Put aside for the moment the question of how deeply the government should be involved in child development. One suspects that parents are best qualified for the job. True enough, some parents are grossly inadequate, but still that does not justify a government takeover of childrearing.
If government-sponsored studies about Head Start are any indication, even the most highly touted programs do not make very much of a real difference anyway.
Today, Professor Jay Belsky reports on a new study about what he calls children’s resilience. He explains that a child’s genetic makeup will make him or her more or less able to benefit from developmental programs. The commonly-held assumption that all children are equally capable of learning, is false.
In Belsky’s words:
BEHIND a half-century of policies to promote child development, there lies an assumption: that children are essentially equally affected by the environments they grow up in, and that positive interventions like preschool education should therefore help all children. But what if this isn’t true?
How do children differ? Belsky answers:
Evidence suggests that some children are — in one frequently used metaphor — like delicate orchids; they quickly wither if exposed to stress and deprivation, but blossom if given a lot of care and support. Others are more like dandelions; they prove resilient to the negative effects of adversity, but at the same time do not particularly benefit from positive experiences. In this sense, resilience, long thought to be an exclusively beneficial characteristic, is actually a double-edged sword.
Some programs help some children but all programs do not help all children. Apparently, some children thrive when coddled but wither when faced with strict discipline. Others benefit from adversity but not from coddling.
One would like to know more about the distribution of these two. Are more children likely to respond well to discipline or are more children likely to respond well to coddling?
Belsky proposes something like what used to be called tracking. Children most susceptible to profit from certain forms of instruction would receive them. Those children who are least likely to benefit would not.
In his words:
One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers. Not only because they would improve the most, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction. The less susceptible — and more resilient — children are more likely to do O.K. no matter what. After six or seven years, this approach could substantially enhance student achievement and well-being.
For now, after half a century of childhood interventions that have generated exaggerated claims of both efficacy and ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the reality that some children are more affected by their developmental experiences — from harsh punishment to high-quality day care — than others. This carries implications for scientists evaluating interventions, policy makers funding them and parents rearing children.
I am not certain why we need to use advanced genetic testing. Can’t we try out different programs on different children and observe which ones work and which ones don’t?
Of course, once we start down the road of genetic testing, we open up another set of problems. What if we were to discover that different racial and ethnic groups were more or less resilient in one or the other sense of the term?
As for the value of “high quality day care” it is good that Belsky closes his column with a reference to the parents who are ultimately responsible for rearing children and who might know, without any genetic testing, what is best for their children.
After all, the notion that all children are equal does not come from parents. It comes from philosophers and psychologists. It is based on an idea, not on experience.