Monthly Archives: February 2010

Parenting, IQ and the culture of advice


Millions of young kids’ fates are decided by IQ tests administered by private schools and gifted programs. Yet those early IQ tests are also far from perfect at predicting which kids will actually excel on achievement tests down the road—whether it’s 3rd grade, 8th grade, or the SAT. In fact, they’re so far from perfect it’s laughable. The correlation is only 0.40.

According to the authors of Nurture Shock, pretty much all of our methods for predicting academic excellence in children are pretty poor. They point out that, for example, the correlation between body symmetry–i.e. are both your ears the same size–correlates with academic achievement at 0.39.

Primary schools work really hard to separate the Harvard wheat from the Penn State chaff with a series of 'predictive' tests:

Schools ask kids to hop on one foot and perform other tasks. These aren't a test of the children's motor skills, but a test of the child's willingness to follow instructions. Kids are asked to list the months of the year; it's a back-door assessment of kids' ability to complete a task without their minds wandering in the middle. Other activities that are considered telling include seeing how kids handle criticism when drawing a circle, and if they can resist playing with a cool, distracting toy that’s nearby when they’ve got an academic task in front of them, such as penning the alphabet.

The problem with these tests is that kids change. Their brains develop in unpredictable ways, and the kid who says 'fuck that marshmallow, I'ma write these letters!' at age 3 is just as likely to be a pants-sagging crip at 13 as anyone else.

On the whole, IQ tests confirmed the strength of correlations that had been seen in other research: Combining math and reading together, early IQ had at best a 0.40 correlation with achievement in 3rd and 5th grade.

Attention ratings didn’t beat that—not even close. They only showed a 0.20 correlation with later achievement. And the real surprise was how poorly the behavior ratings predicted school success—that correlation topped out at 0.08.

[..] What this means is that many kids who turned out to be very good students were still fidgety and misbehaving at age 5, while many of the kids who were well-behaved at age 5 didn’t turn into such good students.

This is really interesting stuff, and demonstrates how experts and administrators are just as susceptible to fads and insta-nalysis as the rest of us.


The worrying thing about this kind of article, and the book on which its based, though, is that we laypeople read them and make the mistake of thinking that they apply to us. 

There's a culture of advice built around parenting in America. Don't forget to test your kid's IQ! No wait, test his 'emotional intelligence'! No, his motor skills! Read out loud! Play tapes of foreign languages! Breastfeed til he's nine!

The problem is, information on these broader methodological trends isn't really meant for individual parents. It's meant for administrators and policymakers, people that have to think of large socioeconomic groups and make programs that are likely to provide the greatest benefit for the highest percentage at the lowest cost.

For individuals, however, you're much better off ignoring all this shit and focusing on the needs of your particular child. If your kid is really good at concentrating at age 3, then find a program that helps her use that to excel. If she's not, find a program that works better for her. As she changes, make sure her circumstances respond to her needs.

Parenting and health are probably the two most over-advised areas of American life. Hundreds of magazines and books are devoted to taking broad sociological data and turning it into advice and stock-photo'd listicles. While this might be good for identifying solutions to our individual problems, we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that all of this information applies to us. 

A study showing, for example, that 76 percent of students who played soccer at recess were better at concentrating all afternoon doesn't mean that you should be sending your kids to school with cleats on. Maybe he likes another sport, or he really values his social time with his classmates at lunch. You should be basing your solutions first on your actual children, then the broader sociological data.

I'm not saying we should ignore all information related to our children and our health, I'm just saying we should focus on the fundamentals and ignore the daily stock-ticker of sometimes contradictory particulars. Our children's intellectual and physical development should be supported. We should eat less and exercise more.

Beyond those principles, we don't need to keep changing our tack every six months. Do what works for you, and leave the pie charts and lab coats to the administrators.

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Depression is contagious


Yesterday I found a fascinating article in Psychology Today:

Epidemiologic evidence also points to the major role of contagion factors in depression. The rate and nature of depression vary dramatically from culture to culture—unlike with schizophrenia, where roughly 1 percent of the population is affected no matter the culture sampled. The World Health Organization recently declared depression the fourth leading cause of human disability and suffering and predicted that by the year 2020 it will be the second leading cause. That's not biology run amok; it reflects the social spread of the kinds of cultural values and social conditions that give rise to depression.

It's funny to think about depression-proneness as a cultural value, but this really isn't all that surprising. Having lived in four countries now, I'm endlessly amazed at how each culture collaborates to create rules and circumstances that actively prevent their citizens from finding happiness.

Long-term epidemiologic studies show that depression intensifies from one generation to the next. Today's parents represent the largest group of depression sufferers raising the fastest-growing group of depression sufferers. We are on average four times more depressed than our parents and ten times more than our grandparents.

