resources influence grandchildren’s development. Using data from Great Britain and the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), our paper contributes to this literature by accounting for a wider set of parental characteristics, including parental cognitive ability, when estimating the direct effect of grandparents’ education on grandchildren’s cognitive ability. We further discuss methodological issues such as varying grandparent effects across parent characteristics that we address when estimating the relative contribution of grandparent and parent resources on grandchildren’s development.

Our findings show that there is only a direct effect of grandparent education on grandchildren’s cognitive ability net of parental characteristics. Hence, multigenerational social reproduction appears to be mostly transmitted via parental resources. We also found that parental cognitive ability alone strongly explains the link between grandparent education and grandchildren’s cognitive ability. This suggests that measuring parents’ cognitive ability levels is vital for understanding intergenerational social mobility processes.