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Just one more post on parenting to clarify my somewhat cryptic remarks in the earlier post. If Jonah has cross-posted in the meantime and this doesn’t respond to his comments, tough. I’ll say this and hold my peace.

In trying to assess the relative roles of nature and nurture, psychologists stumbled over an unexpected phenomenon some years ago which now goes under the label of “nonshared environment.” Shared environment for siblings consists of things like house, neighborhood, schools, parenting style, number of books in the house, etc. The usual things that come to mind when thinking about the ways that parental choices influence children. To everyone’s surprise, the role of shared environment has proved to be remarkably small.

“Nonshared environment” is still incompletely understood. It can be things like a particular teacher that one child has an another doesn’t, or a friend. If one child grows up with both parents but a younger sibling doesn’t, that’s nonshared environment. But most of the nonshared environment is even more diffuse and mysterious. Accidents in the womb, for example. A health issue for one child and not his sibling. In any case, when you think of influences on children as divided into genes and environment, with genes playing a major role, you then have to divide what’s left into two bins, shared and nonshared environment, and the nonshared environment is much the bigger bin. This is not some far-out idea that a few studies support. It is pretty much ho-hum, what-else-is-new mainstream science by this time. Parenting is, under most circumstances, part of the shared environment that explains so little.

A second consideration to keep in mind is the role of extreme environments. Shut an infant into a closet for its first few years, and you’ll produce dramatic environmental deficits. Child abuse can cause terrible and long-lasting trauma of every sort. I have long been on record about the damage done by single-parenthood, especially concentrated single-parenthood. But mostly we’re talking about the ways that bad parenting makes kids worse. Think of the effects that parents can have like the effects of communism. Communism couldn’t create the New Man that communism promised, but the natural experiment that is East and West Germany provides powerful evidence that while communism can’t change people for the better, it can change people for the worse. Really bad parenting can screw people up—and I include under “really bad”  Chevy Chase parents who turn a blind eye to binge-drinking parties in their homes. But just “a little below average parenting” isn’t that big a deal in its effects on kids’ outcomes.

What I think gets Derb into trouble, and probably me as well, is that we are saying that good parenting doesn’t do as much good as we all wish it did. We have it within our power to screw up our kids; we can’t do that much to make them better, compared to the way they would turn out with another set of parents who maybe aren’t as good, but aren’t conspicuously bad. None of this has any effect on my behavior as a parent—I will be doing my damnedest to make my kids into fine, upstanding people as I can, and to hell with the science. But that doesn’t change the science.

Oh. One more thing. Whereas I still behave as if I can have an effect on my children’s virtue, IQ is another matter. Getting your child into the right preschool may possibly affect their ability to get into Harvard (though I doubt it), but I will bet the ranch that it won’t twiddle their IQ at age 21 one point. Better make sure you pass along the right genes on that one.



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