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structure vs. style in parenting


Jonah, that clever devil, has slipped the knife into the right place, Derb. Murphy Brown does have a built-in problem in raising a child. It isn’t nearly as massive as the built-in problem of a never-married woman raising a child in a housing project, but children do in fact, on average, do better when raised by both biological parents than in any other family structure, after controlling for income, neighborhood, schools, etc. etc. That’s as firmly established as the data on the limited role of the nonshared environment, and it also makes good common sense. Dads can do certain things easier and more effectively than Moms can–discipline, for example. Boys model themselves on older males–almost any biological Dad is a better model for an 8-year-old boy than an admired 16-year-old down the street. Also, having a Dad makes it easier for adolescent girls to say no, both by giving an excuse (“My Daddy would kill me”) and because they already have a male who loves them. But to say that one type of structure produced better average results is not the same as saying that a super Dad is going to turn out better children than an okay Dad.

There is an interesting question in all this: Does Dad actually have to be alive to accomplish all this? There’s an interesting study to be done of the sons of dads killed in war, or absent for some other honorable reason. Is it enough for Mom to be able to say “Your father would be very proud of you” or “Your father would be very disappointed in you”? I prefer to think no; that we’re more useful alive and present. But it would still be an interesting study. But biological Dad is important. Step-fathers don’t help. Statistically, children raised by divorced women do about as well as children raised by remarried women.

But Jonah, none of the data about the _structure_ of the family bears on whether being a really good parent makes that much difference in producing really better children. Marrying fair Jessica was an importantly good thing to do if you want your children to turn out well, and not being a bad parent is a good thing to do. And you have a moral imperative to be as good a parent as you can. But as long as you end up just being pretty good, that’s actually good enough, dispiriting though that might be.

As to Derb’s question: can the right-hand tail of the distribution, the super-involved parents, who get just the right mobile to hang over the baby’s crib, schedule every enhancing intellectual and physical activity, etc. etc., make things worse? I have no data, but I cringe every time I watch such parents at work. If I had to assign my children to be adopted, I’d prefer any ordinarily loving blue-collar couple with no college education and low income over a pair of Super Parents.

This is REALLY my last post on this issue. I’m in Bangkok, see, any my daughter is getting married this afternoon….


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