The NLSY79 Child/Young Adult Sample: An Introduction

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort (NLSY79) is a multi-purpose panel survey that originally included a nationally representative sample of 12,686 men and women who were all 14 to 21 years of age on December 31, 1978. Annual interviews have been conducted with NLSY79 main Youth respondents since 1979, with a shift to a biennial interview mode after 1994. As of the 2020 interview round, the NLSY79 women had attained the ages of 56 to 63 (as of December 31, 2020). The NLSY79 women are no longer in child-bearing age; however, mothers who have missed several rounds may still report older children for the first time.


Overview of the Child/Young Adult Sample

Age of the NLSY79 Child & Young Adult cohorts: Born between 1970 and 2014. At the time of the first interview in 1986, child ages ranged from 0-16 years. In 2020, NLSY79 children 12 and older were included in the Young Adult data collection, with an age range of 12 to 50 on the date of interview.

Number of respondents in survey: 11,551 children born to NLSY79 mothers as of 2020. The size of the Child-Young Adult sample, which increased over time, depends on the number of children born to female NLSY79 respondents. Although NLSY79 women are no longer of child-bearing age, older children may be reported for the first time if a respondent is interviewed after missing several survey rounds.

Child/Young Adult Sex: 5,898 (51%) males and 5,651 (49%) females in the total sample to date (2 refusals).

Race/ Ethnicity (in total cohort to date) -- based on the race/ethnicity of the mother:

  • Non-black/non-Hispanic: 6,131 (53%)
  • Black: 3,196 (28%)
  • Hispanic or Latino: 2,224 (19%)

Sample sizes: 5,255 children reported by 2,922 interviewed mothers in 1986; 6,109 children under age 15 and 980 young adults reported by 3,464 mothers interviewed in 1994 (the first Young Adult survey year). In 2018, interviewed NLSY79 mothers completed a limited number of questions about health and schooling for 236 children 18 years old or younger, and 4,965 children 12 and older were interviewed as Young Adults. In 2020, 4354 children 12 and older were interviewed as Young Adults. See Sample Design for information about sample restrictions and exclusions over the period of the survey.


Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, the NLSY79 contains extensive information about the employment, education, training, and family experiences of the respondents.  The survey originally included substantial oversamples of African-American, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged white, and military youth. Reflecting budget constraints, the latter two oversamples have been largely deleted from the main Youth sample.  The remaining sample, however, retains its national representation. With appropriate weights, the NLSY79 may be considered as representative of the living members of a national sample of men and women who were 14 to 21 years of age on December 31, 1978.  Note that this representation does not include individuals who were not living in the US in 1979, but subsequently migrated into the US. With appropriate weights, the children of the female respondents in this sample may be considered a representative sample of children who have been born to this national sample of women. Readers seeking more detail about the NLSY79 main Youth sample of men and women are referred to the NLSY79 section of this website.

The NLSY79 has collected pre- and postnatal care information from the sample women as they became mothers. For example, fertility data contain details on all pregnancies/live births, a cumulative inventory of all children reported, and contraceptive methods used. This information also includes the mother's health during pregnancy, and prenatal practices like the extent of alcohol use or smoking and the use of prenatal care. Also available are gestation length, birth weight, as well as infant feeding practices, illnesses and well-baby care for the first year of life.

NLSY79 Child Survey

In 1986, a separate survey of all children born to NLSY79 female respondents began, greatly expanding the breadth of child-specific information collected. The children of NLSY79 female respondents were assessed and interviewed every two years through 2014. In 2016, only the mother-reported assessments were completed as part of the Mother Supplement.  In 2018, no mother-reported assessments were completed, but mothers were asked many of the child health and schooling questions from the Mother Supplement.  The assessments measure cognitive ability, temperament, motor and social development, behavior problems, and self-competence of the children as well as the quality of their home environment. Specific assessments include:

  • the Home Observation for Measurement of Environment (HOME)
  • a set of Temperament scales
  • Motor and Social Development reports
  • a Behavior Problems Index
  • the Digit Span scale of the Wechsler
  • Self-Perception Profile for Children
  • the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R)
  • the Peabody Individual Achievement Tests (PIAT) for math and reading

Certain assessments and supplemental reports are collected from the child's mother. This includes child demographic and family background characteristics, and information on the child's home environment, including maternal emotional and verbal responsiveness and involvement with her child. Mothers report on Head Start and preschool enrollment, schooling, grade repetition, school behavior, educational expectations, peer relations, and religious attendance and training for their school-age children. Detailed health information and physical characteristics are collected for each child, including:

  • prenatal history
  • birth weight and type of birth
  • post-birth care including feeding practices and immunizations
  • hair and eye color and handedness
  • height and weight
  • limiting health conditions affecting activities or schooling, including asthma (since 2004)
  • use of medicine, medical equipment or medical care,
  • nature and timing of accidents and injuries and hospitalization history
  • routine health care and dental checkups
  • psychological treatment or referral
  • health insurance coverage

From 1988 through 2014, additional information was collected from children aged 10 and older on a variety of attitudes, social interactions, behaviors, and activities, including:

  • Activities (school, work, after-school, volunteering)
  • Attitudes (toward school; gender roles; loneliness; risk-taking; expectations; aspirations)
  • Parent-child interaction
  • Family decision making
  • Peer relationships
  • Religious attendance
  • Computer use
  • Smoking, alcohol and drug use; antisocial behaviors

School Survey. A one-time school survey in 1995-1996, completed by school personnel, contains information on each child's achievement, attendance, progress, activities, grades, and test scores.

