July 29, 2006

Form, Title, and Influence in Parenting

Having come to feel the inadequate breadth of my reading, I've been devoting those extremely sparse spare moments in my schedule to catching up with history, rather than keeping up with the all-too-repetitive present. Consequently, despite the urgings of a reader or two, I've entirely missed the latest bout of John Derbyshire's musings on parents' inconsequentiality.

This morning, however, I happened to peruse a few of his latest posts just prior to reading the passage in G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy in which that great essayists declares the importance to his life of his nurse's feeding him on fairy tales. Something that I'd already thought reoccurred to me: that Derbyshire appears to be arguing out of affection for his conclusion (and the contrarian position that it allows him to take). If this were not the case, surely a such a lover of science as he would see that he is reasoning in a puddle of muddied terminology. Consider:

Why do you think that wealthy people employ platoons of nannies, and send their kids to boarding schools? The old English aristocracy neglected their kids for a thousand years. Winston Churchill barely knew his parents. He seemed to work out all right.

And juxtapose:

Suppose, for example, my reader's daughter had an identical twin sister, who had been adopted at birth by a quite different family, one with lackadaisical parenting practices, but in a near-identical neighborhood. Same genes; same outside-the-home socialization opportunities. How different would her adult personality and life outcomes be? We don't have to guess, because in a world of billions, it happens often enough to tell us. Answer: Much less different than you'd think. With a different set of genes, my reader's daughter might have run away from home by now, in spite of all his admirable parenting efforts. That happens too.

What, precisely, differentiates the nannies and school masters of the English aristocracy from the adoptive parents of the hypothetical twin? If Churchill hardly knew his biological parents, it seems to me that the differentiation is principally one of the title of parent, but not the role. To make the terms of our analysis equivalent, we would have to ask whether the particular nanny (or collection of boarding school mentors) mattered, for they were, as a matter of role, the parents.

One can reasonably assume that Derbyshire would reply that, well then, we'll broaden the assertion to state that "parent figures" more generally don't matter as much as we'd like to think. In making this distinction, though, we highlight a point that has been made before in this debate: Derbyshire presumes to "tease out" various aspects and choices rightly attributed to parents in order to declare that parents don't matter. If we attribute to pure fate, he says, the choice of mate (and the genes that he or she brings to the table), as well as the choice of geography and even (remarkably) the choice and provision of "outside-the-home socialization opportunities," then we can declare parents' influence to be minimal. Well, if that's the game, then I'll lay down my pen in defeat and admit that it makes very little difference to their development whether I, as a parent, prefer to part my children's hair on the right or on the left.

(I'm beginning to suspect, by the by, that Derbyshire's argument is fundamentally a denial of the existence of soul. What else of substance could he possibly be minimizing on the part of "you, the parent" if he seeks to "tease out" everything of substance that parents do?)

It merits noting, while in proximity to the example, that this narrowing of terms, combined with an exaggeration of the intellectual ramifications of doing so, appears to be almost a habit. Here's Derbyshire's handling of testimony from the aforementioned reader:

A typical extract from a reader email: "My teenage daughter is not allowed to date any boy who does not first apply to me for permission. So far I have turned two down as unsuitable and approved another two. She appreciates my help because it allows her to escape undesirable attentions without embarrassment."

Well, I have no problem with any of that, and hope my own daughter will be that compliant when the dating years start. Whether she will or not will depend on her personality, large components of which are know to be heritable.

Derbyshire may have allowed more, here, than he realizes. This particular reader, he admits, appears to have been blessed with a child who actively seeks, and is willing to heed and learn from, her parents' guidance. Once again, though, the strategy is to narrow the terms away from evidence that is inconvenient to the a priori aesthetic conclusion that parents don't matter: the very fact that the daughter listens is partly genetic, so the influence that the parent thereby has may be discounted.

Stepping back from the necessity for science to be seen as discovering something new in our old universe, we can plainly observe that it is merely treading water in a patently unastonishing pool of knowledge. If the contention is that some children will be naturally more resistant or immune to direct parental influence, then I don't imagine that many parents would line up to argue otherwise. If the contention is further that parents who wish to shape even fiercely self-reliant children's lives must often resort to less direct methods — such as determining the other person to contribute to their genes and the environment in which they grow — then I don't imagine that many parents would fail to laugh that such a thing ought to be paraded as a society-shaking insight.

Perhaps a few might even muse that it is, in fact, science itself that doesn't matter nearly so much as some might like to believe.

Charles Murray (to whose explanation and use of science I attribute much more credibility than Derbyshire's) has added a post that seems to bring some mitigating middle ground to the discussion (particularly his specification that the debate is addressing the group of parents who are already doing an adequate job). But there remains a science-constructed distinction that doesn't seem to me to justify the broader conclusions:

"Nonshared environment" is still incompletely understood. It can be things like a particular teacher that one child has an another doesn't, or a friend. If one child grows up with both parents but a younger sibling doesn't, that's nonshared environment. But most of the nonshared environment is even more diffuse and mysterious. Accidents in the womb, for example. A health issue for one child and not his sibling. In any case, when you think of influences on children as divided into genes and environment, with genes playing a major role, you then have to divide what's left into two bins, shared and nonshared environment, and the nonshared environment is much the bigger bin. This is not some far-out idea that a few studies support. It is pretty much ho-hum, what-else-is-new mainstream science by this time. Parenting is, under most circumstances, part of the shared environment that explains so little.

