I spent the last few days reading through economist Bryan Caplan's new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. The title is a bit of a stretch but the argument is a fascinating one when viewed through the lens of the whole parenting advice industrial-complex.
Caplan's main argument is that within the norms for First World, middle-class homes, nurture doesn't make a whole lot of difference to children's long-term outcomes. Parents can have an effect in the short run, but mounting evidence from identical vs. fraternal twin studies, and adoption studies, shows that over time, these effects become less and less pronounced. Parents have their biggest effect in the moment of conception. After that, there are very few effects that last. The only ones that really seem to are religious identification and political affiliation, but even there it's a shallow affinity. Devout Presbyterians who go to church twice a week might raise a child who identifies as Presbyterian, but he's not much more likely to attend services regularly than other people. The biggest effect may just be whether the child remembers the home as being happy or not.
As for what this means for one's fertility, Caplan suggests that people overestimate how much effort modern parenting requires. If you are a normal, productive adult, odds are your children will be too, and if you raise them within American middle-class norms, any odd outliers are probably not to your credit or blame. The flash cards don't matter. The activities don't matter. The focus on strict TV limits doesn't matter. Discipline matters more for making your life more pleasant in the moment than for anything it will do down the road. So he suggests that people relax and try to enjoy their time with their children, possibly more children than they were otherwise planning to have. After all, bigger families are good for nurturing social ties -- one of the key components of human happiness -- and if items are cheaper than you thought, economists will tell you to stock up.
I'm not sure on the "stocking up" advice, but I do think it's fascinating to ask the question of whether nature or nurture matters more. There's an old joke that parenting advice books are all written for first time parents because once you have the second one, you realize how little of it you actually control. You feed kids the same things and interact with them the same way at dinner, and yet one will lustily eat lox, capers, tomatoes and anything else you put in front of him, and the other screams when a strawberry touches his vanilla yogurt, thereby tainting it. Some children love to sleep and others decide that sleep is for the weak and flabby. Most disconcertingly, I recall reading not long ago an essay in O magazine from the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. There is really no evidence that she raised her son in anything but a normal fashion, the same as plenty of his peers. And yet look what he did.
As Caplan notes, no one likes to believe that nurture matters as little as it does -- though you could view it as a relief as much as anything else. But I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think. There are always anecdotes that point one way or another, but in a world of 7 billion people, it is possible to find anecdotes of anything...