Children who immigrate to the United States with their families are likely to outperform kids with a similar background who were born here. And when they grow up, their own children are also likely to do better than their peers.
But by the third generation, that advantage will be gone.
That's the principal finding in a large study from Johns Hopkins University that tracked nearly 11,000 young immigrants all the way to adulthood.
That may fit a pattern some Americans see of so many kids from Asia who excel in everything from music to science as they embrace a new culture. But it holds for all immigrants, including those from Mexico who often arrive here in a desperate flight from poverty.
It doesn't mean that a poor kid who arrives here as a preteen will do better than an American kid from a wealthy family that values education, of course. But compared to an American youth with a similar background, the immigrant will have certain advantages.
"They have higher expectations, they make a higher effort, and they have better cultural tools," sociologist Lingxin Hao, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview. "Their culture is not just American."
They have the experience of living their first years in a very different culture, "so they have cultural diversity and they are able to take the best part of both and use it while in school," she added. That will continue to help them transition into adulthood.
The study indicates the immigrants are more likely to succeed because they arrived here with high expectations, their parents expect them to work harder, and it's likely they will have a stronger relationship than their American peers with their teachers.
In most other countries, particularly Asia, "teachers are somebody," Hao said. "They educate you, so you have to respect them."
Teachers respond to kids who work harder, and show respect, and that contributes to a stronger bond between the teacher and the student. In the end, that student is likely to do better.
Hao, who came to America from China in 1985 to earn her doctorate at the University of Chicago, and sociologist Han S. Woo tracked 10,795 children who arrived in this country with their parents. They began following them from the age of 13 to 17 up to the age of 25 to 32 to see how well they made the transition from childhood to adult. The data was part of the university's National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement study.
The researchers found that the best students, based on grades and course difficulty, were born in other countries and came to the United States in their early teens. They also were more successful in early adulthood, based on academic degrees and employment status.
But the immigrants only slightly eclipsed children of immigrants who were born in this country. The authors say this may have been because, even though they had no firsthand knowledge of their homeland's culture, they received its "cultural tools" from their parents.
Those findings held true for both Hispanics and Asian children, compared to American kids with a similar background.
Hao offered one theoretical explanation for why immigrant children do so much better than their peers:
"It's about family," she said. "The parents have an optimistic view of bringing up their children in the United States. One important motivation for immigrants is to improve their children's lives. The United States is the land of opportunity. If we work hard, we will get it."
New immigrants tend to settle in communities that have many other residents from the same part of the world, thus buttressing the "cultural tools" that might otherwise diminish over time.
"If you go to Chinatown you see bankers there, but you also see people washing dishes. There's many different people there. So even if your parents aren't highly educated, you have other role models in your community," Hao said.
That further supports the idea that success comes to those who work the hardest, the study notes.
But why does it end with the third generation? Hao speculates that the cultural tools from the old country will have been lost by then.
The new kids "didn't have to make sacrifices to come here," she said. "They don't have high motivation to change their family's position in society." In other words, they can get along while doing less.
There's one surprise in the study. Hao had hypothesized that some of the children would suffer from depression because of the intense pressure to succeed, but the findings do not support that. Even if they don't measure up to their parent's expectations, she speculated, they are doing better than their peers, so they probably feel pretty good about themselves.
Of course, none of this means every kid who arrives here from somewhere else is going to outperform every kid in the neighborhood.
"Not all of them, but more of them," will likely succeed, she said.