Teach Your Children Well

Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh isn’t a porn novel – it’s just another bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that follows the protagonist as he finally figures out how the world really works, which is always a long struggle full of dramatic but somehow comic trauma. In this case the protagonist is the son of a prissy Anglican clergyman – a classic prig, actually – and a goofy but pleasant delusional mother who likes to fantasize about one day being the mother of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The story itself is a bit odd – one must know quite a bit about Victorian England to figure out what the hell’s going on, which is why it’s not widely read here, or perhaps even in the UK these days – but it does contain some interesting observations, like this:

Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Even if they are unhappy – very unhappy – it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.

That sums up the child-rearing theory at play in this household, and perhaps in many in Victorian England – the kid should learn, from experience early on, that life is hard, that no one’s going to hand you anything, so deal with it, or die. You won’t really die of course. You’ll adapt, and pull your own weight, like a responsible person. If you’re unhappy with that it’s because you are simply sinful. The sin is sloth. And your parents aren’t here to make your life easier anyway – they act in their own self-interest to make themselves comfortable. That’s life. Everyone acts in their own self-interest, so get over it, and when you’re old enough, get a job and pay your parents rent – reimburse them for food, shelter and clothing. The father of our hero often reminds him of how generous he is to have provided those things for so long, for free. The father says he has been indulgent, perhaps foolishly so, and at one point considers charging his adult son for all that food, shelter and clothing since birth. It’s only fair, and all this is good for the child. Good parents teach their children about personal responsibility, and fear of God.

Consider that tough love – taken to the absurd. Or it’s our current Republican every-man-for-himself free-market ideology, with its overlay of evangelical fear-God-because-He’s-pretty-ticked-off-with-all-of-us fervor – taken to the absurd. Life’s not like that. Parents want their kids to succeed, and damn it, they will – and that can be arranged. That can be carefully managed, so American parents are now notorious for scheduling every waking moment of the kid’s life, in one-hour segments – soccer practice, the supervised play-dates, with the right kids, the advanced math or science tutoring, arts classes, martial arts classes, ballet classes for the girls, perhaps fencing for the boys, perhaps violin lessons, and so on. This is hands-on stuff that requires project management skills, and the project is the kid. Nothing can mess that up. If the kid gets a bad grade, the parent will get that teacher fired. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the bible here. One must monitor everything. The schedule cannot slip. No detail is unimportant.

This requires a lot of hovering. That’s why it’s called Helicopter Parenting – for obvious reasons. The kid doesn’t get a chance to be a kid. The stakes are too high, and this is a bit absurd. There was even a Simpsons episode about it:

While dining at the school, Homer meets a “helicopter mom” who pressures her son Noah into succeeding by being near him at all times. She makes snide remarks about Homer’s children, pointing out how dumb Bart is and how much of a social outcast Lisa is. Homer decides to become a “helicopter parent” fearing that his children’s only ambition in life will be to serve children like Noah. Bart must build a balsa wood model to compete in a sculpture assignment, and Homer insists on helping. While shopping for balsa wood, Homer reveals that Bart will build the Washington Monument, but Principal Skinner criticizes this as overly easy. In response, Homer purchases a model kit of Westminster Abbey. He buys a book for Lisa entitled “Chicks with Cliques,” and persuades her to try joining a clique, first by declaring that dolphins swim in “cliques” and that the United States was founded by a clique, and then by hosting a cellphone-decorating party for the popular girls.

Homer is convinced that Bart will not build the Abbey model correctly and insists on building it himself. He works late into the night and accidentally falls asleep. During a dream sequence, ghosts of some of the historical figures Homer imagines are buried in Westminster Abbey – including Oscar Wilde, who is actually buried in Paris – advise Homer to let Bart learn from his mistakes. Homer awakes to find he has accidentally crushed the model beyond recognition. At the competition, Superintendent Chalmers notes that Bart’s model is the only one that does not appear “too perfect,” and thus believes that Bart’s model is the only one that was not constructed with the help of a parent, but Bart declines the award and reveals that Homer did all the work. Lisa too confesses to her father that she no longer wants to be popular, noting that “it’s hard work being this shallow.”

So much for helicopter parenting – let the kids be kids – but that’s easier said than done:

On Sunday, Dvora Meitiv, age 6, and her brother Rafi, age 10, decided to walk home alone from a park near their house in Silver Spring, Maryland. Between the park and their home – a two-and-a-half-block walk – a neighbor spotted the kids and called the police.

This wasn’t their first encounter with local law enforcement. Last December, the pair was picked up after their parents, Danielle and Alexander, allowed them to walk home from a different park a mile from their house.

“CPS [Child Protective Services] has finally succeeded in making me terrified to let my kids out unsupervised because I’m afraid they’re going to take them away,” says Danielle.

Though the state of Maryland might disagree with Danielle and Alexander, providing their kids with a certain amount of independence is part of their parenting philosophy, which they call “free-range parenting.”

