Is it just me, or has there been a spate of publications suggesting that your child’s intelligence, personality, and future life will be determined more by her genes than by careful parenting? In his analysis of his own genome, psychologist Stephen Pinker cites evidence that suggests that genes, more than family environment, shape who we are. A recent article by Bryan Caplan argues even more strongly that, “within the normal range of parenting styles, how you raise your children has little effect on how your children turn out.” I find this somewhat comforting, but also profoundly disturbing. After all, as a mother and as a teacher, I’d like to think that I’m making an impact. (My husband, of course, waved the article around triumphantly as proof that we needn’t worry so much, which I suspect means letting our daughter watch more television.)
Certainly, the belief that we shape our children’s destiny can be anxiety-producing. According to Caplan’s article, many parents today make great efforts to spend time with their children, assuming that this “investment” will “pay off” with happier, smarter, and more successful children. Even working mothers, the article claims, spend as much time with their kids today as stay-at-home moms did in 1970. Yet, the article suggests, this drive to parent better results in stressed-out parents and not particularly happy or “improved kids.” This rings true: I routinely race to pick my daughter up by three, even if it means working into the night. Late afternoon also happens to be our mutual cranky time, so these stolen moments are not always joyous. Perhaps we would both be happier if I didn’t obsessively tally the number of hours she spent in daycare and instead became confident that she will turn out to be … what she will turn out to be.
However, seemingly opposite conclusions about the causes of success can be drawn from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Richard Nisbett’s recent book which suggest that environment has a profound effect on one’s future life. Gladwell presents compelling evidence that while intelligence is partially inherited, most “geniuses” need more than just the smarts they’re born with: they need a supportive environment, luck, and most of all, “practical intelligence” in order to negotiate the world. Gladwell gives the heart-breaking example of Chris Langan, a genius who was not able to finish college. Although possessing an IQ of 195, Chris lacked the social skills, money, and support which would have allowed him to flourish. Chris’s memory of being brushed off by a calculus professor when he tried to ask a question was painful to read. How many students are ignored or discouraged because they lack middle-class social graces, or a sense of entitlement?
My daughter was born with talents, a temperament, and proclivities that I did not create, but which my educated, middle-class household will allow to blossom. But what about other kids? After reading these competing, yet compelling arguments about what makes children thrive, I wonder if my own efforts are misplaced. Perhaps instead of gilding the lily by offering our privileged, lucky children more and more opportunities (that may or may not have much effect), we should put that time and money toward children who really need it.