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Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids
Grooming children for success in life is pointless - it's all in their genes, says the author of a new book.
You believe, because it is one of the last self-evident, incontrovertible truths, that raising a child is one of the most influential jobs in the world. And that's why you will find what comes next so difficult.
All those extra bedtime stories read, violins purchased, chess clubs driven to, trips to the Science Museum made, cosy fireside chats delivered; all the arguments over homework and bribes for GCSE grades, all the blueberries served, all the guidance offered, all your values instilled, all your world-view shared, all the worry, heartache, effort, blood, sweat and tears of being a responsible parent. All the things you do that make your child special. It's all for nothing.
Or, as Bryan Caplan, the American academic and author of the new book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, puts it: Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parenting barely affects a child's prospects. If parents gave themselves a big break - or redoubled their efforts - their kids would turn out about the same.
At the beginning of this year, a book with precisely the opposite message became an international sensation:
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The author, Amy Chua, had a simple formula: effort into a child, results out. As proof, Chua made a concert pianist and Harvard student of her daughter through harsh daily drilling. Everyone argued about the sanity of her methods, but no one argued that her methods didn't work.
Until now. For the past few years, Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University in Virginia, has immersed himself in twin studies. This is one of the few ways we have to separate the effects of nature and nurture - by looking at the fates of identical twins who share the same genes but were separated at birth to be brought up in different families.
Dozens of studies have been conducted in many Western countries on thousands of sets of twins. Time and again, they report the same conclusion. Compared with Amy Chua's sample of one, this is powerful evidence. But we refuse to listen. Tiger Mother may call us lazy but maybe, deep down, we like her for bigging up our role. Yet Caplan's message that parenting has little effect? We resist with all our might - we can't bear the thought that we are impotent.
The argument of this book is one of the most provocative and counterintuitive for a modern Western adult to absorb. The implications go far deeper than the notion that all your middle-class neurosis has been wasted, towards the idea of genetics as a driver of social class. Both make us squirm.
Tiger parenting is pointless at best, says Caplan. Kids literally inherit educational and financial success from their parents. The most influential gift that parents can give their children is not money, connections or help with their homework, but the right stuff.
Take a deep breath and start at the beginning. Eight years ago Caplan went with his pregnant wife for their first scan, and learnt that she was bearing identical twins. He was scared. He lives in the outer suburbs of Washington DC, a city that he says is one of the top ten for pushy parents in a pretty pushy country. All around him were alpha parents slogging night and day on everything from Mandarin lessons to superfood smoothies. It looked miserable. How were Caplan and his wife going to keep up with all that, twice over?
We noticed a lot of our friends pushing their kids harder than us. Did it really matter if they went to that ballet class?
The seminal twin studies book was published in 1998, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris. But it didn't cover all the questions that parents like Caplan were anxious about, he realised. Health, wealth, education, values ... I looked at my sons and realised that these are the kind of kids who get studied really closely, to understand the human condition.
This new branch of science is called behavioural genetics, which uses mathematical models to compare the similarity of identical and non-identical twins, and the fate of adopted children. Behavioural geneticists don't just believe that your hair colour or your susceptibility to breast cancer come through bloodlines. They test for a wide range of other things, such as happiness and income, that no one had thought were genetic. Some of these are indirect effects - so, for example, when they say that genes matter for income, there doesn't have to be an income gene, it's simply that other inherited traits (such as intelligence, or work ethic) matter for income. The age at which you start drinking or having sex relies somewhat on whether you are by nature a shy and cautious person.
It is important to note that these studies do not address neglect or abuse, which of course damage a child. What they test is whether any of the different styles of OK parenting is better than others.
All the adopting families studied were vetted as decent people but their circumstances varied enormously. Some were working class, some highly privileged. Some parents hothoused their child with all the best tutors and fancy schools, others let them off the leash. Yet when researchers tracked down separated identical twins as adults, they found them to be very similar on almost every count.
We have all heard these stories on the news, of twins separated at birth who both ended up as tennis umpires and married to women called Susie. But rarely do we reflect on what this means for us. We are too blinded by what we see every day, namely that good parenting produces good citizens, whereas actually this could be a confusion. It could be good genes that produce good citizens.
Caplan is the first to admit that this can seem too counterintuitive to believe ... as the father of identical twins, I readily accept the power of nature but still struggle to deny the power of nurture.
