Monday, December 14, 2009

What makes a difference?

One question frequently on my mind, especially now that I’m a parent, is – what makes a child turn out into a happy, successful, well-adjusted adult? Freakonomics provided some indicators of factors that were correlated with later success. I recall the mother being over 30 when her first child is born and lots of books in the house being correlated with success, perhaps because those things define me. But everyone can think of great families who raised an errant child as well as kids who come from horrible backgrounds and somehow do OK.

So I was fascinated to see the movie Up, where the director assembled 14 kids from the extremes of social class and opportunity in England at the age of 7 and committed to filming them every 7 years. Several came from extreme affluence, two lived in an orphanage, one lived on a farm and was being educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Then there were the working class kids and a couple of middle class kids. How would they turn out? I couldn’t wait to see. I had the incredible opportunity to find out quickly, watching their lives develop up to age 49. I’ll look for 56 when it comes out, but don’t expect a lot of changes at this point.

I was watching intently for patterns and correlations that could tell me what mattered. Of course, not everything was clear from the documentary. But I was able to get a good sense of family, income, educational opportunities and encouragement.

One thing that clearly mattered was genetics. It didn’t matter whether the person was lower or middle class. If they had the genes for depression or mental illness, that played itself out throughout the person’s life.

In the early films, most of the wealthy kids were bratty. It fed into my pre-existing bias that I didn’t want River in a private school. Not only do I think public education is important socially, but I don’t see an educational advantage in many private schools. A magnet school that attracts smart kids is great. A private school, where the kids just have more money, but aren’t necessarily smarter, doesn’t appeal to me.

Some people argue that even if kids in a private school aren’t smarter, their parents probably care more about education and are more likely to give them enrichment and opportunities. Perhaps this is true. Because despite being pretty annoying as a group in their younger days (with the exception of Bruce, a sensitive and thoughtful person from his earliest years, devoted to making a difference in the world), all of the children born into advantage ended up with good jobs and comfortable adult lives. They seemed to have more choice and stability, with none of them experiencing divorce.

There were people who did just fine coming from less. Especially the rural child, who became a superstar. Even some that I had low expectations for, the ones who dropped out of school early and took on menial jobs, did just fine, raising families, building businesses and even enjoying luxuries such as a vacation home.

But it did seem easier for the well-off kids, though it’s not clear why. Did their education equip them with skills they needed? Did their family and social network set high expectations for them, not allowing them to see college as an option but an expectation? Did their connections aid in acquiring good jobs?

The two children I liked most were the rural child and the privileged boy with a large social conscience. Unfortunately, I can’t tell exactly what gave these kids the characteristics that made them into the people they turned out to be. Was Bruce taught to think about people worse off than him (he probably was, since his father lived in Rhodesia) or was it an innate part of his personality? Would Nick have been as successful if he hadn’t gone from the countryside to a boarding school? Did he go to boarding school because of government programs, because his parents had the initiative to seek it out, or because he was independently motivated?

Knowing there is so much I can’t impact, the areas I think we as parents can possibly make a difference include:

1. Setting expectations. I plan to set expectations that include a priority on education, an expectation of college and to try to foster a love for and excitement of learning.

2. Moral development. I want to teach my child about the importance of social justice and citizen action. I want him to think beyond himself and his family and to consider how he can offer his skills to the world. I’ll probably enroll him in the Unitarian education program when he’s old enough, as it seems they do well with these concepts. I’ll also try to lead through example, though I fear that some of my youthful activism and initiative is being squashed by entering middle-age responsibilities.

3. Access to opportunities. I’m not so concerned with access to wealth, power or prestige. But I’d like to do whatever we can do within our budget to increase his opportunities, especially as they relate to his worldview. I’d like him to be able to travel, to form friendships with people of diverse backgrounds, to experience and appreciate nature and to develop skills in the areas that interest him.

The Wikipedia page (warning, spoilers) lists several other series inspired by this film, tracking kids in other countries and contexts. I’d like to see these and try to see how much influence a country, social system and educational opportunity has versus a person’s innate character and family.

What do you think? Any thoughts about what will affect or not affect what your children become? Where are you focusing your energies and where are you stepping back?

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