Shit, that's dire, and I never would have expected it. You want to read that and say 'what do young people have to be depressed about?! They have it better than any previous generation!' But of course that's not the point. Depression is the telescope, not the view.

[Depression largely] comes from the ways we learn to regulate our own internal experience, which includes our explanatory style (the meaning we attach to life experiences), our cognitive style (how we think and use information), our coping style (how we manage stress and adversity) , our problem-solving style, and our relational style.

All of these are acquired through socialization forces in the family.[…] Every time a child asks, "Why, Mommy?" or "Why, Daddy?" the explanation provided invariably embodies a particular style of thinking and attributions of causality. […]

"Why didn't Uncle Bob come to the picnic, Mom?" There's a world of difference between "He must be mad at me" and " I don't know, the next time we talk to Uncle Bob let's ask him." There are also the kinds of attributions that reflect a permanently negative perspective: "Mom, I tried to do this and couldn't, would you help me do it?" "No, you'll never be able to do it, it's too hard."

There's a cultural component to this phenomenon, too. Think of how a British person is expected to react to a job loss, for example, compared to how an Italian or a German or an American is expected to react. Think of the support structures built into those societies. Our cultures, to an extent I think we don't realize, are built into our explanations of routine experiences. 

Studies show that such a pattern in interpreting experience is established early in life. In one study, children 8 years old were asked how they would respond if they were out shopping with their mother in a crowded department store 30 miles from home and suddenly found themselves separated from their parent. The anxious children generated scary scenarios of never seeing their parents again and being adopted into families of strangers. But the nonanxious kids said they'd simply go to the store manager and ask that an announcement be made on the public address system. In short, free of inner emotional turmoil, they could focus on and think their way through to solving the problem.

In other words, you shouldn't be telling your kids 'be good' or 'treat others how you want to be treated.' You should be saying 'chill the fuck out' and 'handle your shit'.

Another important element of socialization that operates in families (and other groups) is whether emotions can be expressed or not, what kinds of emotions can be expressed, and to what degree. Children learn quickly from the affective displays within a family or community what will be tolerated and what will not. Many families, for example, prohibit expressions of anger and so teach their children to suppress the emotion. Being devalued with no means of expression modeled, anger can too easily become explosive, a common theme in depressed relationships.

This is another cultural component. I'm consistently amazed at the marathons of emotionally bereft conversations that seem to take place in Danish and British families. Americans, who endlessly focus-group every molecule of their emotional experience, are amazed at how skilled northern Europeans are at inhibiting this impulse. We all learned these strategies somewhere.

It is possible to make people less susceptible to depression by teaching children social and cognitive skills. But there's growing evidence that social skills are deteriorating and that people are less available and less deliberate about building quality relationships. Studies show that young people are becoming more impulsive, more aggressive, more narcissistic, more self-absorbed. The more self-absorbed people are, the more negative feedback they absorb from others, the worse they feel, and the less skilled they are in building relationships.

I'm really skeptical of this. In what way are we 'less available' than we were before we had free, instant, constant communication? The fact that we're less deliberate about building relationships doesn't necessarily mean we have fewer, or that our social skills are deteriorating. Maybe it just means we have access to a much wider range of acquaintances, and we don't have to be as deliberate. 

I could be totally wrong about this. But everything in that paragraph sounds like it's just recycling the conventional wisdom.

Nonetheless, this article makes me wish governments would be a bit more ambitious in experimenting with 'soft' social engineering. We know more about the human experience, and human happiness, now than at any previous time in history. We know that the social structures our traditions have built around us, like our obsession with class-based behavior norms, or our systematic abandonment of our elderly, are making us all less happy and less productive.

Our cultures have changed drastically in the last 50 years, for the better and for the worse. It would be nice to begin a discussion of where we want this to lead, and how our cultures can build values that help us cope with each other in an emotionally sustainable way. Otherwise, we're all just that kid in the grocery store, waiting for our foster parents to rescue us.

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Liberté, égalité, frappé

The traditional French café has been in decline for so long that we tend to ignore its plight. […] Last year, 2,000 neighbourhood cafés and bistrots closed for good in Paris and the surrounding Ile de France region. […] In the 1960s, there were some 200,000 in France. There are now about 30,000.


There were four little cafés around the corner from our old office on the Place de l'Opéra. A couple even had the flipper (pinball) and 'baby-foot' games that used to be standard everywhere. All have disappeared since 2000, replaced by fashion outlets. Two Starbucks have opened alongside. 


That’s Charles Bremner, a British expat, in the Times. The Starbucks thing is pretty sad, but other than that, I don’t really see anything here to be sad or protestical about. There are a lot fewer companies making tape decks than there were in the 1960s too.


