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How Hard Should Parents Try if Their Efforts Are Futile?
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Blogger OneSTDV brings up a question I have yet to find a satisfying answer to (and so am eagerly soliciting thoughts from readers):

While I believe HBD is of immense importance for policy, it may sometimes be negative stimulus in family life. Do we really want our parents to not try their hardest because they have faith genetics will just take care of it? I think being cognizant of genetics can make some parents lazy or have a defeatist attitude.

Previously, it was shown that those who believe personality is primarily determined by experience are on average of modestly higher intelligence than those who hold that personality is largely genetically determined. As the breadth and scope of free will continues to be hemmed in, is a move toward greater determinism harmful? A study released early last year out of the University of Minnesota found evidence that priming participants toward greater acceptance of fatalism increased the likelihood that they would cheat on a self-administered math test. My codons made me do it!

Conceptually, it’s easy to see the problem of maintaining a fatalistic outlook. I could go get a start on next week’s case load or go mow the lawn. But I think I’d rather go flip on the PS2 and eat peanuts. Let’s see what I end up doing… oh, looks like it’s game time. That’s what I was destined to do–it’s not like I’m culpable for being slothful.

The problem with that facile line of thinking is that it assumes complete determinism and the total absence of conscious free will, when in reality the deterministic influences–genetic, epigentic, cultural, or whatever–are probably probablistic, not absolute. Since the deterministic contribution to a decision is by definition not freely chosen, it does little good for a person to dwell on it. Better for me to assume that it is up to me to bring to bear (or at least think I am bringing to bear, despite being influenced by my time preference and energy level) the full weight of my reason, rationality, and morality to the decision of what to do on a lazy friday afternoon in order to arrive at the most optimal decision.

I see similarities with Pascal’s Wager. The free-willer is better off than the determinist to the extent that he is correct and no worse off in being wrong, while the determinist doesn’t benefit any in being correct (it’s not like he or the free-willer had a choice in the matter, after all!) but misses out majorly if he’s off the mark.

In this, I am only considering an individual’s actions at the individual level. The evaluation of deterministic thinking is not nearly so simple. There are confounding externalities like how policies on criminality are constructed or how the educational system is structured where an over emphasis on free will can be disastrous. And when evaluating someone else, it’s disadvantageous to presume everyone has a perfectly free will and so act under the assumption that until learning more about a person, nothing can be assumed about him. Stereotypes exist because they are accurate more often than not.

The question, then, concerns whether or not it is better to err on the side of conscious free will at an individual level.

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. In their own way, high I.Q. parents may be intuitively able to
    track their kids by aptitudeinto more optimal paths for success. This may be at the unconscious level whereas leaving it up to chance may keep kids away from opportunities that would yield the highest success.

  2. It is my considered opinion that a better sense of the role of genes in a child's future abilities as an adult may make the parents try harder. So that when the average-IQ child does not thrive in abstract subjects, but takes to concrete hands-on activities, it is not because the child lacks motivation or character, but something related to hard-wiring. So the child will benefit from simple rules, and being nudged in the direction of technical-vocational study.

    It is also my belief that tech-voc education gets a bad rap – an underservedly low reputation – because of radical environmentalism. The latter belief dictates that people only go into tech-voc because of the character flaws that keep them from becoming pediatricians and civil rights lawyers (since what we really need is an economy with only doctors and lawyers … who needs plumbers? ?)

    Once we take genes properly into account our roles will be clearer and we can adapt to them with less shame.

    (Still loving your blog – you pick great subjects, Audacious. Also will check out OneSTDV.)

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Parents, no matter how intelligent, should teach their children 3 things, if nothing else: How to ride a horse, shoot straight and speak the truth.

    And Blode0322, an education in the trades is an excellent idea, no matter how smart those kids happen to be. I also agree how VoTech has been looked down upon and the results have been very negative for the nation. As if getting your hands dirty to make sure people have clean water, food, smoothly running machines/engines and attractive, durable and useful goods is something to be ashamed of. And if you want to look at it from a purely materialistic angle, plenty of trades are recession/depression proof. You might not get rich (unless you're a plumber), but you won't starve. Also being handy can be a great part of "Game" that everyone is all excited about. Chicks dig that kind of shit. There's even an elitist/snob/status appeal to some trades like being a vinter/craft brewer, if that's what one is looking for. SWPLers/babes will love you! And nothing is sweeter than your own booze. And that's no lie…

  4. … an education in the trades is an excellent idea, no matter how smart those kids happen to be.

    Absolutely. I bet someone could break down the various IQs which are suited to which trades. Gardening is probably above cook, but probably not above chef. Electrician is probably above all of them. Just speculating though.

  5. BGC says: • Website

    I think the idea of parents not trying is a bit far-fetched (biology takes care of that – at least for those who are biological parents and know it and spend time with their kids) – it is more a question of what you are trying to achieve.

    If a parent believes that hard work at school is primarily responsible for lifetime outcomes, then they would be inclined to do almost anything to get kids to work hard at schoolwork (physical punishment, long hours …), to send their kids to cramming schools etc.

    But if life outcomes are mostly due to hereditary IQ and personality (plus luck), then effort would be more likely to focus on trying to give kids a rich and fulfilling, or perhaps morally educative, childhood; or encouraging them to develop specific skills (including vocational).

