ON PARENTING. 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.