Kids do better — in terms of happiness, language development and even school performance — when parents spend more time with them. Research has made this clear, but to look more deeply into the connection between parents and kids’ school performance, a team at The Ohio State University and Hebrew University in Israel took an interesting approach: They followed families in which one parent had either died or left the home due to divorce.

The researchers studied 22,000 children in Israel who had experienced a parental death and over 77,000 whose parents divorced; 600,000 children who had not experienced the death of a parent or divorce served as a control group. The team was particularly interested in each parent’s highest educational attainment and the children’s scores on college entrance exams, which the researchers say about 57 percent of kids typically pass.

When it comes to school success, parental involvement can even help compensate for the loss of a parent to death or divorce.

For children who’d lost a parent, regardless of which one, the child’s test scores were more closely linked to the remaining parent’s educational achievement than to the education of the parent who had died. “We found that if a mother dies, her education becomes less important for whether her child passes the test, while at the same time the father's education becomes more important,” study author, Bruce A. Weinberg, said in a statement. “If a father dies, the reverse happens.”

If the surviving parent remarried, this helped things somewhat — at least for fathers who remarried. Mothers remarrying after the death of a father didn’t have an effect on the child’s academic success, which the authors suggest may be because a mother’s education mattered more in the first place, perhaps because they typically spend more time with the child.

What’s interesting about this finding is that previous studies have linked family income to children’s academic success, so one might expect that a father’s death would have more of an impact, since they typically earn more than women.

“That's not what we found,” said Weinberg. “The loss of a mother — who tends to spend more time than the father with her children — had a bigger effect than loss of a father in our study.“

Similar trends were seen for parents who had divorced: the mother’s education mattered more for a child’s academic success than a father’s, perhaps because the child more commonly lived with the mother after divorce.

“We found similar results in those children who experienced parental death and parental divorce,” said Weinberg. “That provides strong evidence that our results are more general than just for children who suffered a parental death.”

The effect was also more pronounced for larger families, which may be because the mothers in these families were less likely to work outside the home and more likely to spend more time with their kids.

In any case, the results suggest that academic achievement isn’t just about parents’ incomes or genetics — the child's home environment and a parent's presence matters a lot, too. And perhaps most encouragingly, parental involvement and educational level can help compensate for the loss of a parent to death or divorce.

“In the ongoing debate over what helps children succeed academically, we show that genetics is not the only major factor,” says Weinberg. “It is also about the time that parents spend with their children.”

The study was published in the Journal of Labor Economics.