It's the last sentence that rankles. Take merely the example of "number of books in the house" that Murray puts on his list of components of a "shared environment." Are we talking merely the presence of large numbers bound sheets of paper, or is the "shared environment" a function of the content, as well? I require no convincing that the "nonshared environment" in which one sibling reads a particular book and the other doesn't can have a tremendous effect on their development. Nonetheless, isn't it within the scope of "parenting" to increase the odds that children will or won't read a particular book? Wouldn't it be part of parenting to decrease the odds of illness and injury that might shape one sibling differently from another? To steer them clear of dangerous friends?

Look, I wouldn't dream of denying the importance of the accidents of life (which, after all, resonate with something of the divine). Still, I wonder if it isn't the case that "the nonshared environment is much the bigger bin" for the reason that our analysis is being performed among a relatively homogenous group. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in resonse to Derbyshire, "in the days of the Old English Aristocracy — quite a far distance from the formative days of humanities evolution on the plains of Africa — social mores were much stronger." As shared social mores disperse, surely the mores of the individual parent will matter more.

Murray writes that we "have it within our power to screw up our kids; we can't do that much to make them better, compared to the way they would turn out with another set of parents who maybe aren't as good, but aren't conspicuously bad." It seems to me that he's merely noting that years of social development have led us to an effective system. Not to hum relativist, but "conspicuously bad" is in the eye of the beholder, and I'd say that a significant motivation for strenuous objections to the conclusion that parents don't matter is the conviction that such loose talk will inspire changes to our culture that will degrade its shared effects.

That's an awfully large risk to be making in order to defend the scientific discovery that "just 'a little below average parenting' isn't that big a deal in its effects on kids' outcomes."

An excellent follow-up from Goldberg, particularly his closing:

But my father was a unique creature, a peculiar duck, and the world will never see another like him. The suggestion that my personality — my me-ness — would be different in only trivial ways if I'd never known him strikes me as not only baldly absurd but deeply offensive as well. What makes me me, may be trivial to the guys in the lab coats and the social engineers, but that just shows how blind science is to so much that really matters. Science cannot see the poetry in life and because it cannot see it, it says it doesn't matter much. Science cannot tell a joke, but that doesn't mean jokes are unimportant things.

Derb says science "just tells us what is." This is scientism. Science tells us what science can measure, nothing more and nothing less. To say that those things it cannot measure do not exist or do not matter is the gospel of the coldest and most pitiless of dogmas.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:36 AM | Comments (7)
Marriage & Family

July 18, 2006

A Class of Would-Be Rulers

Something struck me oddly about Chuck Schumer's calling out of the "theocrats":

There is a group of people in America of deep faith. I respect that faith. I've been in enough inner city black churches, working-class Catholic parishes, rural Methodist houses of worship, small Jewish synagogues to understand that faith is a gift. The trouble with this group, which I call the theocrats, is they want their faith to dictate what the government does. That, in a word, Mr. President, is un-American. This exactly what the founding fathers put down their plows and took up muskets to fight.

The senator's use of adjectives for the present-day component of his rhetoric is conspicuous (probably without intent):

  • inner city black churches
  • working-class Catholic parishes
  • rural Methodist houses of worship
  • small Jewish synagogues

With the exception of "small" — perhaps because Schumer was straining to include some sort of non-Christian church on his list — all of the italicized words evoke images of non-wealth (which is not to say "poverty"). Is it really from this group of relatively powerless non-elites that the dreaded "theocrats" arise? There's a rhetorical disconnect, here, between warm tones with which politicians generally speak of the salt of the unwashed masses and the spiteful panic that such as Schumer instinctively muster when thinking about the democratic imposition of certain Christian priorities.

But that disconnect, telling as it may be, is not what struck me about the passage. Note Schumer's characterization of the founding fathers, who:

  • put down their plows and took up muskets to fight

Thus is the heroic working class of the past is invoked in opposition to the misguided working class of the present. Of course, we all know that Schumer's imagery is really just a jumbling of myths, but perhaps he gives away confirmation of what one suspects to be his opinion: The rubes of the past were once riled by their elites to drive off a distant monarchy. Those erstwhile elites set up the system that the Schumers now exploit to secure their own power. The fear is that the modern day rubes will be all riled up by a different set of elites to overthrow (or at least undermine) the current aristocracy.

One can only hope.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:40 PM | Comments (2)
Poverty & Wealth

July 6, 2006

So Much for Civic (and Civil) Dialogue

Two-and-a-half years ago, back before Dust in the Light's current design, I responded to specific writings of Dallas Morning News columnist/blogger John Chamless on the issues of excommunicating politicians and abortion. As far as I can tell, I've never mentioned him elsewhere, and I don't believe I was unduly personal or vicious in arguing against his points. Well, here's an email I received this week:

You were in Diapers kid when John Chamless was a writer....you think you know anything?...Chamless was the brightest, toughest and most heroic soldier that I ever met...He was a rifleman with the 101st Airborne Division.... He fought in Vietnam and was badly wounded....very badly wounded...I know, I was in I Corps Viet-nam with him.......Courageous!.... He has a wealth of knowledge and understanding that you lightweights will never know........You are a child compared to Chamless....and you dare to write about his ability... You are a conceited pox on this fine country.........You should run and hide! sincerely disgusted with your pompous arrogance..

Somehow, I'm skeptical that Mr. Chamless appreciates the activities of such fans as this one — whose mentality seems to me to provide indication of why we still have wars in this day and age.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:29 PM | Comments (6)
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