Parents and Peers, and how the hell do we know how to calibrate the effects?

My daughter came in crying last night.  She had bad thoughts she said.  The bed was alrready occupied by her two by now sleeping little brothers, but I let her come in for some hugging.  She had thought about us dying, me or the Aussie, and it had her very upset.

It is a basic worry for kids – parents dying and being left alone.  A very real threat through the eons. Orphans more likely succumbing, being less well treated by others than natural offspring. I’ve known parents who hace had the gut feeling that they rather all succumb than leaving orphaned kids behind (mine is opposite – my kids must survive, but you know). Parents do matter, on a kind of gross level.

Put then comes the little mommyer than you little status wars, which, well, I think includes both genders. Like the cover of the US Times the other week (cover was different in Europe), or some editorial about attachment parenting and how feminism fucked that up that promted a twitter hashtag “thank feminism”. (I tweeted to that. Thank goodness I’m not expected to be a domestic goddess), or even that tigermommy stuff. 

I notice it.  I’m not immune, but I still shrug it off.  I’m too lazy and disorganized and busy to engage – and the kids appear fine – and lots of variants of parenting seems to be just fine. Like Razib Khan claims – it is so much signaling, with little consequence for the consciously intended.

I found a Re-tweeted article by Tom Chivers from Geoffrey Miller this morning, which I prompty retweeted again.  The gist of the article is that those traits that we know are inherited (because the kids resemble the parents although not perfectly), well, the main contribution there from the parents are the genes.  Not the environment.  Even if the traits are influenced by environment, it is the non-shared environment – the idiosyncratic stuff like peers and illnesses, and accidental knockouts by the background radiation to name a few – that contribute the variance.  Not the shared stuff. That will not influence those traits. 

It goes on to say that this is quite reasonable.  Survival of offspring is so transparent to evolutionary forces, that whatever little thing you add on is unlikely to have strong shaping effects. In fact, the offspring themselves are quite involved in their own survival, extracting resources from their parents, and trying to shape their environment to their own advantage. 

The homeschooling, or daycaring, or Mozarting or extended breastfeeding (where safe water and other food is available) is unlikely to give the kid a reasonable edge.  So relax, mom and dad. It is OK to be good enough. Your kid has a mind of its own. There are real limits to what you can shape.

Chivers, of course, draws from sources like Judith Rich Harris and Stephen Pinker. At one point,though, I think he is kind of… missing things (nature and nurture, shared and non-shared can get very entangled).  He says that selecting a peer environment would not have an effect ( for example, the shared environment of living in my striving over-intellectual middle-class area would not matter for shaping my kids), but I’m not sure if the data could say much about this.  Another area may give different peers that would give a different outcome, perhaps.  I am not sure how you could control for this in this type of model.  (Granted, my notion of the heritability model comes from my course in population genetics eons ago, and some crude repetitions about the ideas since then, but this is not something I work with daily, so it becomes harder for me to give a reasonable scholarly critique based on the mathematical treatment).

Which kind of leads me to why I wanted to blog about this in the first place, which is Calibration.  Another tweeter (CathyBY) commented that there are areas that parents matter (breastfeeding – which in part is learned in primates) –and how primates in captivity that don’t learn end up being crappy parents.  (Just think back on the Harlow experiments).  Or my intro – what would happen to my kids should we die before they are grown?  How would it alter the?  Would it alter them differently had we lived in another time or place with less social security? 

There seems to be evidence that what parents do matters for outcome.  The article clearly states that it is not unimportant.  Be good to your kids.  Just don’t imagine you can make them smarter or more extroverted or…. Or really? David Dobbs has written about the dandelion/orchid hypothesis (but evidently, that will end up being more complex).  The behavioral genetics (that also Chivers write about) look at particular sets of traits over populations – traits that do have a genetic component.  What about other features?  Are there other areas where parents matter?  How well your parents are able to guide you into the culture with contacts, and not just the genetic endowment?  I don’t doubt the peer effect (I just went through Richerson & Boyd and the importance of peers and other non-parents as sources to learn from and how that can give rise to maladaptive, from a genes point of view, behavior). But, I’m not sure parents (and alloparents – don’t forget) are unmportant.

But, back to calibration.  When we read about effects – psychological, genetic, what have you – it is usually presented in language, in categories, in simplification.  Something is influencing something else, or not.  But, we rarely know by how much, to which degree it interacts, which effect trumps which other effect.  It is very frustrating.  I see the same thing reading the professional literature. Writing about effects, effects not put in a bigger context, very hard to reason about it.  Where would the decision to settle in this neighborhood over that other town matter when it comes to peer-effects?  Is it shared – and thus falls under no effect? OR does it end up under non-shared? (Think, would the kids from a quirky eccentric family do better in a larger place where they are a dime a dozen, or in a small one where they are the outliers?  Which is shared, which is non-shared?)

Or, where are the limits between good enough parenting, and really terrible practices?  Kids probably can survive a whole lot of things – as they have throughout millennia, and have gone on to reproduce.  But, is it some point where the parenting will be so incompetent that it actually will alter the kid, and where abouts do you find this?  And, I don’t think we know.  I think overall in psychology we are bad at calibration, and good with the categorical word-models.  Which lends itself then to endless bickering with evidence throwing, with no idea of the weight of that evidence in the context. 

About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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