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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 12/14/2009

Willingham: Does chaos at home lower a kid's IQ?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia.

By Daniel Willingham
Have you ever been to a friend’s house which seems, for want of a better word, a little chaotic?

For some reason, it seems like it’s always noisy, people are always coming and going, and there seems to be no routine or predictability. If it’s extreme, you might even think, “Gee, how can people live like this?”

Social scientists have studied such households, and they use a technical term to describe them: “chaotic.” More seriously, it turns out that chaos might not be good for kids.

A recent study examined 302 families, and concluded that chaos in the home contributes to lower IQ and to child conduct problems (i.e., kids who are aggressive, or who get into trouble with the law).

Now you might well expect that chaos would be correlated with a lot of other factors, and it was those other factors that had the negative impact on kids. For example, maybe a family undergoes a stressful event (a death in the family, the loss of a job) and that event has a negative impact on the child and creates more chaos in the home.

To get around that problem the authors took a broad spectrum of measures from each family: the parents’ education level, parent’s IQ, a measure of the literacy environment in the home (number of books and so on), the housing situation, a measure of parental warmth/negativity, and a measure of stressful events.

The researchers then used techniques to statistically remove the effects of these other variables before they tested for an effect of chaos on the child’s IQ and on the child’s conduct. They found that chaos in the home was negatively associated with each.

Should parents with chaotic homes try to make them less so?

On the one hand, the effect was relatively small, and the study had some limitations.

Chief among these is that it’s a correlational study—it could be, for example, that it’s harder to maintain an orderly home if you have a child who is defiant.

On the other hand, among the factors that influence your child, chaos is one of the easier ones to address. It’s hard to make myself smarter or to change my housing situation.

But I can make my home quieter and the environment a little more predictable. It may not work, but among the options it’s pretty low cost and I think worth a try.

By Valerie Strauss  | December 14, 2009; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Early Childhood, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham  
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The study referred to here is:
Deater-Deckard, K., Mullineaux, P. Y., Beekman, C., Petrill, S. A., Schatschneider, C., & Thompson (2009). Conduct problems, IQ, and household chaos: A longitudinal multi- informant study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 1301-1308

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 15, 2009 5:11 AM | Report abuse

After thirty-five years as an elementary level teacher in an urban system, I can tell you that a child needs structure and stability as much as he needs love. Many children came from homes where violence, substance abuse, incarceration, assorted short term male companions, lack of interaction with adults, no regular meal times, and continual moving were the norm. Between September and June, one-third of the school population would change. I don't see how a child can focus in school, when he has to worry about what will be waiting for him at home. Parents seemed to be preoccupied with their own lives. Social skills didn't seem to be taught at home.

Posted by: Susan50 | December 15, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

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