You can tell it in a million ways. By the books people are buying. By the conversations they're having in their classrooms. By the politicians they elect. By the stories in their media. By the laws they enact, their rates of crime, and how they treat their prisoners.
Some countries seem capable of creating sensible policy through intellectually honest debate. Whereas in America and Great Britain, this hasn't happened for decades. Rather, our laws emerge from a haze of ignorance, apathy, and misdirection.
It all goes back to Dr. Spock and the industrial revolution. Let me explain.
In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote a book that would change the course of history. His book, Baby and Child Care, became internationally famous for promoting the idea that when it comes to raising children, "you know more than you think you do." In other words, when it comes to raising your children you should follow your intuition. This idea proved revolutionary, and remains the dominant advice from pediatricians to this day.
The only problem is that it's completely wrong.
Think about it. When deciding how much calcium to give your kids, would you just eyeball the container of Tums and pick an amount that feels right? Of course not. And yet there are many other parenting best-practices that have been determined in exactly this way.
It's not that parents weren't raising their children this way before. They were, but since the 40's the wealth of scientific best practices have been largely ignored thanks to Spock's influence.
Which brings us to the industrial revolution.
As it turns out, a person's work environment affects much more than just their satisfaction at work. It alters their intuition and perception, their rhythms and routines.
Parents naturally raise their children according to their intuition, and as farmers left the fields for the factories their intuition about how best to raise their children dramatically changed. That is, factory workers began to raise their children using methods that echoed the way they were being managed in the workplace.
Sociologists have long suspected that, for example, children of factory workers would be implicitly taught that the best way to succeed was to keep your head down and obey authority. And while this might in fact make them more likely to succeed in a factory, it would also stifle their chances of upward social mobility.
There is no doubt that the worldview parents impart on their children vastly affects their chances of future success. But this is where the damage was thought to end. Experts assumed that because the effect of parenting styles on cognitive, physical, and emotional development is less salient than with the example of calcium above, parenting styles didn't really matter. It was all just a matter of preference. And that while the children of factory workers may lack certain advantages, this could be largely ameliorated later given enough school intervention.
But thanks to modern early childhood development research, we now know that the effects of factory-style parenting are much more toxic than previously assumed.
For example, the research of Hart & Risley has shown that over half of the variance in a child’s vocabulary at age 3 can be attributed to the ways in which a parent talks to their child, and the way parents talk to their children varies dramatically depending on socioeconomic status. Specifically, they estimate that by age 4 the children of professional parents have been exposed to about 45 million words, whereas the children of welfare parents have been exposed to only about 13 million words. Because of this by time children are 3 years old, parents in less economically favored circumstances have said fewer different words in their cumulative monthly vocabularies than the children in the most economically advantaged families in the same period of time.
"Even if we have overestimated by half the differences between children in amounts of cumulative experience the gap is so great by age 4 that the best that can be expected from education or intervention is to keep children from falling still farther behind. For an intervention to keep an average welfare child's experience equal in amount to that of an average work-class child would require that the chid be in substitute care comparable to the average professional home for 40 hours per week from birth onward." That is, already by pre-school the low-SES children are so far behind in language development that it is impossible for them to catch up.
Similarly, Hart & Risley found that the average child in a professional family was accumulating 32 affirmatives and 5 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 6 encouragements to 1 discouragement. The average child in a working-class family was accumulating 12 affirmatives and 7 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 2 encouragement to 1 discouragement. The average child in in a welfare family, though, was accumulating 5 affirmatives and 11 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 1 encouragement to 2 discouragements.
(For more on how language exposure and the ratio of encouragements to prohibitions affects childhood outcomes, c.f. Hart & Risley's excellent book Meaningful Differences in the Everday Experience of Young American Children.)
There's no especially good reason for low-SES parents to talk less with their children and use more prohibitions. They're just following Dr. Spock's advice and raising their children according to their intuition. Which, as it happens, is to manage their children the way their employers manage them at work. Raising children like employees has benefits that are immediate and hugely salient, whereas the harms created are subtle and visible only in aggregate through statistical analysis.
These harms are longitudinal; even as societies transition toward knowledge work, these flaws in parenting remain and reproduce themselves in future generations. When figuring out how to raise their children, parents look to the way their parents raised them. Parenting styles which caught on overnight may take hundreds of years to be displaced, because in each case the benefits are more salient than the drawbacks.
What's more, as white-collar jobs have replaced factory work an entirely new set of parenting flaws has arisen. Once again parents are raising their children according to their intuition, intuition which has been shaped and molded by their experience in the workplace. Success as a white-collar worker largely means developing the skill of being chosen: for the soccer team, for college, for internships, employment, promotions, and so on. This is the mindset underlying the methodology that high-SES parents adopt when raising their children.
Are these parenting practices good for a high schooler? Perhaps. But when applied to infants they're empirically damaging.
- Many high-SES parents over-schedule and overstimulate their pre-k children in an attempt to impart an early educational advantage. By depriving their children of time for self-directed play they may be undermining executive function, the best predictor of future success. source
- By forcing their children to read before they're ready, they may well be robbing their children of intrinsic motivation to read and contributing to future alliteracy. source
- By letting their infants watch baby videos they are at worst contributing to future cognitive and behavioral problems, and at best dramatically decreasing their children's rate of learning. source
Again, these parenting practices stem largely from the intuitions parents pick up from their workplaces. Compared with using intuition to decide how much calcium to give a child, using intuition to make decisions like how much TV to allow an infant to watch is equally absurd and equally damaging, but largely ignored because the intangibility makes these decisions less salient and seemingly less important.
You can't measure bad parenting in parts per million. But the effects are just as real as lead poising, obesity, or thalidomide. And as with factory workers, these parenting mistakes will be passed on long after these working environments are gone.
I don't know why it is that certain countries seem so incapable of setting rational and coherent policy. I'm sure there are dozens of reasons. But I suspect a good percentage of the problem stems from a series of specific parenting flaws largely attributable to parents raising their children with intuition acquired in the workplace. The reason then that these social problems are most pervasive in countries like America and Great Britain is because these countries were the earliest and most extensively industrialized.
Every time we buy a cell phone, a flat screen TV, or anything produced in a factory, the damages are more than just the environmental contaminants and individual suffering. Rather, we're imposing a cultural shadow on ourselves, one which cripples our children and our children's children. This is a negative externality of the way we choose to structure society, a form of intellectual pollution far more harmful than anyone could have predicted.
This suggests a market opportunity for teaching parents to separate their parenting styles from the way they spend their day. But what's more, it suggests new modes of civic responsibility, and new answers to the age-old question of what it means to be a good person.