Does concerted cultivation produce selfish children?

Last month, I posted a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers: The Story of Success that provoked a lively discussion over at my blog Daddy Dialectic. 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. Belief in the intrinsic depravity and inhumanity of educated people goes hand-in-hand with a powerfully felt anti-intellectualism and social resentment. (Another commentator suggested–tongue in cheek?–that the children of the educated classes should all be sent to Maoist reeducation camps!)

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 (and by that I mean, have at least a B.A.) than not, cosmopolitan instead of provincial. It’s better to read books instead of watching TV, and to learn more than one language. 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. 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. 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 live (with cause) in fear that their kids’ life chances will diminish if they end up in the wrong school.

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.

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. While we’ve wasted time worrying about strawmen–like, for example, “helicopter parents”–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.)

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