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July 31, 2006

Time Matters

As a childless twenty-something, I've been really enjoying the Corner's weeks-long debate over whether or not parenting matters. In the "cranky bugger" corner, with the impressively hiked-up grandpa shorts, has been John Derbyshire, who's argued that parenting matters very, very little, and peer influences, genetics, and culture are the real determinants. His primary assailant has been Jonah Goldberg, a proud parent determined to prove he matters. And occasionally ducking into the ring to slam either Derbyshire or Jonah with a folding chair has been Charles Murray, the wise old man of strange rightwing social science arguments.

Despite a lot of harping over the evidence, none of the participants seems particularly quick with the social science data. Partially, that's because there's depressingly little on the role of fathers, which seems to be the obsession of all the participants. Derbyshire has wildly overstated the consensus of the scientific community on any number of points, and is tangled deep in the weeds of correlation/causation failures. What the datam at this point, actually seems to imply is that parenting is a sadly unpredictable process and it remains unclear what "good parenting" actually is -- in the last couple of decades the experts have advised everything from sparing the rod to spoiling the child to unleashing the belt. Even worse, genetic differences in temperament make it likely that various kids will need different types of parenting to thrive. So a good parent for Jane may be harmful to Joe. We all know, after all, a stable family with one high achiever and one ne'er-do-well. Actually, we probably know more than one.

But largely, the Cornerites are talking about the margins -- how closely can they make their children fit their ideal. Emotionally, Jonah's right there with 20th-century behaviorist John Watson who said, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select." Derbyshire is more a Francis Galton type -- "There is no doubt that nature prevails enormously over nurture." The question is excellent parenting, not good parenting.

That's because good parenting is well understood to make a difference. Language skills are formed early, and children exposed to a large vocabulary, a lot of verbal interaction, and frequent stimulation do far better on later testing. In 1995, two social scientists recorded the number of utterances children were exposed to during the day -- the average was 325, but the range was from 100 to 800. The greater their exposure, the better the child did.

Of course, what largely determines that is not merely the parent's tendency to chatter, but the amount of time they -- or some other caregiver -- spends with a child per day. That's the real dividing line: time. The well-off can either spend it with the children themselves or hire someone else to fill the gap. Single mothers and working families all too often can't. For that reason, the Corner's discussion has been a rather upper-class discourse conducted by folks who're worried that all their advantages will eventually produce diminishing returns. That so many lower on the income ladder can hardly hope to be good, much less excellent, parents has scarcely entered the conversation.

A good example is that flextime -- that dream of being able to schedule work around family -- is available to 62 percent of workers making more than $72,000, while only 31 percent of those making less than $28,000 enjoy similar options. Daily flextime, the more useful variety, is available to only 13 percent of workers making less than $28,000.

Meanwhile, the Family and Medical Leave Act covers only half the private sector workforce and offers unpaid leave only. So not only do many parents lack the option, many others can't afford it. As for paid leave, only 30 percent of workers below the poverty line get more than a week a year. At 200 percent above the poverty line, that number swells to 76 percent. So insofar as you believe parents matter at all, a fair number of them lack the time to actually do much parenting (and let's not even get into those working double shifts to support a family). And this policy, let's not forget, is literally killing children. All the data suggests a stay-at-home parent during the first year of life is incredibly important. A massive study by the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation found that extending paid job-protected maternity leave to 10 weeks, as many European countries have done, reduces post-neonatal child mortality by 3.7 to 4.5 percent. Another study, this one localized to America, confirmed the positive impacts of paid family leave, but found unpaid leave laws lacked the same effects, presumably because many can't, or don't, use them.

So important as parents may or may not be when it comes to getting their kids interested in classical music, I'd think we could all agree that their presence in the home is something worth supporting. Except that "we," by which I mean the right, does not support laws that would allow for precisely that. While some thinkers are moving towards a more pro-family, progressive-style conception of conservatism -- and conversations with Jonah make me think he's one of them -- it's nevertheless a bit self-indulgent to spend weeks agonizing over your impact on the margins without mentioning how constrained many parents -- particularly single parents -- are from having any impact at all. But hey, if the National Review wants to make amends and start championing real paid leave, wage subsidies, and flextime laws, I'm happy to make common cause.

If folks are interested, we can wonk out more on some of this, and I may have some related articles in the coming weeks. For now, those who want to do some solo study could do worse than to start with Jane Waldfogel's overview of the social science research, What Children Need.

Crossposted at Tapped

July 31, 2006 | Permalink


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Derbyshire v. Luci's Little Boy.

Not even a contest.

More like a father taking a punk to the woodshed.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 31, 2006 5:01:40 PM

Well, of course, Legacy Pundit Jonah supports parenting. Without parenting, he wouldn't have a career.

