First, Do No Harm


Mike has teed-up the broad question.  In this post I explore a portion of the nature-nurture question. 

We parents tend to get “wrapped around the pole” pushing our kids. If we are to believe Dr. Chua, perhaps Asians get more wrapped than others.   Implicit within Dr. Chua’s arguments are a strong defense for the nurture-side in the nature v. nurture debate. 

Timed nicely, this morning Jonah Lehrer writes about new research that finds a link between performance on intelligence tests and socio-economic status. 

By studying the performance of identical versus fraternal twins, the scientists could tease out the relative importance of factors such as genetics and the home environment. Because the infants came from households across the socioeconomic spectrum, it also was possible to see how wealth influenced test scores.

Specifically, the findings were that genes played a smaller part in low socioeconomic households and a much higher part in predicting intelligence in high socioeconomic households.

When it came to the mental ability of 10-month-olds, the home environment was the key variable, across every socioeconomic class. But results for the 2-year-olds were dramatically different. In children from poorer households, the choices of parents still mattered. In fact, the researchers estimated that the home environment accounted for approximately 80% of the individual variance in mental ability among poor 2-year-olds. The effect of genetics was negligible.

The opposite pattern appeared in 2-year-olds from wealthy households. For these kids, genetics primarily determined performance, accounting for nearly 50% of all variation in mental ability. . . The home environment was a distant second. For parents, the correlation appears to be clear: As wealth increases, the choices of adults play a much smaller role in determining the mental ability of their children. . .

Children from wealthy households get all the advantages that money can buy, from music lessons to SAT tutors. Although parents might fret over the details of such advantages—is it better to play the piano or the violin?—these details are mostly insignificant, subject to the law of diminishing returns . . .

These results capture the stunning developmental inequalities that set in almost immediately, so that even the mental ability of 2-year-olds can be profoundly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents. As a result, their genetic potential is held back.

How is it that parenting has a bigger effect among the poor than the wealthy?  It’s the absence of some basic developmental nourishment and, perhaps, it’s the prevalence of some non-nourishing habits.

In short, the first rule of parenting appears to be the same rule of medicine Primum non nocere (First, do no harm).

But then what?  While I am not settled fully into this “it’s all about the genes position,” Bryan Caplan is a strong advocate.  He says (and provides good cross-links to backing studies) that genes are a stronger influence on intelligence and character than parenting.  In response to Chua’s article

1.  . . .Educational and financial success does run in families, but the reason is almost entirely heredity. . .

2. . . . Not only do genes have a strong effect on character, but upbringing does not.  . . .See Loehlin’s chapter in Unequal Success for the best single summary of the evidence.

3. Even more importantly, twin and adoption research shows that heredity has a stronger overall effect on educational and financial success than existing measures of intelligence, character, and everything else predict. . .

The upshot is that the tough love that Chua heralds is not just pointless, but cruel.  The defender of Chinese parenting might retort, “Well, at least it does no lasting damage.”

Whether over-investing in one’s child (as defined by Chua) causes damage is an open question (at least for Dr. Caplan).  But I think we can agree that under-investing in one’s child surely does. 

More to come on the question of what kind of nourishment is necessary and why we should do it.  On this, I think Mike properly frames the question around societal versus individual benefit.

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