“It means that we’re giving our children the childhood that we had – it’s the idea that kids can be trusted to go down the block, to play at the park, to walk home from school,” Danielle adds.

This item goes on to cite Peter Gray, who has written a book about the problem with helicopter parenting:

“We are increasingly restricting children’s’ freedom – we are not trusting children, and we’re not believing that they’re competent to look out for themselves like we once believed,” says Gray. “In fact, my historical research on this question suggests that there’s never really been a time or place in history, aside from times of slavery and intense child labor, when children have been less free than they are today in our society. This is a very, very serious issue.” …

Gray says that many fearful parents fail to realize that they are putting their children “at great risk” for psychological problems – including anxiety and depression – by over protecting them from the dangers of the outside world.

“When we don’t allow children the opportunity to have the kinds of adventures and free play that they really need for their healthy development, they don’t develop emotionally and socially as healthy as they otherwise would,” he adds.

Gray thinks that the state of Maryland has it all backwards:

“If we really think it’s not safe out there, we need to do something to make it safe,” he says. “It’s not appropriate that we as society say children are no longer allowed in public places without being supervised and directed by adults. This is a whole new thing in the history of humanity – to say that children are not allowed outdoors on their own playing with other children. This is how children learn the emotional and social skills that they need to grow in a healthy way.”

Now, in Seattle, the backlash begins:

A group of self-proclaimed free-range parents plan to celebrate Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day Saturday, perhaps causing many others to turn their heads in question.

The group, called “Free-Range Kids” has celebrated the day for five years, the group’s website states. This year, interested parents will combine the day with “Let Them Walk Home by Themselves Day,” encouraging parents to allow kids to walk home on their own.

The day is considered a show of solidarity with the Meitivs of Maryland, parents whose children were allegedly hounded by Child Protective Services for walking to the park alone with their parents’ permission.

This is fairly simple:

At 10 in the morning on Saturday, May 9, we take our kids to the local park (or they go by themselves). That way, with any luck, kids in the neighborhood who might not even know each other – different schools, different grades, different soccer programs – meet! When the adults say goodbye, it’s the kids’ job to come up with something to do. We used to have a name for this activity. Playing.

They do, however, encourage parents to notify their local police department to make sure what they’re doing is not an arrestable offense. Those helicopter parents have the law on their side, and they’re more than willing to report on bad parents, who ought to have their kids taken away from them – those who refuse to hover, as they should, should not be parents. The free-range crowd thinks that those helicopter parents are ruining their own kids. They don’t want them to ruin their kids too. The kids themselves are not participants in this discussion.

Being a parent is difficult, and this only complicates matters:

Do parents, especially mothers, spend enough time with their children?

Though American parents are with their children more than any parents in the world, many feel guilty because they don’t believe it’s enough. That’s because there’s a widespread cultural assumption that the time parents, particularly mothers, spend with children is key to ensuring a bright future.

Now groundbreaking new research upends that conventional wisdom and finds that that isn’t the case. At all.

In fact, it appears the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out, and a minimal effect on adolescents, according to the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time to be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The finding includes children’s academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

“I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. … Nada. Zippo,” said Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and one of the report’s authors.

In fact, the study found one key instance when parent time can be particularly harmful to children. That’s when parents, mothers in particular, are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious.

Maybe parents don’t matter:

In truth, Milkie’s study and others have found that, more than any quantity or quality time, income and a mother’s educational level are most strongly associated with a child’s future success.

“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status,” she said. “The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much.”

And there’s this:

Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College, has found that parents who spend the bulk of their time with children under 6 watching TV or doing nothing can actually have a “detrimental” effect on them. And the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that children also need unstructured time to themselves without the engagement of parents for social and cognitive development.

There you have it:

The study’s findings shook some parents, many of whom had built their lives around the idea that the more time with children, the better. They quit or cut back on work, downsized their houses or struggled to cram it all in.

Mari Kosin, of Seattle, quit her full-time job in 2013 to stay home with her two children, ages 7 and 4, because the strain of managing work, the commute, child care, activities and home demands, and the guilt of being away from her daughters, or being snappish and always feeling rushed with them, got to be too much. The family has burned through its savings and is striving to afford living on a single income. Her reaction to the study: “Oh, I was afraid of that,” she said. “I can see from my own experience how time with your parents is more important in adolescence. But, you know, the relationship with your child isn’t built all of a sudden when they’re teens. It takes time early on.”

Building relationships, seizing quality moments of connection, not quantity, Milkie said, is what emerging research is showing to be most important for both parent and child well-being. “The amount of time doesn’t matter, but these little pieces of time do,” she said. Her advice to parents? “Just don’t worry so much about time.”

Fine, but Justin Wolfers is having none of this:

This non-finding largely reflects the failure of the authors to accurately measure parental input. In particular, the study does not measure how much time parents typically spend with their children. Instead, it measures how much time each parent spends with children on only two particular days – one a weekday and the other a weekend day.

