Events such as divorce or child abuse have a greater impact on children of higher-educated parents than on children of lower-educated parents. This is surprising, says sociologist Carlijn Bussemakers. ‘I would have expected children from financially better-off families to suffer less from adverse events, because financial resources could act as a buffer. This is not the case; the effects of adverse events are the same for children of poorer and richer parents.’
In fact, the impact is even greater for children of parents with more cultural resources, concludes the researcher. In the wake of adverse events, these children may originally retain some advantage, but less so than children who did not experience such adverse events: their educational prospects are greatly diminished. ‘Parents use their cultural capital to improve their children's educational prospects, for example by reading out loud, or through other activities that stimulate the children's development. But in the wake of divorce or child abuse, this cultural capital is less effectively brought across, because the parents have less time, or because the parent-child relationship is damaged.’
Differences between countries
For her PhD research, Bussemakers used among other things data from the European Generations and Gender Programme, with data from 17 countries. These data show that people who experienced divorce or parental death as children have lower educational attainment levels later on. National characteristics such as additional single-parent benefits or selective educational systems did not reduce the impact of divorce.
In the case of parental death, the researcher did find differences between countries. Bussemakers: ‘In countries with additional single-parent benefits, parental death had less impact on children of lower-educated parents, as was the case in countries with later selection in education.’
Impact of adverse events should also be included
Besides divorce and parental death, Bussemakers also looked at the effects of child abuse. ‘Nearly 20% of the respondents reported suffering physical abuse in childhood, which means that parents continue to hit their children. Many children also suffered emotional abuse, including insults, humiliation, verbal aggression, and shouting.’
Earlier research focused primarily on the socio-economic causes of educational inequality. In her PhD thesis, Bussemakers wanted to link this research to research on adverse events. ‘Of course, there has to be support for children from families with a lower socio-economic status, because they have lower educational prospects. But such prospects are also negatively impacted by adverse events, and this is not only problematic for families that have traditionally been seen as vulnerable. It's important to look at how we can reduce the impact of these experiences, for example by providing the right support.’
Carlijn Bussemakers is defending her PhD dissertation on 21 October 2022 in the Radboud University Aula. The results of her research have been summarised in a fact sheet (in Dutch). Since April 2022, Bussemakers has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Radboudumc and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).