Family Issues

Breaking: Philip Larkin Can Go Fuck Off!

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Among the best-known poems coming out of Merry Olde Englande in the past many decades is the gem by Philip Larkin that starts thusly:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.

Bosh, says sociologist Frank Furedi in a ripping good read over at the always-great Spiked. Such "parental determinism" has become a hard fact of British politics (and American too!) and is wronger than wrong:

Policymakers in the Lib-Con coalition seem to believe that the quality of parenting can determine just about everything in a child's future. They even believe that parenting, when done well, can help to overcome society's structural inequalities… In comparison with parental determinism, the economic determinism of Stalinism or the racial determinism of the old eugenics lobby seem positively subtle. That such voodoo science can shape the thinking of policymakers reflects the exhaustion of the political imagination today.

Furedi's piece is in reaction to a speech by Nick Clegg in which the leader cited "a study which concluded that the amount of interest parents show in their child's education is four times more significant than socioeconomic circumstances in impacting on educational achievement at the age of 16." Whole thing here.

So what do you think? Parents or poverty?

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  1. The idea that you don’t model the behavior of the adults you spend the most time around is… well, I would require a pretty high level of proof to refute this.

  2. Poverty or parenting – Isn’t this a nurture vs. nurture argument? Have we thrown nature completely out of the mix?

    1. Not completely, Apple, but the newish field of epigenetics indicates that our environment, nutrition, and social interactions literally turn our genes (our ‘nature’) on or off depending on received stimuli. Fascinating stuff, I’ll try to post some links later on.

      And oh yeah, in my experience as a teacher, parents definitely matter more than SES. I’ve taught kids across the spectrum of poorest poor to incredibly wealthy, and those with involved and concerned parents or guardians, who had as stable and supportive a home life as possible given SES, performed very well in school and had fewer behavioral and emotional issues.

      1. Those with involved and concerned parents who have a stable and supportive home life probably also have superior genetics, passed down by their parents, which is why those parents are so involved and concerned.

        1. That’s not fair! The Government should do something to reduce the Parent Gap.

          1. Maybe we could send all kids to orbiting camps, where we improve their performance and psychology through a series of devious military training exercises?

            The best student from the whole program could then go on to fight our wars for us.

            I see no problems with this, as i have a 6 month old, and by the time this program is ready he could be shipped off.

            Take a lot of future hassle off my hands!

        2. Those with involved and concerned parents who have a stable and supportive home life probably also have superior genetics, passed down by their parents, which is why those parents are so involved and concerned.

          This is just too unlikely. For two million years (possibly nearly 3) humans evolved without a safety net or nanny state to help the children of those with “faulty” parenting genes. How did so many of these “faulty” genes get passed on in the last 10,000 years?

          Another problem with this argument is that those with “superior” genetics have genes that express these “good” traits due to an environment suitable for those traits to express.

  3. We’re going to have to say parenting, Bob.

  4. While both obviously have some effect, and I’m sure you could do lots of studies on it, two things come to mind:

    First, they may be both symptoms of something else, instead of causation. If your parents are lazy bums, this may cause you to live in poverty (not implying that all poverty is caused by this) as a child as well as causing them to be bad parents. Or, even if your parents are wonderful, their poverty may mean less time to spend with the kid because they’re in debtor’s prison. Britain still has that, right?

    Second, it seems like an easy question to answer. Would you rather have good/ poor parents, or rich/bad parents?

    1. No, Britain does not still have debtors’ prisons.

      But they do still have some pockets of persistent and intractable poverty.

  5. Without good controls, it’s nearly impossible to attribute child development outcomes back to specific input variables (genetics, health, family income, parental involvement, etc.), when those inputs variables themselves are highly correlated.

    And really, even if researchers could come up with a robust answer, what difference would it make? I don’t imagine anybody’s going to introduce legislation barring poor or stupid people from rearing offspring.

    1. Wasn’t there a judge who sentenced a poor, possibly stupid young mother to contraceptives because she took drugs and kept having babies?

      1. I recall a case of a woman being convicted of child abuse in California about twenty years ago and having the judge order her to get a Norplant implant as a condition of her probation.