The result is that whether you are categorized as an intensive or a distant parent depends largely on which days of the week you happened to be surveyed. For instance, I began this week by taking a couple of days off to travel with the children to Disneyworld. A survey asking about Sunday or Monday would categorize me as a very intense parent who spent every waking moment engaged with my children. But today, I’m back at work and am unlikely to see them until late. And so a survey asking instead about today would categorize me as an absentee parent. The reality is that neither is accurate.

Trying to get a sense of the time you spend parenting from a single day’s diary is a bit like trying to measure your income from a single day.

He thinks the methodology is crap, but Kevin Drum pushes back:

This really doesn’t hold water. Sure, Justin’s Monday this week might be different from his usual Monday. But if your sample size is big enough, this all washes out in the averages. And in this case, the sample size is 1,605, which is plenty big enough to account for individuals here and there whose days are atypical for the particular week of the study. This is basic statistics.

At the risk of igniting a parenting war – and no, I don’t have children – middle-class parents tend to resolutely reject the idea that their parenting matters a lot less than they think. It’s easy to understand why, but unfortunately, there’s a considerable amount of evidence that parenting styles per se have a surprisingly small impact on the personalities and life outcomes of children. Obviously this doesn’t hold true at the extremes, but for the broad middle it does.

This, as they say, should be obvious to even the most casual observer:

We all know families whose children are wildly different even though they share parents and share half their genes just to make them even more similar. Is this because the children have been treated extremely differently? That’s unlikely. They’ll be treated differently to some degree – boys vs. girls, firstborns vs. middle kids, etc. – but the differences generally aren’t immense. What’s more, the differences that do exist are often reactions to the personalities of the kids themselves. A quiet child will get treated one way, while a loud, demanding child will get treated a different way. But parents shouldn’t mix cause and effect: the child’s temperament is largely driving the difference in treatment, not the other way around.

There’s a second way this shouldn’t come as a surprise: when you think about it, parenting is a surprisingly small part of a child’s upbringing. There are also peers. And school. And innate personalities. And socioeconomic status. And babysitters. And health differences. Parenting is a part of the mix, but not even the biggest part. Maybe twenty percent or so. The rest is out of your direct control. …

As an example, think about this: kids whose parents come from a different country generally grow up speaking English with an American accent. Why? Because they take their cues from peers, not parents. Their peers, and their interactions with peers, are more important than their parents. This means that the single biggest difference you can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools.

Parenting, then, probably matters less than anyone thinks, unfortunately:

My experience is that middle-class parents pretty flatly reject this idea. They simply can’t stand the idea that they’re unable to guide their kids in the direction they want. And yet, the number of kids who don’t take after their parents is enormous. Neat parents raise slobs. Quiet parents raise extroverts. Honest parents raise crooks. Pacifist parents raise Army recruits. Bohemian parents raise Wall Street analysts.

So this latest study is probably roughly right. You might not like it, but it’s probably right.

And if that weren’t enough, now Justin Wolfers is pointing to new research showing that growing up in a good neighborhood has immensely positive effects on future success:

I will start with the smaller of their two studies… The findings are remarkable… The children who moved when they were young enjoyed much greater economic success than similarly aged children who had not won the lottery… The sharpest test comes from those who won an experimental housing voucher that could be used only if they moved to low-poverty areas. Here the findings are striking, as those who moved as a result of winning this voucher before their teens went on to earn 31 percent more than those who did not win the lottery. They are also more likely to attend college. …

It is rare to see social science overturn old beliefs so drastically. It happened because these scholars returned to an old experiment with a fresh perspective, based on the idea that what matters is how long children are exposed to good or bad neighborhoods. But is this the right perspective?

Here’s where the second study is critical. While the conclusions of the Moving to Opportunity project are based on following only a few thousand families, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren use earnings records to effectively track the careers and neighborhoods of five million people over 17 years.

Instead of contrasting the outcomes of families in different areas – which may simply reflect different families choosing to live in different areas – they can track what happens to families when they move… Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

A crucial advantage of this analysis is that it follows the children through to early adulthood. This matters because a number of recent studies have shown that interventions have effects that might be hard to discern in test scores or behavioral problems, but that become evident in adulthood. The same pattern of years of exposure to good neighborhoods shaping outcomes is also apparent for college attendance, teenage births, teenage employment and marriage.

Drum was right to say that the single biggest difference a parent can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools, and now he adds this:

This, unfortunately, doesn’t make things any easier for policymakers. Teaching good parenting skills may be a monumental challenge, but it’s no less monumental than somehow conquering poverty and making sure every child grows up in a good neighborhood.

Back in 1996, Hillary Clinton did write a book about that – It Takes a Village to raise a child and all that. We need better villages. On the other hand, young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Which will it be?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Teach Your Children Well

  1. Mothering a child appears to be a long-term investment whereas Fathering a child seems to imply only the moment of uniting sperm and egg.

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