A month ago Nick Kristof at the New York Times wrote a column, “Cuddle Your Kid!“, that got a lot of play around the internet. You should read it, because it’s interesting and provocative, though not, I think, entirely right. Kristof, who usually writes about human rights and foreign policy, is frequently criticized for having good intentions but getting the details horribly wrong, and that’s just what happened here.
The column cites some research by Michael Meaney about rats. According to Kristof, the research shows that rats whose mothers lick and groom them a lot grow up to be smarter, more social, and healthier. Kristof infers that the human equivalent of licking and grooming is “supportive parenting”: “hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them.” He goes on to imply a connection with “one University of Minnesota study” which seemed to show that poor mothers are more stressed, and therefore don’t parent as well, and therefore perpetuate poverty in their children. Therefore, he concludes, the solution to poverty “may be early childhood education and parenting programs”—for example, a program that sends nurses on home visits to some families and, with a little bit of parent education, achieves remarkable outcomes. Kristof also cites the writer Paul Tough’s call for “character education” for children as a solution to poverty.
You may guess, from my liberal use of quotation marks, that I have some problems with Kristof’s argument, although there’s a lot of good in it too.
First, the research on rats. Kristof oversimplifies a huge host of research findings from Meaney’s team at McGill University. The team did indeed research the difference between rats who were licked and groomed a lot as pups and those who weren’t, but the findings are pretty complicated. In addition to looking into things like the effects on brain anatomy and gene expression (which are significant), they looked at a lot of behavioral stuff. They found that highly groomed rats were way better at social learning. But they also found that rats who got less grooming were better at reproducing, better at surviving on limited resources, and more socially dominant. I could go into all sorts of hypotheses about how greater and lesser grooming, and their behavioral outcomes, might be adaptive in different environments—but let’s just go ahead and say that Kristof was a little pat in characterizing the highly-groomed rats as way better in every way. However, his reading of the research does square with research on child development that says things like attention and grooming and touch are great for children’s brain development and learning and stress reduction. So, wrong on the details, but right on the overall gist.
Second, the “one University of Minnesota study” that theoretically shows that poverty causes bad parenting which causes more poverty. I can’t find the study anywhere online, and he doesn’t cite it any more specifically. (If you know of specifics, please post in the comments!) I can’t imagine a single study that could reasonably make such sweeping claims about causality—but while I’m skeptical about the existence of a study that says what Kristof claims, most of the pieces are substantiated elsewhere. You don’t need a study to tell you that living in poverty causes stress, but if you did there are about a zillion of them. Only slightly less obvious is the idea that poverty, and the stress it causes, makes it harder to be a good parent in dozens of measurable ways—it’s hard to find time to hang out with your kids when you’re working three jobs; it’s harder to be sensitive to other people when you’re undernourished; poor people are often much less able to ensure stability in a child’s environment; and so on. And it’s easy to correlate the stresses children are likely to experience in poor households with long-term negative effects. (The organization ACEs Too High, which I’ve referenced before, does good work on this stuff.)
But Kristof implies that if we simply taught poor mothers to be better at parenting, everything will be better. “The most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs.” Speaking long-term there’s a good economic argument to be made—it’s made compellingly on this episode of NPR’s Planet Money. But if you’re a poor family, do you think you want to get parenting classes instead of food stamps because it has long-term benefits? Do you think you want to be told that the reason you’re poor is because you don’t know how to be a mom? As much as I agree (as does, you know, the evidence) that putting resources into early childhood would help a lot, it’s somewhere between tone-deaf and fatuous to claim it’d be some kind of panacea.
Finally, Kristof’s cites Paul Tough, who has written some phenomenal stuff about childhood and learning (read this one about learning executive function through play, or this one about the effects of poverty on child development). I haven’t read Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, but there was an abbreviated version in the Times last year. The gist is that success in school and in life depends not so much on academic prowess, where our culture tends to spend its resources, but on “character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.” I love—love—the focus on socio-emotional skills, and I agree that they can be taught. But I feel like talking about “character” makes it sound like it’s all inborn, no matter how much Tough says it’s not. Perhaps I’m just nitpicking about word choice, but, once again, I feel it’s a bit tone-deaf to say, “The problem is that poor parents aren’t raising their kids to have any character.” And then to follow it up with the assertion that if we just taught these kids to have some character and they’ll all pull themselves up out of poverty by their bootstraps? It makes me very uncomfortable.
Again, I find the Kristof column, and the things he cites, very compelling and full of good stuff. But there’s so much that rubs me the wrong way, I felt it was worth talking about. Please, give your thoughts in the comments!