Monday, April 14, 2014

Is there a right way to raise children?

Three pieces in the Sunday NYTimes about how to bring up children ring a bell.  The first, "Raising a Moral Child", asks "What does it take to be a good parent?"  The answer -- yes, there's an answer -- is to praise your child's character, not her or his deed.  "You are a kind person," not, "Sharing your toys with your friend was very kind," will produce a caring, generous adult.

Children sharing a milkshake; Wikimedia
The second, "Growing Up At Sea", refutes the widespread criticism of a family with two young children that intended to sail from Mexico to New Zealand, but got into trouble and instead had to be rescued by the US Navy and Coast Guard.  The author, Ania Bartkowiak, herself spent most of the first eleven years of her life sailing the world with her parents and older brother, anchoring at far-flung ports and finishing correspondence courses on deserted tropical beaches.  She describes what sounds like an amazing, rare, and cherished childhood.

The third piece, written by Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, asks no questions, but instead asserts that "Parental Involvement Is Overrated." How do the authors know?  Because
...evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.
So, three pieces about the effects of upbringing on the adults children will become, two with answers, one a cautionary tale about how conventional wisdom can be wrong.  Two reductionist approaches promoting what authors hope become conventional wisdom, one quite the opposite, extolling the virtues of unconventional upbringing.

Take a look at the parenting section of any bookstore, though, or go to and search for parenting books.  No, I'll do that for you … I find a grand total of 97,130 books on parenting.  Almost 100,000 authors believe they've got the answer to how to bring up children.  Wow. Here are just the first few titles: "Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking", "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids," "Parenting With Love and Logic."  Everybody has an answer.

But, here's what really interests me here.  If there were in fact an answer, there would be only one book, not 97,130.  Or no books at all, because we'd all do it the way our parents' did, because they'd have done it right.

And here's why this rings a bell.
Along with social scientists, geneticists and epidemiologists and nutritionists continue to look for single answers to complex questions, and often believe they've found them.  But, there are many ways to bring up kind, caring, successful children -- indeed, many ways to define success -- just as there are many pathways to heart disease, or tallness, or hypertension or doing well in school.  And all of these pathways involve genes and family backgrounds, peers and social pressures, and pretty much none of them can be reduced to a single factor: the right way to praise a child, the proper amount of parental involvement, the single gene or food or vitamin.

Should a parent help with homework?  What should we call 'help'?  Is making a child's favorite meal help?  Or picking her up at school or freeing him from doing the dishes, to allow more time for doing the work?  If you want a caring child, won't simply being caring yourself be a lesson?  Can't a smile, or loving words be praise?

Similarly, we don't only drink red wine or take calcium supplements or consume saturated fat.  These are always consumed in a larger context, including a complex diet, genetic background, childhood exposures, amount of exercise, illnesses and so on, and everyone's unique.

There will always be parenting advice, because there will always be anxious parents.  But the advice will always be embedded in the culture of the moment.  Who reads Dr Spock anymore?  Who even knows who he was?  His parenting advice was followed for perhaps several decades, and it was 'right' because there were far fewer advice books, and it fit the tenor of the times, and people believed it, which by definition made it right.  But times have changed and advice books have moved on.

But, just as with causes of heart disease, where, by the way, there's also an advice market, there is no single answer.  And any actual answers will take context and complexity into account.


Manoj Samanta said...

Actually it is more complex than heart disease, because in case of heart disease we know the malice and the goal is to avoid it. For "right way to raise children", we do not even know who the rightly raised adults are. Is being US president a 'success'? Is being a poet a 'success'? Is being a billionaire a 'success'? Is being a good farmer a 'success'? Is being a kind person helping his small village a success?

There are complications even within those categories. Is a successful scientist the one, who raises the most money from government (ENCODE), or is a successful scientist the one, whose theories last the longest (mathematicians)?

Anne Buchanan said...

Actually, Manoj, I'd go so far as to say the analogy still applies. Just as with how to define success, the heart disease, or asthma, or hypertension phenotype, or many others, are not so easy to define.

Ken Weiss said...

Also, it gives people the idea that if their kids grow up to be truck drivers, carpenters, stay-at-home moms, or whatever, that they (the parents) are failures. In many ways I think it's a signature way for middle-class people, worldwide, to behave when wealth is competitive and not by virtue of noble birth.

Manoj Samanta said...

"Also, it gives people the idea that if their kids grow up to be truck drivers, carpenters, stay-at-home moms, or whatever, that they (the parents) are failures."

The marketing campaigns by colleges and universities in selling college degree to everyone plays a big role. Truck drivers are 'inferior, because they did not go to college'.

Ken Weiss said...

A very good marketing ploy by colleges! But middle-class pretensions and vested interests are not unique to us, nor the pressure to 'succeed', nor prestige criteria for success. They were documentably present in ancient times.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't resist them! And when we pretend to be Darwinians we ought to note carefully who has the most children....