29 March 2011

Childhood Psychological Tendencies Persistent

Democratic socialists, including those in Britain, are much better at conducting very large scale, multi-purpose longitudinal studies than Americans, and those studies are starting to bear fruit. The British National Child Development Study tracks 17,634 children born in March 1958 for fifty years, checking in on the subject's progress at nine regular intervals from birth to the present and gathering detailed and accurate informaton each time from multiple sources in multiple institutions. What did they find?

In this article we assess and compare long-term adult socioeconomic status impacts from having experienced psychological and physical health problems in childhood. . . . Large effects are found due to childhood psychological problems on the ability of affected children to work and earn as adults and on intergenerational and within-generation social mobility. Adult family incomes are reduced by 28% by age 50, with sustained impacts on labor supply, marriage stability, and the conscientiousness and agreeableness components of the “Big Five” personality traits. Effects of psychological health disorders during childhood are far more important over a lifetime than physical health problems.

From Alissa Goodman, Robert Joyce, and James P. Smith, "The long shadow cast by childhood physical and mental problems on adult life", PNSA 2010.

The abstract poses the question as one of a particular childhood "problem" having a long term effect, but the results are equally consistent with the notion that psychological health has a large congential component, with much of the rest of the environmental component been based on the quality of one's early childhood environment, rather than later environment. In this view, the "problems" that a child experiences are simply manifestations of who a child is that persist throughout life rather than being the cause of later in life difficulties. In our mental health and IQ focused world, in which capacity to labor physically is largely unimportant socio-economically, it also isn't surprising that fitness that is physical, or the lack of that fitness is comparatively unimportant.

Alas, the early childhood window may be surprisingly narrow, and social class effects tend to be much more powerful than instructional effects. For example, according to another very large longitudinal study (n=13,776), the beneficial effects of full day kindergarten programs relative to partial day kindergarten programs in low income children tend to vanish by the third grade:

[T]he study found that the reading and math skills of children in full-day kindergarten grew faster from the fall to the spring of their kindergarten year, compared to the academic skills of children in part-day kindergarten.

However, the study also found that the full-day kindergarteners' gains in reading and math did not last far beyond the kindergarten year. In fact, from the spring of their kindergarten year through fifth grade, the academic skills of children in part-day kindergarten grew faster than those of children in full-day kindergarten, with the advantage of full-day versus part-day programs fading by the spring of third grade. The fade-out can be explained, in part, by the fact that the children in part-day kindergarten were less poor and had more stimulating home environments than those in full-day programs[.]

Social class linked intellectual achievement gaps are already great at age two.


The good news, for the parents of older children, I suppose, is that whatever good or bad your parenting has had on their lives, the older your children get, the less the quality of your parenting seems to matter. So, the pressure isn't as intense. A child's academic progress and character as a late tween is immensely predictive of the rest of the course of that child's life.

Then again, this may simply be a product of the fact that whatever parenting and educational quality was present early on continues to be present and having the same effect, with interruptions of these patterns being too rare to be statistically significant. Unless you are comparing kids who experience late childhood misfortune against their otherwise equal pre-misfortunte peers, you can really accurately measure the impact of those misfortunes on a child's life chances.

On the other hand, these studies are really terribly discouraging for those whose job it is to try to get people on track in life once their early childhood years have passed. The school system, for example, frequently becomes involved in a child's life only starting in kindergarten at age five or six years old, and the second study seems to suggest that it is already extremely hard to help kids who are developmentally behind at that point catch up to their more academically ready peers.

Needless to say, if your job is to turn around the lives of kids who have already started high school, fifteen years of accumulated inertia is just that much harder to reverse. If your job is to turn around the lives of adult prison inmates, the burden you must overcome is surely even more profoundly difficult to surmount.

As previous posts at this blog have noted, you may be born with a gene which is a powerful predicter of your capacity to sustain a long term marriage, and people who commit violent crimes as adults overwhelmingly are already continuing to have discipline issues that their peers have grown out of by the time that they are in elementary school: "it is extremely unlikely that an adolescent who has not been highly physically aggressive in the past will suddenly manifest significant problems with physical aggression." Such seemingly learned and social traits as succeptibility to bullying and one's likelihood of being a teenaged crime victim likewise show powerful genetic predispositions. The non-IQ factors that play an important part in life success seem to manifest just as early in life as academic ability does: Your ability to defer gratification at age four turns out to be a powerful discriminator for your life success a decade and a half later. Children likely to grow up to be psychopaths already start acting differently at age three (also here). A group of three non-IQ related genes can account to up to a 0.5 point difference in your GPA on top of any IQ effect.

We may live in the post-nature v. nuture synthesis of genes x enviroment, but the more we know, the more predictable our lives seem to be. For us, like characters in Greek tragedies, it seems that knowing our fates offers us surprisingly little help in changing our fates. Our genes are seemingly immutable, and most mental health genetic conditions are incurable, even if they are treatable in some cases. Many psychological predispositions have no established treatment. Even if you know you have a gene that makes you likely to have short lived relationships, there is no drug you can take to fix that and no solidly evidence based therapy that will solve your predisposition. Gene therapy hasn't reached that point yet, and given the implications it would have for personal identity and neurodiversity in society as a whole, perhaps this is a good thing.

Our enviroments, while theoretically mutable, aren't easy to change. And they seem to matter. People in the top fifth of the income distribution are twenty-eight times as likely to attend a selective college as those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, for example. We don't choose our parents, and it seems as if those of us who are raised by someone other than our parents are usually worse off in the bargain - although perhaps starting off in a spot like that leaves one off poorly even with great improvement. And, of course, unlike J.K. Rowling or Eminem, most of us who find ourselves in poverty don't readily emerge from it to great riches by virtue of our intellectual talents. Parents who know that their poverty and lack of education is dragging down their children have little capacity to do anything about it. Even the heart wrenching option once available of sending tween or teen children into domestic service for a more prosperous family, or a scholarship funded tenure at a boarding school, in hopes that some of the benefits of that social class will rub off on them has largely vanished as options. Assortive marriage trends are reducing the availability of marriage as a means of class advancement, and American social class lines are deeper than those in contemporary Europe or earlier eras of American history. Just about the only thing a parent can do to improve the environment that the parent provides his or her children is to transform him or herself, which is a profoundly difficult matter.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people do indeed change sometimes. But, the overwhelming weight of the statistics and studies tell us that this is the exception and not the norm, and becomes ever more exceptional as we get older. Kids who are well behind grade level in reading in the third grade are almost certainly not going to go to Harvard, are exceedingly unlikely to go to medical school or law school, and will have to struggle mightily and have considerable good fortune to earn a college degree of any kind. Kids who are perfect angels in fifth grade are exceedingly unlikely to have criminal justice problems or violence issues in the remainder of their lives unless they have a family history of a late manifesting mental health condition like bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or substance abuse, or experience a brain injury, or sustain PTSD.

I don't want the world to be this way. I'm a liberal. I believe in progress and opportunity and social mobility. I value education. Environment does matter, especially for the less well off, even if they can't change that environment themselves.

But, one can't simply ignore what study after study after study tells you either. One can look for loopholes and exceptions and ways to beat the system. There clearly are some and they should be leveraged for all that they are worth. The more I read these studies, the more that I am forced to conclude that policies designed to secure social justice have to focus more on developing meaningful productive paths for the people who we have in our society, and less on trying to transform people into something that they are not and cannot reasonably aspire to become -- especially for older youths and adults for whom the die is more firmly cast.

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