Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Does concerted cultivation produce selfish children?

Last month, I posted an essay about Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers: The Story of Success that provoked a lively discussion. Gladwell argues that early cultivation (such as actively managing a child's education and providing her with a range of experiences and learning opportunities) is crucial to later success in life. It also helps quite a lot, he argues, to help children learn to speak up for themselves and confidently interact with adults.

While Gladwell is guilty of a certain amount of reductionism and success-worship, his argument, in my view, is ultimately a hopeful and egalitarian one: success is the product of environment more than anything else, and we can help all children to succeed by equalizing their opportunities in life. We can do this by providing early childhood education and well-funded public school systems, as well as universal health care, among other programs.

However, some readers seemed to feel that active cultivation of a child's education and talent "ultimately produces selfish, self-absorbed adults who are out of touch with most of humanity," as one commentator put it.

In the minds of these readers, "concerted cultivation" is the equivalent of the dreaded "helicopter parenting," wherein privileged moms and dads over-schedule their kids and push them to succeed at the expense of empathy and social intelligence.

But that doesn't follow at all, and I actually think this belief misses something important about why inequality continues to grow in America.

It may very well be the case the middle- and upper-class children are more prone to be "selfish" and "self-absorbed"--although, honestly, I've seen those qualities, as well as others like kindness and understanding, pop up among members of virtually every social class. My instinct is that belief in the inhumanity of educated or affluent people is the product of resentment or self-hatred, not observation.

But we're not really talking here about affluence. We're talking about access to opportunity (which in our culture comes with affluence). The fact remains that early education and attention to a child's well-being leads to many good outcomes in life, and also for society. Some of these are material--more income and wealth--but some are not, including increased likelihood that they will get married and stay married, and stay out of jail. These are empirical facts. And it's a fact that when children's health and educational needs aren't met, inequality grows, and bad things happen. Really bad things: rising crime rates and incarceration, declining innovation, and shorter lives, to name a few.

What happens when societies make comprehensive commitments to the health and education of children--in other words, when concerted cultivation becomes public policy? Take a look at this graph:

The huge difference in child poverty rates between the United States and almost everywhere else in the developed world, especially Northern European countries, is not accidental. It's the product of decades of diverging social policies, as well as different philosophies of education. In the twenty-first century, it's better to be educated than not, cosmopolitan instead of provincial. It's better to read books instead of watching TV, and to learn more than one language, and to be active instead of passive. It's better when governments rely on science instead of superstition to make policy, and it's better for them to be secular instead of religious. This is not an issue of rich vs. poor, a binary that excludes most people. Instead it pits social development against neglect and underdevelopment.

I'm not a relativist. I think embracing these values, as individuals and a society, will give my son a better life, and a better life to all children. That some people might think I'm a snob for saying that education is good and ignorance is bad just illustrates how frighteningly neurotic some parts of America have become.

And I think that adopting these policies will actually decrease the hyperventilating anxiety I described in my original post, which causes, for example, some parents (of all social classes, not just the most privileged) to hold their kids back a year so that they can beat out other kids in academics and athletics, which becomes a kind of vicious cycle as others try to keep up. Creating a situation of functionality and equality will reduce the craziness we see in places like San Francisco, where parents fear (with cause) that their kids' life chances will diminish if they end up in the wrong school--because, quite simply, a majority of schools will be right.

To put it a different way, let's stop blaming parents (and teachers) for struggling to make the best of the system. Instead, let's change the system. And part of that entails pushing the tax structure in a more progressive direction and the social structure so that kids of all social classes have the same opportunities.

Liberal and conservative alike, we Americans too often forget that our children are the poorest in the developed world. Liberals and progressives blame conservative social policies, but as the comments at Daddy Dialectic reveal, there's enough blame to go around. (One commentator suggested--tongue in cheek?--Maoist concentration camps as a solution to privileged obliviousness. But, Daisy, trust me on this: concentration camps do not increase the amount of empathy in the world.) While we've wasted time worrying about strawmen--like, for example, "helicopter parents"--and deriding education, we've neglected our school system to the point where many districts are on the brink of disaster, and some are disasters. More than just time, we are wasting talent and lives, and there's no excuse for it.