Posted by: Farinata X | Jul 31, 2006 5:14:39 PM

The important thing to note about Luci's Little Boy is that while he refers often to his late-father, he remains mum on Mum.

Luci's Little Boy was hatched March 21, 1969.

Mum spent much of 1972 on the Nixon payroll, stalking sex on the McGovern campaign. That means Mum abandoned Luci's Little Boy during potty training and bed-wetting.

Perhaps only now are we seeing the long-term, lasting effects of the absence of Mum on her (far, far, far) offspring?

Posted by: Mark | Jul 31, 2006 5:23:42 PM

there are really only a few essential things to know about raising beautiful children...one can throw away the books.here they are:

-unconditional love
-more unconditional love
-being there, being there and being there some more.
-understanding the essential nature of the child, and respecting and appreciating him/her for who they are, and the gifts they bring to the world.
-lots of physical nurturing
-if you treat a child and things around him/her, with love,kindness and gentleness, that is how the child will value themselves, others and the world.
-pay very close attention when you think something isnt right, or when the child tells you or feels something isnt right.
-keep them feeling safe and protected.
- communicate love and ideas and always LISTEN to what a child has to say.
-be grateful for the greatest gift...being in the presence and light and life of a child.
.............everything one needs to know about raising children in a paragraph.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 31, 2006 5:35:21 PM

Can you picture Lucianne Goldberg exhibiting love?

Can you imagine Lucianne Goldberg acting independently and regardless of condition?

I submit that Lucianne Goldberg is incapable of being unconditional in any aspect of life.

As to love, I shudder to contemplate the possibilities.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 31, 2006 5:41:12 PM

Of course they're only arguing in the margins...modern conservatism has no interest in the common good. Jonah's concern about parenting concerns himself and his own child. The millions of other parents and children have no impact, as concern for other demographics is antithetical to the conservative "rugged individualist" myth.

And, anyway, my money's on Derbyshire. He may be consistently wrong, but at least he intelligently argues his way into error. Jonah's just hopeless.

Posted by: Samurai Sam | Jul 31, 2006 5:51:10 PM

You're right Jacqueline.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jul 31, 2006 5:52:11 PM

Once again, jacqueline nails it.

The only thing I would add is that happy parents = happy children.

Discontent and tension will negatively affect children no matter the socioeconomic circumstance.

It's not about putting on a happy face; rather it's about being grateful for whatever good things manage to come our way, and to not begrudge others or life itself if we don't have what they have.

I think I've mentioned here that I have severe depression. Now that the issues have been identified, and steps have been taken to deal with them such as medicine and talk therapy, my daughter's general disposition and self-discipline has skyrocketed.

Because of, well, me, we've had to move several times, and haven't always had a real nice place to live. We've had many months where decisions were made about which bills to float and which to pay. Ironically, these problems manifested themselves after we were able to diagnose and treat my depression.

But our lives, and specifically my wife and I as parents have been much better without some of the economic benefits we had before. And as our relationship has improved, it has been easier and easier to be decent parents.

Hmm. I don't know how many of you were expecting testimony time. But my advice to not-yet-parents is to just enjoy life, try to have common sense and don't be jerks. That's pretty much all you need to know when the kids come, too.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 31, 2006 5:57:07 PM

because I dont have children yet I can't add much to this beyond an observation: it seems like to me there is no perfect way to parent kids. This is a cop out, but its based on some anecdotal evidence of looking at my friends who are happey and those who aren't. I can't see any clear pattern of which parents did a better job and which didn't. it seems aribitrary to me about which kid turned out happy and which haven't.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 31, 2006 6:02:45 PM

Can I offer some sanity to this debate?

Basically, this is how I read the research: Parenting has the most impact at the extremes. That is, really good (lots of attention and stimulation, combined with firm limit-setting) and really bad (abusive, neglectful, conflictual, and/or substance-using) parenting do matter. Subtle differences in style between these two extremes don't seem to make a lot of difference. Obviously, good parenting requires time spent with children, and Ezra's points on how difficult that has become for many parents are well-taken. (He left out the problem of increasingly long commutes, which cut into parenting time.)

The real elephant in the living room in all these discussions, however, is POVERTY. The research is pretty unequivocal on this point: poverty is terrible for child development, so much so that it overwhelms all other factors, including good parenting (and also educational programs). If you want to improve child outcomes, a substantial increase in the minimum wage and the EITC would be very good places to start. I'm sure the Cornerites wouldn't appreciate these approaches, however.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Jul 31, 2006 6:21:18 PM

Partially, that's because there's depressingly little on the role of fathers, which seems to be the obsession of all the participants.