        My girlfriend at the time went into a rant about how the woman was being denied her “reproductive rights”. I was about to respond either that she was lucky to get that or something like ‘what the fuck are “reproductive rights”?’ but I thought better of it.

        Sometimes it is wiser to let an emotional irrational rant go unanswered.

    2. How about we give the poor and stupid an incentive to reproduce? What’s the worst that can happen?

      1. We could solve a lot of problems by inventing virtual reality and confining the underclass to it.

        They can fuck each other, do drugs, and fight all they want in VR, and it won’t bother any real people.

        1. We’re going to need a bigger Holodeck!

        2. I have a feeling that it’ll be the other way around.

    3. Says who!

  6. The actual individual’s decisions first, second and third. Parent’s have the greatest outside influence on this, I believe. That societal determinism is a big “so what?” to me. Should poor people just lay down and give up on their lives and their children and wait for the state to come save them? How did anyone, any family or any society ever advance historiclly before the state existed? How did any society get prosperous enough to afford a nanny state in the first place? Didn’t some individual, family, group, etc. strive to improve their lives or the lives of those around them when they didn’t have much? What I mean is if one goes back far enough, we were all poor in absolute terms. How did that change?

  7. Parents or poverty?

    Parents, as in genetics: http://www.personalityresearch.org/bg.html

  8. I still send Mother’s Day cards to my Skinner box.

  9. Breaking: Philip Larkin Can Go Fuck Off!

    Is your source on this reliable?

  10. So what do you think? Parents or poverty?

    You seem to be assuming those two things don’t have something to do with each other.

    Despite Tony’s fantasies about people just waking up poor one day, people’s choices in life generally lead to their lot in life. Having a child in a massively less-than situation is part and parcel of the other bad choices they made in life.

    The kid born to poor parents (or, more likely, parent) is by definition being raised by someone who doesn’t have the tools to pass on to a child to make them successful, academic or otherwise.

    1. I’m reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s essay The Starving Criminal, in which he points out that there are poor families who do a great job of feeding (and otherwise raising) their children: those in which the parents have embraced the responsibility of parenting over narcissistic pursuits or self-destructive pleasures. That in city districts designated so-called “food deserts,” (a bureaucratic designation that there were no groceries within walking distance of dense residence construction) there were in fact plenty of groceries that he himself shopped in: they were ethnic grocers, filled with ethnic shoppers who then went home and sacrificed hours of their day feeding their families. Dalrymple then points out that those families statistically produced far fewer criminals than families that made their children graze on whatever ready-to-eats were in the pantry.

      It’s not about poverty; it’s about values.

    2. That’s why I voted for Obama. I don’t have to worry ’bout paying my mortgage, or car payment, or gas. If I help him he’ll help me. You know, from that Obama stash.

  11. I would think a right-wing windbag like Furedi (I wasn’t impressed by his post) would welcome a “blame the parents” meme. Let’s end all those anti-poverty programs, because they’re irrelevant! If you’re poor, it’s because you had bad parents, and there’s nothing we can do about it!

    I doubt that the study referenced by the nefarious Nick Clegg (great name, by the way) is as conclusive as Nick thinks it is, but Furedi doesn’t even bother to examine it. He knows it’s wrong because it says something he disagrees with.

    And, anyway, if your dad used to dress up like a Nazi, as Larkin’s did, you’d probably think he’d fucked you up.

    1. But the Nazis had the sharpest uniforms!

      1. It’s always nice to see my work is appreciated!

        1. Ha! I had no idea.

      2. Ja! Crisp creases! Shiny boots!

  12. The good news: Parenting. The bad news: You can’t do a damn thing about it.

    As anyone who has read Freakonomics knows, parenting has a huge effect on the outcome of a child’s later life, but the parenting issue is not something parents do, but something parents are. You can read to your child every night: if you’re not yourself an enthusiastic reader, someone who loves reading, it’s not going to do your kid one bit of good. You can make your kid play soccer and join the college basketball team; if you’re not an athletic person yourself, the odds of your child succeeding at those endeavors drops precipitously. You can make your kid eat healthy food; if you, yourself, do not cook for yourself and your family regularly, your kid simply isn’t going to pick up the necessary habits of thought that will sustain healthy eating later in life.

    Parenting is something you can’t fake; you need to settle on what habits you want your child to have before you have children, establish them in yourself, and and embrace them as what you want “a good person” to be, before you can transmit them to your child.