(Incidentally, if you'd like to read a superb overview of what public policies have fueled America's rising rate of child poverty and Europe's falling rate, see Jody Heymann's 2006 book, Forgotten Families.)


Anonymous said...

Not to knock the Nordic countries for their highly successful social model, but there are two caveats to keep in mind when considering the Nordic approach.

First, these are strikingly uniform, homogeneous societies. This "consistency" is something that we cannot and should not emulate in the United States.

Second, for all their successes in education, one thing the Nordic countries do poorly is teach to *difference.* Even in Finland, the Nordic country with arguably the best educational system in Europe, teachers really teach to the lowest common denominator. Children who are "gifted" or "different" or who in any other way stand out end up having fewer channels for their interests and talents. The result is that the Nordic countries have a harder time cultivating creativity, sovereign critical thinking, and a spirit of innovation than do some other educational systems elsewhere in the world, including many American school districts.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Those are good caveats to keep in mind--I agree, based on my limited experience and reading--and I'm certainly not suggesting that those systems are perfect. I lived for a time in the Czech Republic, which is on the low end of the child poverty rate, despite being vastly less wealthy than the US (when I lived there in 1999-2000, most people lived decently on the equivalent of $300/month). However, the Gypsy (or Roma) population lived at the very margins of Czech society; at the time, their unemployment rate stood at close to 90 percent. I saw similar problems in other parts of the EU. So, that's their problem to address--I actually think the average American is far better about dealing with race than the average European--just like we have ours. The point here is that we don't have to accept massively unequal social development; we can do better.

Variations On A Theme said...

Appreciate this post. I'm one of those parents who wants the best for her kids, but doesn't want to be overly involved.

I don't know where the balance lies, but I appreciated your previous post, which made me feel less guilty for wanting to do a little "concerted cultivation."

I also think a good dose of "natural growth" is important, too.

I don't think for a minute, though, that concerted cultivation produces selfish children. Example: I'd like to nurture my girl's natural musical abilities by taking her to piano lessons. Afterwards, if we see a homeless guy at a restaurant, and we buy him food, what's going to stick in her mind? The fact that she was privileged enough to take piano lessons? I don't think so.

If we take her and her brother to a museum and she helps her brother see some of the exhibits and is helpful with other little children, is she growing toward selfishness because she was privileged to visit a museum?

I may be missing the point here, but in my mind, it's more about that old adage: "It's not WHAT you do but HOW you do it."

Matt said...

Sorry for being a stat geek, but that plot you've copied seems sketchy. It seems that the data used define poverty relative to the median income for that country. The data are equivalized, which helps because that adjusts for household size.

I could not find anything that indicates that the data adjust for anything *among* the different countries (such as median income in each country, or standard of living in each country). So, as best as I can tell, the graph does not illustrate a valid statistical comparison across different countries.

The data for the graph above are basically saying, erroneously: A household in the richest gated neighborhood in a city has an income that is below the median for that rich neighborhood, so that household is categorized as impoverished, just like the household in the poorest neighborhood that has an income below that poor neighborhood's median. Also, the household in the poorest neighboorhood in town that is above that neighborhood's median income in NOT impoverished.

I haven't read "Forgotten Families", so maybe the trend is consistently presented there. I don't know. I could have also easily missed some footnote on the OECD site.

That being said, I still agree with most of your points. I think its disgusting that a country as rich as ours has such an awful and inconsistent public education system. I think that the public school system has been laid to waste for numerous reasons, and those of us with the opportunity to enrich our children where the system is weak will continue to do so, perhaps until the system is improved.


according to Think Progress

this data is from a post

Which derives data from OECD and UNICEF (,

It took me a while, but on the OECD site, I found

I feel reasonably certain that the data presented here is the basis for the graph on Think Progress (and at Daddy Dialectic)

So, poverty rate, as used for this analysis, is defined in the first paragraph:
child poverty rate (the share of all children living in households with an equivalised income of less than 50% of the median),
The process by which household income is adjusted to account for variation in household size and composition. Income is divided by scales which vary according to the number of adults and the number and age of dependants in the household.

Anonymous said...

God, I love the commentators at Daddy Dialectic. Such a smart bunch.