NLSY79 Young Adult Survey

Starting in 1994, children ages 15 and older complete a lengthy interview modeled initially on the NLSY79 main Youth questionnaire but tailored to this second generation and designed to maximize both life course and cross-generational analyses. Information collected from these Young Adults includes education, training, employment, health, dating, fertility and parenting, marriage and cohabitation, household composition, and social-psychological indicators. These Young Adult respondents also answer questions on parent-child conflict, sexual activity, participation in delinquent or criminal activities, substance use, pro-social behavior, political attitudes, and their expectations for the future.

Starting in 2016, children ages 12 to 14 have also been included in the Young Adult Survey. Children age 14 go through the same questions as 15 and 16 year olds. Children ages 12 and 13, however, answer far fewer questions; some questions from the Child-Self Administered Supplement have been incorporated into the Young Adult Survey for this age group.

Geographic Data

Geographic residence information is available for all children and young adults. Because respondents in the Child sample must live with their mothers at least part of the time to be included in the sample, users interested in residence data must access the main NLSY79 geocode data files and merge the mother's geographic data with the child information in the NLSY79 Child/Young Adult file. (More information about the main NLSY79 geocode files is available in the NLSY79 User's Guide.) For Young Adult respondents, the county and state of residence are provided in a separate file on the main NLSY79 geocode CD. A detailed description of the Young Adult geographic variables available is provided in the Geographic Residence & Geocode Data section. Through 2002, both the main NLSY79 and Young Adult geocode files also include contextual variables on topics such as demographics of the local population, income and poverty levels, and crime rates. For all survey years, researchers can use the geocode data to match NLSY79 data with other data sources to investigate a wide variety of community characteristics and contextual variables.

Maternal Data & Family Linkages

The NLSY79 Child/Young Adult files can be combined with information from the complete longitudinal record of the NLSY79 mothers, by merging with extracts from the main Youth. The NLSY79 main Youth file contains histories of employment, education, income, training, work attitudes, aspirations, health, marriage, fertility, household composition, and residence. Information is also available on childcare, substance use, illegal activities, aptitude, and selected social-psychological scales such as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem, the Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control, women's roles, the Pearlin Mastery, and the CES-D depression scale. The Child/Young Adult dataset contains a number of created variables providing information on the mother with respect to the child's life situation. These constructed variables, drawn from the mothers' record, include: family background, household composition, educational background of members of the household, and maternal health history. The dataset also includes information on the childcare experiences during the first three years of life for all children of a least one year of age.


Important Information about Family Linkages

The child identification code, CPUBID (C00001.00), allows users to link children with their siblings on the NLSY79 Child files and with their mothers on the main NLSY79 files. CPUBID is composed of the mother's identification code, MPUBID (C00002.00), with an appended 2-digit code (01-11) that generally but not always indicates the child's order of birth. For more detail on linkage variables, see Appendix H: Identification Codes in the Child and Young Adult Database. In addition, a tutorial on linking NLSY79 mothers and their children is available.

The availability of comprehensive data collected throughout childhood and into adulthood on the Children of the NLSY79, coupled with longitudinal information on the family background, education, employment histories, and economic well-being of the NLSY79 mothers, provide researchers with a unique opportunity to examine the linkages between maternal-family behaviors and attitudes and subsequent child development as well as adult outcomes. Because information is collected for all children born to female respondents, the NLSY79 Child/Young Adult data also offer opportunities for comparing developmental and other outcome measures between siblings and cousins. The relatively large sample of siblings and cousins permits researchers to explore within- and cross-family effects to a greater extent than is typically possible.

Using the Child/Young Adult documentation

This data user's guide provides substantive and technical information about the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult survey data. The current Child/Young Adult data user's guide is best used in conjunction with a variety of other materials including:

  1. the NLSY79 Child Assessments: Selected Tables (available on the Research/Technical Reports page)
  2. the 1986-1990 Child Handbook and The NLSY Children, 1992: Description and Evaluation (available on the Research/Technical Reports page)
  3. the NLSY79 User's Guide, and
  4. the questionnaires that are used in the field to collect the data for children, young adults and main Youth respondents.

Users interested in the literature related to the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult surveys can access the NLS Bibliography, a comprehensive, searchable online database of research based on the National Longitudinal Surveys. CHRR also generates a number of tailored bibliographies that list research based specifically on the Child and Young Adult Data. The section of this guide titled References & Bibliography provides details about bibliographic resources related to the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult surveys.

Questions about the NLS data and public use materials should be addressed to the NLS User Services Office at the Center for Human Resource Research, 614-442-7300 ( The Child and Young Adult data can be accessed or downloaded, at no cost, at User comments regarding any aspect of this survey, including suggestions for additions or deletions, are welcomed.