Thursday 19 January 2017

Oh good, I can stop feeling guilty I'm not a Tiger Mother

The latest parenting book lets Cassandra Jardine off the hook

Published 18/05/2011 | 05:00

Balanced approach: Cassandra Jardine (second from left) with children Oliver, Eliza, Cassandra, Dido, Christabel and George.
Balanced approach: Cassandra Jardine (second from left) with children Oliver, Eliza, Cassandra, Dido, Christabel and George.

That's it then. I shall unlock the door to the room where my children have been practising their musical instruments for five hours a day.

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Emerging blinking into the sunlight, they can now slob in front of the television eating pizza for all I care, because the latest parenting guru on the block is telling us that none of that pushy Tiger Mother stuff makes any difference.

Children, writes Bryan Caplan in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, will turn out to be how their genes, not their parents, intended. In that case, he argues, we might as well stop wasting all this time and money on helping them to succeed. It won't make a blind bit of difference, even to their teeth, if we nag them.

Oh really? So the five-year-old who used to live next door to my cleaner had no front teeth because it was in her genes, not because every time I saw her she was clutching a bottle of fizzy drink?

It's only a few months since Amy Chua told us in her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that her children were playing the piano in Carnegie Hall and top of the class purely because she had shown no mercy to slackers. When her daughter came second in a maths test, she made the child practise 2,000 sums that night so it would never happen again. It's the Chinese way, she explained, failing to mention that she and her husband and herself were Yale law professors.

Personally, I would be thrilled to have a child come second at maths, and would be delighted to hear any of my offspring play the piano at home, if not Carnegie Hall. Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if my brood had been adopted by a tough woman like Chua who would not allow sleepovers, social networking and all the other time-wasting activities -- which, after all, serve a vital educational purpose in that they teach children how to rub along with other ratty, critical but essentially endearing people of the same age.

Caplan argues that people are made of pliable plastic: they may be pushed around but they spring back into shape. But every push leaves its mark.

My children cook, I feel sure, because I cook, not because they have a cooking gene. Caplan's extreme position at the opposite end of the nature vs nurture argument to Chua appeals to my lazy side, but it is so daft that only an economist could have come up with such a theory.

Caplan strayed from his usual beat, as many economists do in this post-Freakonomics era, in search of an exciting counter-intuitive idea. Eight years ago, when he became a father of identical twins, he found just such an idea.

Having read up on twin research, he was excited to find that, according to a study in Minnesota, upbringing had no effect on IQ or economic outcome.

That conclusion leaves psychologist Oliver James snorting with derision: "There are many problems with that Minnesota study, but we are not allowed to examine the data."

You wouldn't expect psychologists to buy Caplan's ideas because, if he were right, they would be out of a job.

"This goes against common sense," says child psychologist Richard Woolfson. "If a parent comes to me with a child who won't eat, or who bites, I can change that behaviour by altering the way the parents behave."

Of course genes matter, but so does opportunity. Mozart was fortunate in having the intellectual equipment to be a child prodigy, but if he had not been given a musical instrument his history would have been very different.

We worry about bright children from homes where there are low expectations because they are unlikely to get the same grades as a child from a home where achievement is worshipped daily. And does anyone believe that a child from an orphanage in Malawi won't have a different future if adopted by Madonna?

It's useful to have the two sides of the nature/nurture argument put so starkly. That way the rest of us can work out where we stand. Probably somewhere in the middle, as a result of our genes and our experience combined.

But Caplan is right on one thing: parents would do well to stop worrying and enjoy their children. All we can do is give them a pleasant and interesting life, with a shot of discipline every now and then. With luck they will turn out roughly according to the example we have set.

Irish Independent

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