Monday, May 07, 2007

Bringing Up the Kids

There was an interesting article in Prospect Magazine this week which created a slight flutter elsewhere in the media. Judith Rich Harris was plugging her new book, No Two Alike, about how the mind works. Her theory (which I’ll take a side long look at later this week) is old and boring – it’s a rehash of the mind as modules idea loved by Dan Dennett and Steven Pinker. Of more interest was the beginning of her article about the relationship between genetics and parenting.

From time to time, science throws up something that is so much in conflict with common sense that practically everyone simply refuses to believe it. The effect that parenting has on children is one of those things. You hear all the time about way you can help your child develop into an intelligent, honest and well-rounded individual. There are lengthy lists of does and don’ts, most recently a panic about the perils of letting children watch TV when they have something called neuroplasticity. Psychologist Aric Sigman revealed himself to be totally ignorant of current science when he advised MPs that young children should not watch too much TV. Predictably, journalists didn't challenge the basis for his ideas.

Thus, we are urged to keep children out of nursery, to read to them, to give them lots of attention and affection, not to argue in front of them or leave them alone to long. And yet, the evidence from proper scientific testing, documented by Pinker in The Blank Slate’s chapter on children, is that none of this makes a blind bit of difference. Whether you are a Victorian Dad or a Modern Parent will have not the slightest effect on how your children are going to turn out. So stop worrying.

In fact, as Judith Rich Harris explains, the only contribution you can make to your children’s personality is to give them your genes. Intelligence, behaviour, emotional complexion and much else are 50% genetically determined. Although the source of the other 50% is unknown (more on that some time soon), it is definitely not based on parenting practices. Twin studies, adoption studies and much else have proved this almost beyond doubt. Yet we still refuse to believe it because it conflicts with our in-built ideas about causation.

Personally, I find the idea that I can’t screw my daughter up, any more than I can turn her into a genius, is of some comfort. It’s enough trouble keeping her fed, fit, healthy and, above all, happy, without worrying about how, by letting her watch The Night Garden and Balamory, I’m turning her into psychopath.

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