Heh, I can't wait for one of them to crack and say that it would probably be best if women just perished after delivering the Holy Heir. My money's on the Derb.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 31, 2006 7:36:18 PM

BTW, nice rebuttal to the very existence of this wankery. The one good thing this new conservative obsession with fatherhood has led to is that even men who feel absolutely emasculated by lowering themselves to care work like hugging and kissing children now feel obliged to do it, or else they will become irrelevant. The benefit is that less children are growing up to resent the Ogre in the Corner, the man you call your father but that you don't know much about. That's a good thing no matter how you slice it.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 31, 2006 7:45:02 PM

stephen....your paragraph,about not just putting on a happy face, but trying to feel gratitude for the good things that come our way, is the great lesson in all things, isnt it.
...it is the great regret, that even if we cant bring children into a perfect world, one wishes that they would not have to see the brokenness in us, as parents.
but we are only human.
the closest we can come to perfection is deep love, and the prayer that somehow they can see our best intention. there is much humility to be learned in the raising of children.
and how they raise us, as well, with their bravery and wisdom and forgiveness. they try to love and trust us so much. they give us so many chances.
.....thank you for all that you shared. it takes great courage to live with severe depression, and that your family has held together lovingly through the struggles is a testament to all of you.
a blessing of peace for your family.
....there is a beautiful book, called, "dark nights of the soul" by a favorite writer, thomas moore.
it is a very affirming book about the learning that occurs in the dark nights.
have you read "de profundis", by oscar wilde? it is a masterpiece...very brave.
.....your sharings here on so many topics, always illuminate and add so much to the conversation.
thank you....
lose not thy courage, and go in the next room, and give that little girl a great big hug!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 31, 2006 8:39:02 PM

in considering the well-being of all children, i hope and pray that there will be some way that al gore will win the presidency, and redirect this country....as i cant see entrusting the safety, direction and security of this country and its policies to anyone else....and things are spiralling so far off course.
the world is too unsafe now and our political leaders have their feet on the gas, driving us as fast as they can to the precipice.
....i hope there will be a huge, huge grass roots movement and resounding unity to support this.
...i would feel much more secure about the future and well-being of all children, if he becomes president.
i dont know any other person in public life that has the grasp and depth that he has.
one of the best gifts we can give our children, would be a gore presidency, in my opinion.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 31, 2006 8:57:54 PM

As the single dad of a four year old I can attest to spending time with ones child being important. My child reads a little, considers his friends and families feelings when making decisions and is amazing at comforting his friends when they get hurt. Whether he is with his mom or myself, he is the priority. He does not go to daycare - if schedules don't permit one of us to have him he goes to play with friends for a few hours and even occasionaly comes to work with me. Hell, he's developing a work ethic of sorts at four.

Living in poverty has had some negative impacts, he's seen people smoking crack on the streets, for example. But he will start kindergarten next year already at basic reading level 2 or 3, able to write his name and some other words, with basic addition and subtraction skills and a good jump on logic and critical thinking. It is a lot of work and will take a lot of driving but we are going to ensure he gets into a reasonable school. It is not all ideal and it takes a lot of work but with a lot of time spent and absolutely unconditional love provided I think we'll do all right.

I think it is telling that my son often calls me momma and his mom papa. I think that part of the reason is that both of us have to be both - at least in the "traditional" sense of the roles. Even when we were together there was no discontinuity in what both of us did for him. There was never a question of this is papa's problem to handle and that ones mamma's. We just do what needs to be done - comforting, limiting, discipline - care, reading, playing - it's all the same.

By the way - just reading over this I come off sounding sanctimonious. I am not trying to claim to be a perfect parent - gods know I'm far from it. But I am doing my best and trying to get better. I am convinced though that making my child the highest priority in my life is nothing but good for him.

Posted by: DuWayne | Jul 31, 2006 8:57:59 PM

DuWayne....three cheers!!!
it sounds like you are a conscious, loving father.
the best gift you can give in your lifetime.
the fact that he comforts other children when they are hurt, and is empathic says so much about the lessons he is learning from you and his mother.
let us all give our children lots of hugs and virtual hugs tonight!!! hugs for all...
and prayers for the children in lebanon and israel.
imagine children going to sleep with the sounds of bombs and sirens tonight. and worse.
those sounds will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 31, 2006 9:20:57 PM

So important as parents may or may not be when it comes to getting their kids interested in classical music, I'd think we could all agree that their presence in the home is something worth supporting.

Um, you might want to run this a few feminists, such as Linda Hirshman, whose claim to fame is arguing that women (and presumably men too) will find much more fulfillment in the workplace as opposed to at home. So no, we would NOT all "agree" that it's important for parents to spend time with their kids.

