Tuesday, 24 May 2011

in favour of relaxed parenting

there was an article included in fairfax papers over the weekend called "why parents should just learn to relax". unfortunately i can't find an online version, though did find this similar piece at the guardian (via here).

basically, it's an alternate view to the tiger mother, all very scientific and based on research done on twins separated at birth and children who have been adopted. and of course bryan caplan has a book he's wanting to promote - which doesn't negate what he's trying to say. in fact, if what he says is true, i find it very comforting to know that there's very little that i do as a parent that will have an impact on my child's future.

here's a quote:

This new branch of science is called behavioural genetics, which uses mathematical models to compare the similarity of identical and non-identical twins, and the fate of adopted children. Behavioural geneticists don't just believe that your hair colour or your susceptibillity to breast cancer come trhough bloodlines. They test for a wide range of other things, such as happiness and income, that no-one had thought were genetic. Some of these are indirect effects - so, for example, when they say that genes matter for income, there doesn't have to be an "income gene", it's simply that other inherited traits (such as intelligence, or work ethic) matter for income. The age at which you start drinking or having sex relies somewhat on whether you are by nature a shy and cautious person.

[...] It could be good genes that produce good citizens.

Caplan is the first to admit that this can seem "too counterintuitive to believe... as the father of identical twins I readily accept the power of nurture but still struggle to deny the power of nurture." The answer is that parents can make a big impact, but this is mostly restricted to the early years. You can give a child a boost at nursery age, but by the time he or she has left school it has gone. As one twin study concluded: "Adopted children resemble their adoptive parents slightly in early childhood but not at all in the middle childhood or adolescence."

"If you think you're giving your kid a headstart, you're probably correct," says Caplan. Your mistake is to assume that the head start lasts a lifetime. By the time your child grows up, the impact of your encouragement and nagging will largely have faded away."

there's heaps more of this, quoting from studies and so on but i don't have the energy to type it out. i did like this bit though:

"By the time you're an adult, your parents' past mistakes are not the reason for your present unhappiness" says Caplan.

of course he clarifies earlier in the piece that the studies he's using don't "address neglect or abuse, which of course can damage a child". so, the good news is that i don't have to feel any guilt that my parenting style will cause any lasting impact on my kids. the bad news is that i can't blame my parents for my own misery. hmmm. the good news is that it doesn't matter whether you're a working parent or a stay-at-home parent (although i notice that the article stays well clear of that question, but surely one can extrapolate?). the bad news is that all the hard work we put into our children and the money we spend on them will have little impact on their future success.

mr caplan does spend a bit of time baggin amy chua and her parenting style, saying that the success of her children is more due to genetics ("Her girls are the daughters of two Yale Law School professors, and people are amazed that they succeed at the things they try at?") than parenting. he does fail to mention that ms chua's book was a family history rather than a parenting guide but there is no doubt that his message is the more comforting one, one that makes (some of) us feel less inadequate, less able to measure up to the very high standards of parenting that society seems to increasingly expect.

i'll finish off where the article finishes off:

Isn't all this a bit depressing? At least Chua offered us a parental work ethic as a way onward and upward. Genetic determinism smacks of eugenics.

Caplan counters that it is a happy message. He quotes from Mary Poppins. Stop thinking that children, as Mr Banks does, "must be moulded, shaped and taught, that life's a looming battle to be faced and fought!" And, well, just enjoy.


katy said...

I recently either heard or read about this and I was annoyed at the time by the way the argument is presented. Obviously we now know that genes are not fixed and rigid but rather gene expression can be "switched on" or suppressed as a result of complex environmental factors (ie, the discipline of epigenetics). I heard the British writer David Mitchell being interviewed on Kim Hill a few weeks ago, he is a stutterer and was explaining that stuttering is caused by a range of factors but that he has not been able to understand what exactly triggered it in him because it is such a complex process, which is obviously an unsatsifying answer if you want to know that x+y=whatever but better reflects that these things are affected by so many things and that the answers are rarely as simplistic as we would like!

Nicholas O'Kane said...

I read the Dominion Post article too and find it extremely interesting.

I understand why it can upset some parents as parents always want the best in their children and would love to create the perfect child. Being unable to do so would disapoint alot of parents.

I've never doubted much that genes can have a big effect, but nuture so little?

Given that many poor people come from poor families it does ask if poverty is genetic and is it a waste of time and money to improve the lot of the poor. Also given the scale of maori/pacifica disadvantage in new Zealand, and black disadvantage in the states, it leads to the rascist question as to weather white people have more of the success genes in them?

Even if Bryan Caplans theories are true they pose some really interesting questions

Anonymous said...

Being a parent now has often caused me to try and relate my childhood with how I raise my children. My conclusion was that the influence of my parents was the driving factor up until early childhood (probably about the age of 3 or 4) but then the influence of my older siblings was far more influential in shaping my personality up through to adolescence. The downside of this reflection is that I've realised that at times I was a bully, although I never considered myself so at the time. I behaved towards my peers as my older siblings behaved towards me.

eyn said...

You mean social engineering ain't going to work on our kids???

Yes that would be soooo waaaaycist of you to suggest any group might have evolved more intelligence ,uh ,to suit their environment!

You know, a more challenging environment with snow and stuff!!

Evolution only works on muscle-twitch fibres( how come only black people are are allowed to win the 100m sprint at the Olympics?)
(How come white people win all the swimming medals?) and melatonin!! Never intelligence!! No never!!

Can’t be genes surely??? Nooo race is just a social construct!!

We are all encouraged to accept ‘diversity’ yet you liberals all want the races to merge into a shade of coffee!! With milk!!
Therefore diversity gone!!! Waaaaah!

Well at least that is what liberals preach for the rest of us, what they do in their own lives is usually very different!

Any parent will tell you that nature trumps nurture, even more evident as the child grows.

Who you don’t have children with is as important as who you do have children with...just ask Amy Chua.

stargazer said...

well eyn, this evolution you speak of seems to have passed you by entirely.