The answer is that parents can make a big impact, but this is mostly restricted to the early years. You can give a child a boost at nursery age, but by the time he or she has left school it has gone. As one twin study concluded: Adopted children resemble their adoptive parents slightly in early childhood but not at all in middle childhood or adolescence.
If you think you're giving your kid a head start, you're probably correct, says Caplan. Your mistake is to assume that the head start lasts a lifetime. By the time your child grows up, the impact of your encouragement and nagging will largely have faded away.
But surely, I say - pretty much all my questions to Caplan begin but surely - we have all seen the difference that a great school or teacher has made?
When people say that a teacher has worked magic on a kid, they are probably right. But does it have a lasting effect?
Children, says Caplan, are not clay but more like flexible plastic that bends under pressure but pops right back as soon as the pressure goes away.
So, take intelligence. The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart reunited 100 separated identical twins. Despite being brought up in strikingly different homes, their intelligence ratings were almost identical. The Swedish Adoption/Twin Study looked at the intelligence of about 150 pairs of adult twins, about half of them raised apart, and found an even larger effect of genes than the Minnesota study. Upbringing was irrelevant for adult intelligence.
The same goes for happiness in adulthood. The Minnesota twin study found that nurture is equally irrelevant for both joy and sadness. By the time you're an adult, your parents' past mistakes are not the reason for your present unhappiness, says Caplan.
The evidence is slightly more mixed for education. Some twin and adoption studies suggest that there is a slight influence for parents on how much education children receive, others that there is none. A major study of 2,000 Swedish adoptees found that children were 10 per cent more likely to complete college if their adoptive parents had done the same - a similar result to a few other twin studies.
But if parents can have a small influence on how long children study for, they don't on how well children do at school or university. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, on 1,700 children, found that genes had a strong effect on grades. Parental effects were invisible: the grades of unrelated children raised together were no more similar than those of strangers.
The same goes for adult income, where Caplan says the results are strong to the point of shocking. The income of the family that an adoptee grew up with had literally no effect on their financial success.
On and on through the evidence Caplan goes. Here and there parents can make small changes: for example, they can delay by a year or so the age at which a teenage girl loses her virginity or has her first drink, or the age at which a teenage son first gets in trouble with the law. They influence their children's choice of tribal labels such as religion and politics. But on health, divorce, contentment - all the key measures in adult life - nada. So, back to Amy Chua, tiger mother.
I find it amazing that she could write that book with next to no mention of genes. That is what was missing in the debate. Her girls are the daughters of two Yale Law School professors, and people are amazed that they succeed at the things they try at?
What Caplan has learnt is the futility of forcing. If there is anything you can instil in your child, the studies show, it is fond memories of childhood.
For me, enjoying the journey and being kind to your child is really what counts, not moulding the child for a science project. In pushing so hard, Chua is messing up her relationship with her kids. I predict that her daughter will be using the Darth Vader ringtone for her mum on her cell phone.
Caplan and his wife, by contrast, have used the research to justify chilling out. They rarely make their children (he now has a third son) do things that they don't enjoy. The only exceptions are occasional hikes, because the boys' parents like fresh air, and turning off the TV after a couple of hours a day. Chua, I say, would call you lazy.
What she calls laziness, I call wisdom. I don't think it is wise to dig a ditch and fill it in all day long, he retorts.
What can you do, then, if you want to produce successful kids? Caplan's answer: The most effective way to get the kind of kids you want is to pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have. The right spouse is like a genie who grants wishes you are powerless to achieve through your own efforts.
He warns women off choosing the irresponsible bad boy for a mate, as the children he fathers will probably give a great deal of grief to any mother who struggles to raise them right.
Isn't all this a bit depressing? At least Chua offered us a parental work ethic as way onward and upward. Genetic determinism smacks of eugenics. Does this not imply that efforts to improve social mobility through the school system are doomed to failure?
The evidence points that way, says Caplan. But most social engineering focuses on really disadvantaged kids. Twin research doesn't look at that, because they don't allow really bad parents to adopt. The first thing is to use the evidence for the kind of parents studied: comfortable families in the First World. It shows that you can change the family environment a lot without changing the child.
This, Caplan counters, is a happy message. He quotes from Mary Poppins. Stop thinking that children, as Mr Banks does, must be moulded, shaped and taught, that life's a looming battle to be faced and fought!.
And, well, just enjoy.
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