Posted by: Anono | Jul 31, 2006 9:39:25 PM

"So important as parents may or may not be when it comes to getting their kids interested in classical music, I'd think we could all agree that their presence in the home is something worth supporting."

Um, you might want to run this a few feminists, such as Linda Hirshman, whose claim to fame is arguing that women (and presumably men too) will find much more fulfillment in the workplace as opposed to at home. So no, we would NOT all "agree" that it's important for parents to spend time with their kids.

I haven't read anything by Linda Hirshman, but I'd be amazed if she actually argued (argues?) what you make it sound like she argued. She was no doubt talking about women and what's good for them (before the kids are born, after they're old enough to take care of themselves, or instead of having any children at all), while the comment you're replying to is talking about the kids themselves and what's good for them. If you can find anyone arguing that it's not important to children for parents to spend time with them, I eagerly await an example.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jul 31, 2006 10:33:05 PM

Nope, she pretty much does argue that. Women--at least elite ones, which are the ones she's interested in--should have one child max and hire a nanny.

Posted by: djw | Aug 1, 2006 2:48:16 AM

Or to put in another way, there are lots of ways to fuck up kids, but kind of hard to figure out what to do to improve parenting outcomes besides just avoiding screwing up your kid. It ought to be noted that while poverty probably increases the possibilities that parents will be abusive or neglegtful, there are others ways to mess up a kid that are much less obvious. I've met some people that were raised in rich or middle class, but toxic, environments who were pretty clearly messed up by it.

Posted by: Gabe | Aug 1, 2006 10:53:23 AM

Nope, she pretty much does argue that. Women--at least elite ones, which are the ones she's interested in--should have one child max and hire a nanny.

Well, from what I can gather from two articles, she is concerned with the women, not the children. Also, she may lump women who take a year or two sabbatical in with all the rest, but her complaints seem mostly directed at women who plan to spend their entire adult lives as housewives. If she's actually saying that all else being equal, the children themselves do best in group daycare centers and as latchkey kids, it wasn't apparent to me.

Anono wrote:
... Linda Hirshman, whose claim to fame is arguing that women (and presumably men too) will find much more fulfillment in the workplace as opposed to at home.

Which seems accurate. But then he/she made the logical leap to:
[Linda Hirshman/feminists/liberals] would NOT all "agree" that it's important for parents to spend time with their kids.

That, to me, seems like jumping to conclusions. Hirshman might look like she is opposed to active and involved parenting, but only if you assume that all parents have large families (thus requiring more than short sabbaticals), and that the mother alone is capable of parenting.

Still, I should have known better than to comment without knowing anything about Hirshman. Dumb of me.

Posted by: Cyrus | Aug 1, 2006 10:56:02 AM

Cyrus -- whether or not you agree with my characterization of Hirshman, surely you agree that Hirshman disproves Ezra's comment that "I'd think we could all agree that [PARENTS'] presence in the home is something worth supporting." Not Hirshman -- she seems to believe that parents' presence in the home is something to discourage. It's not that she claims this is better for the kids, but that she doesn't seem to care about the kids' best interest in the first place.

Posted by: anono | Aug 1, 2006 11:42:14 AM

In Hirschman's modest defense (I'm not really a defender) is there any evidence that if you get a good, stable, talented, loving nanny for those early years to provide, attention, words, etc etc that that's any worse for the kids development than getting it from the kids themselves? I doubt it. Now even for very rich people, that's hard to pull off, but I don't think it matters much whether the people who do it are parents.

But you're correct that she's not making an argument one way or another about what's actually good for children--I was reading a bit lazily to not note that.

Posted by: djw | Aug 1, 2006 12:19:17 PM

Regardless of Hirshman, the fact is that one generation after another spends a disproportionate effort trying to correct what they see as the shortcomings of the one previous. This can, oddly enough, invalidate previously accrued wisdom as behaviour follows the arc of the pendulum.
In one way, it should be a good counter to the effect of imitating what one has experienced because it is familiar. However, in times of stress emotion loads what one has experienced into the hopper for action.
The effect of parental values has been less when gangs challenge their influence and peer pressure is strong.
Today, TV and now computers bring in far more alternative ideas into view. School is another environment which has been enabled by the idea that it can provide superior advice.
I'm not arguing the merits of any of this, merely noting that the world is wildly more intrusive and fragmented both.
Parenting has always been an adaption to environment.
Limiting corrosion may be hard.
Emotional appeal and pleasant physical contact and proximity may be a parent's strongest tools.

Posted by: opit | Aug 1, 2006 12:30:56 PM

Hi everybody! I like your forum so much. I share you point of view.
I hope we'll become friends. I'm sociable guy

Posted by: Angus | Aug 2, 2006 10:44:00 AM

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