Feb 05 2011

Sensible Parenting

Category: parenting,relationshipsJames @ 10:00 am

A lot of people have shared a recent article about “Chinese mothering” by Yale law professor Amy Chua. All I can say is: what a terrible way to raise your kids. These two blog posts (here and here) by economist Bryan Caplan are the best concise refutations I’ve seen of Chua’s parenting philosophy. Decades of research shows that parenting style doesn’t make much difference in how kids turn out. Beyond a basic baseline (providing basic needs, not abusing them, etc.), parenting style doesn’t have much effect on how kids will turn out as adults.

So what does make the big difference in kids? Genetics. For example. twin and adoption studies show that 40% to 80% of the variation in IQ is because of genetics (and probably it’s more toward the higher end) and non-shared environment (a variable which is difficult to quantify, but may include peers, school, and the child’s experiences with people outside the home).1 Twin and adoption studies also show that many other personality traits are highly heritable; even things like likelihood of divorce, the propensity to marry, marital quality and social support are heritable.2 Of course, genes and environment do interact – the size of someone’s vocabulary is highly heritable (genes), but every word a person knows is learned (environment).3 And there are very bad things parents can do which negatively affect their kids (such as abuse). But the effect of normal parenting is so low that some adoption studies show that, as adults, adopted siblings’ personalities are no more similar than random pairs of strangers. This would mean that the effects of family environment on personality are zero by adulthood.4

So what does this mean for how someone should approach parenting? I like the three questions which Bryan Caplan lists:

“Before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions.

“1. Do I enjoy it?

“2. Does my child enjoy it?

“3. Are there any long-run benefits?”

I would add a forth question: are there any long-run negative consequences to the activity (such as studies showing watching TV too early is bad for kids)?

In general, my philosophy is that the benefits from parenting come from the personal relationships I build with my kids and the kind of family we create. Parenting won’t do much to change my kid’s intellectual achievements, salary, or personality as an adult (although like any parent, I’ll still do what I can, subject to the four questions above, to make whatever positive differences I can at the margins). What my parenting can do, though, is determine what my kids think of me and what kind of relationship I have with them when they grow up. I don’t think that parenting should be about being a “Chinese mother” to my kids out of some misguided idea that I’ll be giving them an advantage later in life. It should be about bonding and building personal relationships. The main thing that will survive from my parenting after my kids’ childhood is their memories of me and their relationship with me, and I want those to be good ones.