Poverty, Rats, and Early Childhood Education

foodforthoughtA 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!

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7 thoughts on “Poverty, Rats, and Early Childhood Education

  1. amelia December 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm Reply

    Kristof is an absolute PRO at citation-laundering — finding a study some detail of which suggests that he is right about something, then citing it so vaguely that nobody can tell what it is or where exactly it came from, let alone evaluate that key detail. this “University of Minnesota study” is a classic example, as is his false and damaging claim that 75% of women in Liberia suffered sexual violence during the civil war there. (Here’s an article that discusses this claim: http://ameliahoovergreen.com/?cohen-and-hoover-green)

    I also think that his treatment of poor people in the US is similar to his treatment of poverty and violence in Africa — a deficit model in which people with fewer resources don’t get much credit for their coping skills or strengths, and in which white upper middle class Americans are going to come to the rescue and save Africans [or poor mothers]. The saving is always implicitly “from themselves.”

  2. Tom Birch December 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm Reply

    Kristof ends his NYT article with an anecdote about a young woman who turns poor grades to good ones while navigating poverty in high school but remains a poor student who literally starves while simultaneously pursuing top grades. Her story is heartbreaking and outrageous and a god-awful ending to the editorial. It sounds like the moral is “demonstrate perseverance and get good grades and then starving won’t be important.” Ick.

  3. Kat December 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm Reply

    I have spent many early mornings observing rat licking and grooming, so I couldn’t help but chime in!

    So sure, Meaney’s work provides evidence that what happens to us early in life matters, biologically, for all sorts of developmental processes. This evidence is not only scientifically interesting (the ability to trace the biological pathway all the way down to what’s happening at the level of gene expression is just cool), but may help convince some people that the effects of early life stress are “real,” as if we didn’t already know that. Anyway, although all sorts of things seem to be affected by maternal care in rats (as you mention, social learning etc.), the strongest and best understood effect relates to the regulation of the calibration of the HPA axis and the brain’s response to stress. So offspring that are licked and groomed less have a stronger stress response. But what’s interesting is that the outcomes of this stress sensitivity seem to depend a lot on later social context. For example, if the low LG pups end up as socially dominant, they have better health-related outcomes than high LG pups that end up socially subordinate. Just like highly stress reactive kids can do great in some settings, but struggle in others.

    Anyway, I think this more complex view of the effects of early life stress is more useful when talking about kids, and parents living in poverty, and what we should do about it. I spent most of my time in grad school being frustrated by the media’s oversimplification of “parenting” studies in animal models. Especially when they don’t even get the science right. But the most frustrating part is that Meaney and his colleagues often do the same thing…comparing low LG to neglect (rather than acknowledging the potential evolutionary explanation), for example. I do actually think that animal models can be useful in understanding similar questions in humans, but it’s really important to get it right. Clearly you get it, so I thought I’d let you know I appreciate that you do!

  4. jarrodgreen December 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm Reply

    Kat, thanks for the professional perspective! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the strongest application of the rat research to human development is to stress, stress-reduction, and responses to stress. Physical contact – among many other parenting behaviors – have huge positive effects on child development. And the thing I like best about Tough’s recent work is that it addresses the question of how children RESPOND to stress – and how we can help them respond better.

  5. Christine Staples December 4, 2012 at 9:14 pm Reply

    I have not read Kristof’s work, but I have read the Paul Tough book How Children Succeed, which I highly recommend. Contrary to what you may think about the word “character” meaning an inborn quality, he makes it quite clear that any person can succeed if they get the right help at the right time. I think you ought to read the book before disagreeing with the contents, especially in print! I am in complete agreement with the commenters above that stress is one of the key issues. There was just a phenomenal interview with Gabor Mate in The Sun which touches on the link between stress and ADHD/ADD.

  6. jarrodgreen December 5, 2012 at 1:53 pm Reply

    Christine, you’re right, I should be a little more careful. I’ve always found Tough’s writing really wonderful. I think I mostly feel odd about his choice to use the word “character” to describe the qualities he wants to teach. I know from experience that socio-emotional skills can be taught—most easily during early childhood. But the word “character,” for me, rings a lot of the same bells as “temperament” (which is inborn and largely stable over a lifetime) and “personality” (which, who knows?). Makes me think of the word “discipline”—no matter how often you say it means teaching and guidance, many people will associate it with punishment no matter what. (A column on that coming tomorrow.)

    My bigger objection, I think, is to Kristof’s use of Tough’s points. Whereas Tough goes into great detail and depth about what it takes to teach children these necessary skills, Kristof kind of blithely implies that if we could only get poor parents to teach children to be better people, everything would be okay. But I realize I was mildly picking at Tough and harshly criticizing Kristof in the same breath, which was sloppy of me.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Christine Staples December 6, 2012 at 6:49 pm Reply

    Yes, Jarrod, the associations we attach to words do complicate the issue. Tough actually goes into some detail about the definition of the word, and how to choose the best one to describe the quality, and I imagine that’s why the title is so long! Please note the full title, and the order of words: “How Children Succeed – Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” There’s a detailed description of two schools and the way they chose to adopt new approaches to developing these qualities, and the discussion of which words to use to do so. On a related note; our school district (Berkeley, CA) has recently adopted a new grading policy; it’s two tiered. Each student is first graded on HOW (Habits of Work) – did they come to class, work hard, do their homework, contribute in class? A GPA of 3.2 in HOW puts them on the honor roll. Then they receive a second grade: SBP (Standards Based Proficiency). A 3.5 or above SBP grade makes you an “academic all-star.” This new grading system not only rewards and reinforces students’ achievements, (and gives teachers valuable assessment data) it helps students see themselves as scholars. We are finding that students’ perception of themselves as scholars (or not) is a vital element in academic achievement for students of color.

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