The decline has become a talking point over the past two weeks after the Senate held a conference on saving the bistrot.  The proprietors say they are being driven out of business by taxes and state campaigns against alcohol and tobacco. They complain that customers no longer want to buy much. They order a sandwich and a glass of water rather than the old menu with wine.


With cigarettes banned indoors and police waiting for drunk drivers, people no longer while away the hours with rounds of apéros after work. People drink less and they do it more at home.


Oh the horror! Cafes are going out of businesses because their customers want to do other stuff. Quel tragedie!


The Government is pointing the finger at the owners' failure to adapt. An example of this came from Bernard Quartier, President of the IDCCB, an industry group. In France, the most widely consumed drink is Coca Light (Diet Coke), yet until very recently the majority of bistrots did not sell it, claiming that it is not suited to their clients, he said. The modern public no longer has an appetite for the traditional menus of leathery steaks, oeufs mayonnaise and pichets of plonk. Service also has to improve, Quartier says.


This type of shit is precisely why Americans make fun of Europeans, and why they should. If your national culture is threatened by people choosing to eat and drink in a slightly different manner than they did 100 years ago, then you don’t have one.


Whenever these ‘decline of the [whatever]’ issues appear in our newspapers, we always underestimate the extent to which culture is a byproduct of necessity. The French went to cafes (and the British and Germans went to pubs) because their houses were too fucking small to hang out in, and there wasn’t anything particularly else to do that normal people could afford. These forms of public life weren’t an expression of the French (or British, or German) psyche, they were simply a response to poverty, close living conditions and lack of entertainment.


The fact that we have vastly more comfort in our homes and means of pursuing happiness in our free time is a good thing. When you find shit to do that you like, you tend to do less of the things you used to do when you were bored. All of the reasons for preserving public space—dialogue, interaction, experience of culture—are not only alive and well, but aliver and weller than they were at the height of the café era. Fuck those high-backed, checkered chairs.


Instead of pouring money into preserving a cultural eight-track, politicians should be supporting their constituents in the shit they actually want to do. Fuck it, Voltaire's already spinning in his grave because of the Cola Light thing.   

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‘Hopefully my blend of politics and stink was too much for them’


Me and my brother were talking on IM the other day

J: dude

jury duty

hella weird

Mike: are you going?

just pretend to be hella racist in the selection. They'll delete you

J: i went the other way

hella skeptical that cops could not be prejudiced against the black guy

hella like i never had good experiences with cops

Mike: oh nice. You get rejected?

J: hopefully

Mike: makes you question the whole system. Who the fuck would actually go in for this?

J: then one guy pointed out there were no blacks on the jury group or the jury waiting area

yeah it was deeply depressing

i would call it the airport of justice

a similar randomness to the humanity

Mike: It's funny how rarely you come across a genuine cross-section of your own country.

J: very true, notary publics and construction site managers, and insurance actuaries, and real estate agents i counted 3

Mike: no way. They have time in the daytime, I guess, things being what they are.

J: defense attourney was a schmoozer with a masonic ring

Mike: hahaha, seriously?

J: you kind of have to go, everyone was begging off

and i just went with hard core civil rights bullshit

Mike: I imagine him with a fu manchu, somewhow

J: almost

Mike: I always wonder if people are competing over various kinds of unsuitability. Like ‘I’m the alcoholic!’ ‘I’m the authoritarian!’ Not everyone can play the racist/hippie card.

J: no gays i think                               

a few asians

no one under 27,28

lots of baby boomers

black guy in a suit, but little orange jail slippers

Mike: That and the DMV, man, that's the only genuine pie-slice of american life you ever get.

J: scarily delicious

Mike: They were probably like 'some dude there was a graphic designer. The fuck is that?!'

J: dude, and i was ripe as a motherfucker

Mike: what, like you smelled like self-employment?

J: sitting in close confines, and i had gotten up early, had a drink with friends the night before… yeah, and had a shirt i had worn maybe too many half days over the weekend

wasnt proud of that

Mike: Way to represent the college-educated there, bro

J: for realz dog

Mike:  So you find out, what, tomorrow, if you're in it for the long haul of justice?

J: yeah

i really dont want to decide on this guys future… i mean, he's fine, the cop he assaulted is fine…

in my world we just hug and make up

going to go smelling proper tomorrow… i really hate those few times a year i blow it and go somewhere crowded while musty

but yeah, hopefully my blend of politics and stink was too much for them

Mike: there's probably a metaphor for life somewhere in there

J:  it felt that way

Is it blasphemous to say that we probably shouldn't have jury duty anymore? Surely there are more efficient ways to ensure the unprejudiced meting out of justice than combining a random group of people's preconceptions and legal ignorance.

If this methodology is so watertight, why don't we use it for other bodies, like corporate boards and the House of Representatives? Jury duty is the only place in American life where the principle of random representation is given any credibility. Well, that and American Idol.

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