  13. I’m pretty sure parents have an impact on their children, but at some age you really have to shut up and stop blaming them for how your life turned out, or else admit you’re still a child and should be treated as such.
    No, I don’t know what age that is, but definitely before your 30’s…

  14. I think the American experience with immigation proves that parenting trumps circumstance. Regardless of how poor immigrants are when they arrive, if they come from a tradition of industry and self-reliance their children do well in America.

    Economic profecient minorities i.e. reginional minorities who specialize in commerce often come to America penniless and fleeing for their lives. They often have no Western education at all. Yet, they usually rise to the middle-class within the first or second generation. They do so because (1) they value learning, cooperation and trade and (2) being consumate outsiders in their homelands, they utterly ignore politics as a means of advancement. Instead, they concentrate on improving their lot with what resources they have.

    Clearly, people who start with nothing save what their parents teach them can get a significant leg up in America.

  15. One piece of evidence continually overlooked in the entire parents versus socioeconomics debate is the reverse case of people born into good socioeconomic conditions i.e. middle-class or better who nevertheless end up poor.

    What happened in those cases? At the very least, we would have to subtract the percentage of people who fall down from the percentage of people who fail to advance because clearly socioeconomic did not cause those born fortunate to fail.

  16. So what do you think? Parents or poverty?

    Outcomes in the real world tend to be determined by several variables, and exhibit individual variance. Yet humans seem to always reduce everything to one variable, especially in political discussions.

  17. I taught English for eight years in a Chinese high school in the far northeast. The mother of my best student could afford to give her child 30 Yuan a week for all living expenses, about the cost of a McDonalds meal in the U.S. Class sizes were consistently above 50, but 80% of our graduates qualified in the national exams to attend some form of higher education. Parenting was a factor, but culture was an even greater factor.

  18. I think looking at it as an either/or proposition, or indeed limiting the possible influences to a measly two variables sells human complexity grievously short. Perhaps by boring you with a short auto(and family)biographical sketch I can make my point clearer,

    Dad: born during depression to grade-school-educated high-iron worker and older, previously married Yankee lady with scandal in her past and potentially bigamy during his youth. Out of 4 kids he alone graduates from high school (public science-technical school), gets full scholarship to University of Rochester, gets BS in Chemistry, blah blah blah, draft, hard work in big city, marriage, education culminating with PhD earned while working to support 5 kids. Is then personally recruited by Ed Land to develop color film dyes for Polaroid, beginning the worked-for reward of a distinguished career as industrial chemist replete with recruitments, multiple sweet early-retirement deals while moving on to higher paid work, etc. Did well by his investments, retired with no need to ever worry about money again. Complex, brilliant, kind, atheist, with a wider knowledge of world history and literature than anybody else I have ever met.

    Mom: daughter of man whose family renown in the woolen mill business led to multiple transatlantic moves during his youth, coming of age in Scotland then returning to the US. Member of the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI and it’s touring soccer team. Boring, settled, sober Presbyterian life as mill boss in mill town, boring wife, very respectable folks, family prominent enough in central NY, prosperity essentially untouched by depression. So Mom never knew hard times, but did come from a family with legions of proud, self-supporting spinster ladies so always assumed she’d work. Went to nursing school, began career as RN in NYC in late forties and had a glamorous if chaste theater-going, brownstone-living single girl life til almost 30. Met dad on a train, both on visits home to the Finger Lakes from the big city. Had 5 kids in 7 years, lived very typical suburban life, always worked at least part time as a nurse. Very conventional, intellectually uncurious, nominally Protestant uptight moralist, though not stupid, unkind, or boring.

    So: Mom very much her parents’ child, Dad very much not. Vastly different in background, intellect, and temperament and very happily and commitedly married for 55 years now.

    Kids: brought up by parents whose decisions were driven by what was best for the kids in the long run. After some education-and-career related moves settled down in academically oriented upper-middle-class Boston suburb populated by Harvard and MIT profs and the like, for example the politically odious Chomsky. Bought very cheapest fixer-upper house in town otherwise out of their range in order to secure top-flight public education for children. 1967 investment of $20,000 paid off big, selling for $300,000 in 1989. Kids varying degrees of smart, ranging from above-average to supergenius.

