For some reason, I’ve veered off-piste recently to read not one but two books by economists: Freakonomics by the Steph/vens Levitt and Dubner and The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman. Both were enjoyable in different ways – the Freakonomics guys like making apparently random connections between things (such as why most drug dealers still live with their mothers or why twenty years after abortion was legalised in the States the crime rate went down) and Friedman wishes to show us that the flattening of the world by the growth in technology can be a positive force not only for business, but for the environment and people everywhere. Both books, surprisingly, contain chapters on parenting.
In Freakonomics, the writers devote a couple of chapters to the question Do Parents Really Matter? Clearly, they say, bad parenting matters a great deal, but it’s not that evident how much eager parents can accomplish on their children’s behalf. Levitt and Dubner pick up on the nature/nurture debate, using a tool called regression analysis to ascertain that things that parents are (well-educated, successful, healthy) tend to have more effect on children’s early test scores than things that parents do (take children to museums, regularly spank children, allow them to watch television). They say:
But this is not to say that parents don’t matter. Plainly they matter a great deal. Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago – who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead. If you are smart, hardworking, well educated, well paid, and married to some equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed. (Nor does it hurt, in all likelihood, to be honest, thoughtful, loving, and curious about the world.) But it isn’t so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it’s who you are. In this regard, an overbearing parent is a lot like a political candidate who believes that money wins elections – whereas in truth, all the money in the world can’t get a candidate elected if the voters didn’t like him to start with.
Interestingly, one of the factors that doesn’t appear to have any effect on children’s test scores is if the mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten (the US pre-school year). What does matter though, according to Levitt and Dubner, was if the mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth. To this they say:
A woman who doesn’t have her first child until she is at least thirty is likely to see that child do well in school. This mother tends to be a woman who wanted to get some advanced education or develop some traction in her career. She is also more likely to want a child more than a teenage mother wants a child. This doesn’t mean that an older first-time mother is necessarily a better mother, but she has put herself – and her children – in a more advantageous position.
Their data also show that having books in the home does affect children’s early school performance, but that reading to children almost every day does not. Once again, this boils down to the who parents are rather than what they do dichotomy.
Friedman, on the other hand, believes strongly that what we do as parents will affect not only children’s early test scores, but their competitiveness in a working world that has grown increasingly flat. He believes that the competition facing the US and the West of hundreds of thousands of clever, well-educated and eager Indian and Chinese graduates means that parents are going to have to be a lot tougher on their children in insisting they knuckle down and work. Western children seem to grow up with a puffed-up sense of entitlement that the world is theirs, and employers will be waiting gratefully for them to shine their brilliance on their place of work. Friedman says:
The sense of entitlement, the sense that because we once dominated global commerce and geopolitics – and Olympic basketball – we always will, the sense that delayed gratification is a punishment worse than a spanking, the sense that our kids have to be swaddled in cotton wool so that nothing bad or disappointing or stressful ever happens to them at school is, quite simply, a growing cancer on American society.
He emphasises that modern schooling no longer seems to focus on character-building, on pushing children beyond their comfort zones in a way that will prepare them for the world ahead. He wants parents to be tougher on their children, and politicians to be tougher on school systems. Friedman apparently does not tell his children to finish their dinner because people in China or India are starving – he tells them to finish their homework, because people in China or India are starving for their jobs.
In Friedman’s flattened world, individuals have to think globally in order to survive. There will be no such thing as an American job, just a job, and it will go to the best, smartest, most productive, or cheapest worker, wherever he or she lives.
If you fancy a little nip of very readable economics, I would strongly recommend the Freakonomics book. The authors have been challenged that they have no over-arching theme, and this is true, but what they do, they do entertainingly. Styled as “rogue economists”, they claim to “uncover the hidden side of everything”. The book is not nearly that broad, but their random connections and general cheekiness make for an entertaining read. They blog here.
The World is Flat is an altogether weightier tome. Friedman is energetically enthusiastic about his topic, and peppers the book with quotes from CEOs worldwide about the changing nature of business. He talks about the democratising forces of blogging and podcasting, which I liked, and while talking up technology and its ability to connect people, he is also very frank about the darker side of all this connectivity. He doesn’t appear to have a blog. I wonder why.