Friday, December 4, 2009

Determinants of Good Parenting

There was a decent Time article in the November 30th, 2009 issue about how "helicopter parents" need to chill out. The first page talks about how irrational it is that parents have become so intrusive and safety-conscious over the last couple decades despite drastic decreases in injuries and violent crime. What the article fails to address is the possibility that injuries and violent crime decreases BECAUSE parents have been more intrusive and safety-conscious. There is no evidence presented in the article of causality in either direction, nor of possible confounds that could explain both correlated phenomena. This is terrible and misleading writing.

The rest of the article is great. It correctly points out that parents have been generally irrational when it comes to risk evaluation. It is vastly more dangerous to drive your kid to school than to let him walk to the store alone. It is worse to take your kids to visit family than to let them eat Halloween candy that hasn't been x-rayed. The sensationalistic media has thoroughly confused people who do not understand or seek out real information about event probabilities.

Finally, the article references the Freakonomics authors Dubner and Levitt, who say that three of the biggest determinants of well-raised kids are: parental education, spouse selection, and waiting to have kids. This is also misleading.

There are very clear factors that contribute to all three of these variables and child-raising. As I write about repeatedly, people are on a continuum of what psychologists call "executive function", the abilities of the frontal lobe: planning, inhibition, predicting consequences, problem-solving. People at the low end (due to complex interactions between genetics and early experiences) are more impulsive and have trouble understanding information. These people are more likely to get pregnant early, do poorly in school, have rocky relationships, be hostile, etc.... Of course their children are raised poorly and have the same genetic predispositions and vulnerabilities, perpetuating a cycle that cannot be interrupted by visits to museums or reading books. Change has to come from long-term exposure to positive relationships with other people that provide models for security, patience, reflection, and compassion. This rarely happens, even when social services are involved, because impulsive ignorant people are often oppositional to services. These people drive away good spouses with hostility, and are more likely to end up in bad relationships due to impulsivity and a lack of understanding of options and the effects of their own behavior. There is a lot of believed futility because they lack exposure to positive behaviors and the ability to accurately evaluate behavior and consequences in general. These people are more inconsistent due to impulsivity, and authoritarian because they can't handle complexity.

People at the higher end of the continuum are more thoughtful, understanding, planning, and calm. They have better relationships because they are in the habit of engaging in intentional goal-oriented behavior that weighs probably consequences. They can think about people's feelings, including their own, and take effective action instead of relying on maladaptive impulsive reactions. They do better in school, are better at delaying/planning parenthood, and are more likely to raise their kids with compassion and productive interactions. They are more consistent with their kids, and less authoritarian.

The saddest part is that the bad parents tend to blame all of their children's failures and problems on the children, and refuse to accept their own roles in their children's development. They often refuse to change because they believe they do everything right. They tell schools and therapists to fix their kids, then blame everyone but themselves for the inevitable failures.

Don't worry so much about museums and reading books and whatnot. Just be a calm, patient, compassionate, responsive, thoughtful, empathetic, planning person, and the rest will tend to fall into place.

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