How a mother’s literacy skills, even at a back level, translate into healthier kids

(Posted on ED Fall of 2012)

Lory Hough

It’s ans idea that’s been around for a long time: The more formal schooling a mother gets, the better off her children’s health will be.  Educated women get prenatal care, boil their water, and take sick kids to the doctors.  Illness decreases.  Survival increases.

Study after stucy in public health, particulary in the developing world, has shown this to be absolutely true.

And yet, surprisingly, for many years, no one ever quite figured out why or how this happened.  There were theories, of course.  Education empowers women, who still serve as the primary caretakers for children. It liberates them from traditional bonds like family influence and old wives’ tales. It improves status and access. However, few researchers actually have much credit to learning itself, assuming many schools in developing countries were of such low quality that they couldn’t possibly be teaching useful skills to women.

Even Professor Emeritus Robert LeVine and his wife, Sarah, an anthropologist and former researcher at the Ed School, couldn’t quite put their fingers on the school-health connection when they started looking at women’s schooling, fertility, and child mortality in the early 1980’s with the Ed School’s Project on Maternal Schooling. As the Levines and three Ed School alumni, Beatrice Schnell-Anzola, Ed.M.’86 Ed.D.’01 Meredith Rowe, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’03’, and Emily Dexter, Ed.M.’90, Ed.D’00, ask in their new book, Literacy and Mothering: How Women’s Schooling Changes the Lives of the Worlds’s Children, “What is it about schooling that affects child survival, fertility, and the behavioral development of children?”

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