The village where I jog doesn’t have much traffic, but the road is narrow. So there I am last Sunday, running, when I see a car coming towards me, not going fast but not going slow. And, as it comes closer, I see the baby, not more than six months old, holding on to the steering wheel. The child is on his father’s lap, of course, but the car passes too quickly for me to see if the father looks as dotish as he obviously is. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this kind of thing. Often enough, I have seen drivers swerving in and out of traffic, even taking corners they can’t see around, with children in the car. A related habit is parents carrying their infants to cinema and calypso shows. It all indicates, to my mind, a certain callousness in the way Trinidadians treat their children. This attitude is reflected in larger social indicators, from in infant mortality of rate of 18.6 per 100,000 births to unrecorded but clearly high rates of paedophilia.
This is, perhaps, a long leap. Yet it may well be that many of our social problems, from violence to sub-standard education, are rooted in our society’s attitude toward children. This is a place where many people believe that murders and illiteracy could both be reduced by beating children, and where pundits and imams protested vehemently when the UNC government attempted to raise the marriage age for girls from 12 and 14 to 16 years. Let me emphasise, though, that I am not reiterating that tired canard about parents being the ones who does make dey chirrun so. While it is true that the mango does not fall far from the tree, this is only because the mango was grown by the tree’s biology. But, when it comes to socialisation, the home is perhaps the least important factor in a child’s development.
This idea contravenes accepted wisdom. But Judith Rich Harris, in her book The Nurture Assumption, convincingly argues that children are socialised by the outside environment, not the home one. The main contribution parents make to their children’s disposition is through the genes they pass on to the child. Qualities like openness to new experiences, agreeableness or antagonism, conscientiousness, extroversion or introversion, a worrying nature or a laid-back attitude: all these traits are about 50 percent heritable. And intelligence is even more heritable than that — even children adopted from birth will have IQs closer to that of their biological parents than their adoptive ones.
It is not, mind you, that parents are completely irrelevant. But parents socialise children only as a peer group — ie, middle-class parents whose middle-class children all lime together will speak and behave like their parents. But the children of middle-class parents growing up in a working-class neighbourhood will not speak or behave like their parents — they will speak and behave like their friends’ parents. So Harris suggests that “children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and neighbourhoods — but switched all the parents around.”
Concomitantly, it is not true that our childhood experiences determine our adult selves. Psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, says, “The major traumas of childhood may have some influence on adult personality, but only a barely detectable one. Bad childhood events, in short, do not mandate adult troubles. There is no justification in these studies for blaming your adult depression, anxiety, bad marriage, drug use, sexual problems, unemployment, aggression against your children, alcoholism or anger on what happened to you as a child.” This makes evolutionary sense. Harris gives four reasons why it would not be in a child’s long-term interest to let himself be overly influenced by his parents. (1) It would prevent the child from picking up useful innovations introduced by other members of the community; (2) it would limit variety and so limit the child’s responses to threats; (3) in the prehistoric environment we evolved in, children could not count on having parents so that, if even one of them died, a dependent child would too; and (4) the parents’ interests and the child’s interests do not always coincide.
Interestingly, though, when you look at the factors that predict a child’s academic success, parental qualities do figure strongly. If a child’s parents are highly educated, well off, and involved in the PTA, then the child is likely to do well in school. But these parental factors aren’t related to how parents raise their children, but to IQ. This is shown by the fact that whether a child’s family is intact or not doesn’t predict academic success or failure. Neither does spanking, or how much TV the child watches, or whether the child’s parents read to him every day. In The Myth of the First Three Years, John Bruer writes, “There is also a substantial body of research that supports the claim that experiences throughout one’s life have a profound effect on personality, character, and mental health and that these effects swamp the impact of early childhood experience.”
And thank Darwin it is so. If it wasn’t, Servol could not take in 17-year-old youths from the same neighbourhoods that breed the nation’s criminals and teach these young people both skills and a positive attitude. Moreover, since parents don’t socialise their children and since all but the most traumatic childhood experiences (like sexual abuse) can be overcome, it makes it easier to solve our education issues. After all, it is almost impossible to construct a social programme that would change parenting habits. But it is perfectly possible to create schools which have supportive environments where children can learn and develop. Right now, though, most of our schools provide exactly the opposite kind of environment. But, with teacher training and a revamped curriculum, even that infant at the steering wheel could grow up to be less of a damn fool than his father.