    Especially, parents could switch effort away from trying to make their kids 'smarter' and from trying to re-mould their basic personalities.

    Since these goals are not attainable, then such attempts are not just a waste of time and energy, but also cruel to the child because there is no link between the child's own effort and the outcome (as Charles Murray points out in Real Education).

    For a parent, it is extremely useful to have valid information about what is effective and what is ineffective in child-rearing. 'Parental investment' is finite, and needs to be well-directed.

  6. al fin says: • Website

    Do you mean that I was not destined to vote for Brocko Bomba, that I had a choice after all? I don't really have to be an Obama zombie?

    Oh my god, what have I done?

    More seriously, the point about training high IQ kids in the trades is an excellent idea. That's the best way of generating a constant flow of innovation and invention in a nation.

    Train them young in practical arts, then as their minds develop train them in the esoteric, mind-bending sciences, technologies, and concepts of the future.

  7. Breaking away from educational romanticism is the greatest necessity. Parents should be realistic about how beneficial higher education in a university setting is likely to be for their children. As BGC alludes to, Charles Murray walks through this in detail in Real Education.

    But as infinitesimal as the influence of parents might be, shared environment (including peer groups) is at least indirectly, if not directly, influenced by parents. What Blode and others are saying, then, is that there should be a parental push toward vocational education for children, especially those who aren't headed down the path of obtaining a liberal education. It makes sense to me.

    Tangentially, as someone who is mechanically declined (and that's not false modesty), I have the utmost respect for the friends who work on my car or, just yesterday, the roommate who rigger-jigged the engine of lawn mower so that the governor wouldn't keep acting so spastically. I was ready to buy a new one. I can follow quite easily what lawyers I know are doing, so I'm really not too impressed. With my mechanically-minded friends, though, I feel like I'm witnessing true expertise. I wish my own sentiments were shared more widely. As was said by other commenters, the US would be better off for it.

  8. Parents should focus on children's natural abilities. Sometimes kids get frustrated with school in general when they only struggle with a couple of subjects. This is a good opportunity for parents to let kids know that while failing the class is not a good way to manage their frustration with a particular area, it is more important to be their best in the subjects they favor. Parents need to help kids develop their talents rather than criticize and push for more practice in a weak area. Better for Jonny to be in remedial English and honors Math (or vice versa) than for him to get the idea that he is a poor student and spend endless hours for him to develop proficiency in his weak area, while just a little extra effort could have him excelling in his strong area.

    My middle school son has illegible printing (literally impossible to read). I could force him to practice to fix it. However his cursive is lovely. I just let him write everything in cursive.

    Ultimately we should end up in jobs that utilize our strengths. Better to focus effort on developing strengths.

  9. I have been considering this question as well, and have reached the tentative conclusion that genetics plus providing a stable, loving two-parent home is probably at least 80% of the battle.

    To keep that home "stable, loving, and two-parent" does take work, but it is probably the most important thing you can do for your kids.

    I liked all the mentions of Real Education. I read it recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. The best part was p. 130, about the inverse relationship between parental praise and striving in gifted children. I personally found this assertion to be true in my experience, and social scientists have found evidence that it obtains in large sample sizes as well. One of Murray's sources was this insightful article.

  10. Anomalous F. has posted an excellent article! I recommend everyone read it.

    But seriously … it makes me wonder if overpraising brains and underpraising work might be a big reason for the dearth of US engineers. All the smart kids can look smart in the no-right-answer fields if they work a little, while in hard science / engy it will always take work unless you're one in a million.

    I've known plenty of smart, lazy people. I surmise that they were praised for being smart, and that they were not praised for diligence so much as criticized for sloth. They're not the same thing!

  11. … And no, I don't know why I wrote "but seriously" for my second para. It's not like my first paragraph was a joke….

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "But seriously … it makes me wonder if overpraising brains and underpraising work might be a big reason for the dearth of US engineers. All the smart kids can look smart in the no-right-answer fields if they work a little, while in hard science / energy it will always take work unless you're one in a million.

    I've known plenty of smart, lazy people. I surmise that they were praised for being smart, and that they were not praised for diligence so much as criticized for sloth. They're not the same thing!"

    Even if you're smart, you need a fire lit under your ass and a few smacks every now and then to make sure you keep your head. Too much coddling going on and too much praise and not enough criticism. Not enough hard physical work either.

  13. SG,

    That's the fundamental problem with initiatives that aim for the NCLB objectives of bringing everybody up to above average (never mind how absurd that sounds on its face)–the focus is on turning weaknesses into moderate attributes rather than taking strengths and turning them into super-strengths. The latter route is the necessary driver of innovation.


    Interesting read, thanks. A problem with telling a kid he is smart is that he is likely to feel that the opinion of him is high, and consequently he should expend energy on ensuring it does not drop. The only way it is going to drop is for him to fail (or even just struggle) with something, so his best option becomes not trying anything. Not good.

    There are plenty of athletic situations this is analogous to. I'm playing first year semi-pro on a KC sports team. I'm on the practice squad/starting threshold, so when we play in-house, I always try to match up with the team's best guys, evem though it means I'm going to get burned from time to time. I have nothing to lose, because I'm not expected to shut the guy down. Conversely, he should avoid someone less skilled than himself (me), because he only stands to suffer from giving up a big play to me while gaining little from shutting me down.

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