    Three oldest are easily bored girls, fast-learning daydreamers and classic underachievers, in jr high and high school in the seventies, do lots of drugs though nothing beyond the norm, fail spectacularly for a bit, two never finish high school. No matter, the one grad settles seriously into college at 25, is science whiz and goes on to postdoc microbiology research at Max Planck Institute and research lab of her very own at UNC-Chapel Hill. One dropout marries at 19, moves to Ithaca with 25 y.o. Cornell math grad-student hubby, no further education but something of a computer whiz,very early expert in Mac programming, recruited in late-ish eighties for Claris software, moves to CA, develops much of late-eighties Mac software, ends up a VP of international sales, sells stock options to Apple during buyback for hundreds of thousands and moves back east to retire and raise kids.

    Two younger boys fuck off less, one goes to U of Maine, decidedly least intellectually inclined of bunch, loves outdoors and Maine, marries, spends next 25 years building wood kiln sales and service company, community guy, head of Maine Wood Products Council, stable, quirky guy, stays friends with everyone he meets forever, very contented husband/father. Youngest very laid back but brilliant, linguistics degree from U of Chicago, several years working as ESL teacher in Turkey and Spain, marries one of his Spanish students, computer-tech daughter of the window-awning king of Spain, they settle in DC area, he finishes PhD, works at Georgetown’s Center for Applied Linguistics, very laid-back punk-rock lover, family entirely bicultural/bilingual, spend a few months a year in Spain.

    That leaves me. I bounce around between various unskilled jobs on the periphery of academia, wait tables in storied but long gone Harvard bar in teens/early twenties, never complete education, though most people I meet through my 20s assume I’m grad student. Smart, voracious reader, intellectually all over the place but undisciplined, make a lot of poor decisions, always pick self up and start over. Incidentally also bipolar, not diagnosed til into 30s. Til then, just flaky and irresponsible. Single mom to first kin in mid-eighties, dad just a friend, very happy few years, me and my girl on our own in big world, I work hard, dad reliably sends me child support. Etc. Enough details about me, though. Bare bones: 2 kids, marriage, taxi business all with abusive con-man loser jerk (poor decisions, remember?) I can’t wait to be shut of, finally sneak off in middle of winter night with 3 under 8 kids in tow, many, many ups and downs ensue.

    So: Mostly seem to inherit our dad’s traits, but in spite of parental involvement in lives and commitment to educational excellence (read to every night from infancy, most of us reading at high-school level by 4th grade, no TV during day or in bedrooms, etc), very good parental modeling of virtues of hard work, thrift, delayed gratification, sacrifice, living within means and so on, our times or our inborn personalities or being genetic throwbacks to dad’s shiftless family or some combination of the above makes most of us late bloomers without that ethic of sacrifice. 4 out of 5 come around to have exemplary lives full of career and academic triumph.

    I remain black sheep, kids brought up mainly in poverty in blue-collar town, plenty of instability, perhaps offset by intense bond as little band of four against the world.

    And yet…have nieces and nephews with upper-middle-class lives, values, educations, very stable homes, parents take raising kids very seriously, they are rife with emotional problems, secrets from parents, rebellion against lifelong expectations. My three kids, for all their excesses and idiosyncrasies, are well rounded, thrifty, hard workers, tell Mom everything, support selves from 18 on, find ways to pay for education (25 y.o. worked til age 24, decided time for college, now is on 30,000/yr scholarship to Bennington; 21 y.o. a Marine with an adventurous past and a future that’s up to him, a rising star; 18 y.o. left school at 16 bored, went to community college 2 semesters, left at 17, bored of honors classes that were easier than high school, decided to work and be young for now, is valued employee at clerical job, well above minimum wage with quarterly raises, lives with best friend, pays own way.

    Ok, so I brag on my siblings and kids, that’s not my point. Point is, if you bothered to read this far, how can you ever untangle the messy webs of socio-economic class, environment, genetics, parental modeling, inborn personality, and luck to see why we end up the people we do with the lives we have? I’d like to take credit for grounded kids, they credit me, but it’s not really the truth; if it were I would have to blame my parents for my poor outcomes (though life is good now), and that doesn’t track.

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