Despite the obstacles between the children of immigrants and the American dream of upward mobility, I wrote about earlier this year, young adults with immigrant parents appear to be doing just fine. In fact, in a phenomenon that scholars call “the immigrant paradox,” the sons and daughters of immigrants are more successful than not just their parents but also “youth from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds whose parents were born in the U.S. and whose families have more human capital, economic resources, and language facility.”

That quotation comes from a study by Sandra L. Hofferth and Ui Jeong Moon appearing in the May issue of Social Science Research. Drawing from the nationally representative Panel Study of Income Dynamics, they compared 185 young Americans who had at least one foreign-born parent to 189 children from nonimmigrant families. The PSID followed these participants from late childhood into early adulthood (the early twenties, for most).

As prior research would predict, the sons and daughters of immigrants came out on top in a raw comparison of the two groups: they “were more likely than those from nonimmigrant families to be enrolled in college [68% vs. 53%] or to be working or studying [85% vs. 77%], and they were less likely to have a criminal record [8% vs. 25%] or to have had a child [8% vs. 17%].” That was in spite of coming from households with less educated parents and lower family incomes.

But Hofferth and Jeong Moon were primarily interested in evaluating why these disparities exist, and particularly in the role of parents’ expectations, children’s own cognitive achievement, and how children spent their time. In an effort to isolate the effects of these factors, the two controlled for not just child age and gender but for several measures of individuals’ human, financial, and social capital: parental education, income-to-poverty ratio, family size, and family structure. They incorporated race/ethnicity into their analysis as well, though because so few Asian-origin young adults were not children of immigrants, Asian participants were classed under the reference category of white.

As it turned out, although children’s score on a test of reading comprehension and their general pattern of out-of-school activities did predict their outcomes in early adulthood, neither was directly associated with families’ immigrant status. Thus neither appeared to explain the success of the young adult children of immigrants.

The third factor Hofferth and Jeong Moon concentrated on—parents’ expectations about their children’s future educational attainment, as measured when the child was less than 13 years of age—turned out to be much more important. Even after controlling for background factors, immigrant parents were significantly more likely to say they expected their sons and daughters to complete at least a four-year college degree. And parental expectations were linked to all five of the early adulthood outcomes: high school completion, college enrollment, working or studying, having a criminal record, and having a child. Hofferth and Jeong Moon concluded that parents’ immigrant status has an indirect effect on young adults’ outcomes through the mediator of parental educational expectations.

Other studies that the coauthors summarize name several ways that parents communicate, and help to bring to fruition, their hopes for their kids.

Parents communicate their expectations through three mechanisms: role modeling, direct provision of experiences, and messages they give regarding their children’s competence (Simpkins et al., 2006). Immigrant parents may demonstrate priorities through their own choices (schooling, occupation, activities). Immigrant parents who may have been unable to attain a high level of education in their home country may directly communicate their achievement expectations (Hao and Bonstead-Bruns, 1998). They may also support children’s activities that require parental consent, involvement, and financial support. Parents may establish a college saving account, encourage participation in academic clubs and homework, engage tutors, and reinforce their belief that the child can do the work. Communicating expectations is likely to raise the expectations of the child. A recent field experiment demonstrated that raising self-confidence and reducing race-stereotyped beliefs was sufficient to increase test scores among minority seventh grade students (Cohen et al., 2006).

This message about expectations should resonate with all parents, immigrants or not. Though much about your children’s background and future prospects is outside of your control, the messages you send by word and example can make a positive difference.