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How Much Do Parents Really Matter?

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The classic question of “Nature versus Nurture” has long ago given way to the question of the “Nurture of Nature.”  There have been outstanding, thought-provoking books on the topic, most notably, “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris and “Nurture the Nature” by Michael Gurian.

Interestingly, some of the most compelling evidence on this topic has come not from a psychologist, but from two economists, who specifically deny the title of “parenting expert.”  In “Freakonomics,” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner reviewed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) of over 20,000 children from kindergarten to fifth grade.  They found six factors that were “correlated with” (i.e., “related to”) high school test scores: highly educated parents, high socioeconomic status, the mother was 30 or older at time of birth of her first child, the parents spoke English in the home, the parents were involved in the PTA, and the child has many books in the home.

They also found factors that were NOT correlated with (i.e., not related to) test scores: the child’s family being intact, the parents recently moved to a better neighborhood, the mother did not work between birth and kindergarten, the child attended Head Start, the child’s parents regularly takes him to the museum, the parent uses spanking, the child frequently watches television, the child’s parents read to him nearly every day.  They concluded that a child’s test scores appear to be less influenced by “what a parent does”, and more influenced by “who the parents are” as people.

More specifically, a child’s test scores were less influenced by what the parent does with the child (i.e., raising the child in an intact family, moving to a better neighborhood, mom staying home for the first five years, the child goes to Head Start, the child regularly visits museums, the parents use spanking, the child frequently watches television, and the child’s parents read to him nearly every day), and more influenced by who the parents are (i.e., highly educated, high socioeconomic status, advanced maternal age at child-bearing, use of English in the home, involved in the PTA).

Levitt and Dubner’s findings caused reactions that ranged from simple curiosity to sheer outrage, but they contended that they had no “agenda” and were simply applying reliable research tools from the field of economics.  They maintained that we should be more persuaded by what the data have to say, than by opinion and emotion.  Does this mean that we should conclude what parents do “doesn’t matter”?  Absolutely not.

The outcome variable in Levitt and Dubner’s ECLS study was simply test scores.  They went on to cite several studies of twins separated at birth, and they made a broad-based but reasonable conclusion that while genes (obviously) dominate physical characteristics, genes seem to account for about half of a child’s personality and abilities.  In “The Nature and Nurture of Economic Outcomes,” three long-term, quantitative adoption studies were examined.

When the adopted children were young, their IQ and test scores were more closely correlated with their biological parents than their adoptive parents.  But the authors went on to report, “By the time the adopted children became adults, they had veered sharply from the destiny that IQ alone might have predicted.  Compared to similar children who were not put up for adoption, the adoptees were far more likely to attend college, to have a well-paid job, and to wait until they were out of their teens before getting married.  It was the influence of the adoptive parents that made all the difference.”

“Who parents are” and “what parents do” are each of profound importance.  In fact, it matters more than we will ever know.  What you can indeed know in your head and in your heart, is that as a Maximum Strength Parent you will fulfill your responsibility in helping to develop a “Maximum Strength Child.”