27 May 2011

Reflections On Parenting As School Is Out For The Year

Today is the last day of school for my children in the Denver Public Schools (a few schools affiliated with the district have alternative calendars).

Honestly, as inconvenient as it can be to cobble together everyone's new schedules for the summer, it is a joy for the sense of rhythm it adds to life. I spend the majority of of my daylight hours in climate controlled office buildings, and Denver's weather is quirky enough that the conditions when I do venture out don't always give me a clear take on the season.

Like most jobs, my work is amorphous. I have many cases going at any given time and they almost never all stop at once. While I'm often very aware of the date, one month can blur into the next, and one year slides into another. Everything that I do except tax planning has rolling deadlines, not annual ones. I'm not the exception. A colleague of mine I had lunch with this week could figure out what year he started his current employment only in reference to the year that someone in the firm had a child.

Children ground you and give you bearings. Their schools years make your place in the seasons relevant to your life. Their well defined march from year to year is full of landmarks - entering elementary school, hitting double digits in age, entering middle school, and soon enough for me, the teen years, and high school. Life with one or two preschoolers is so very different from having children in school. Life before one of the kids is old enough to babysit has immense logistical differences from life after that point. Their school vacations, their school performances and awards ceremonies, their sports seasons, their report cards and their fund raisers add predictable highlights to the year. Without them to ground us, life might seem to go by in a fugue.

The end of the school year is also one of the dates, along with my birthday, my anniversary, New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, and the anniversary of my first admission to the practice of law that I step back and reflect on what I've accomplished in the past years.

The end of the school year, even more than my children's birthdays, is a day that I treat a bit like those signs that say "X days without accidents." I have gotten the kids this many years into their lives with parents who have stayed married, a stable home and school, and the kind of academic and social progress that they should have at this point. I'm someone who spends a lot of time reminding people of their mortality in connection with estate planning and probate work, and when I'm not doing that I'm often planning for worst case financial scenarios in asset protection planning. I also monitor the nature v. nurture debate on the context of the latest findings of psychologists and psychiatrists and neuroscientists and geneticists. So, I help but to ponder at the end of each school year, "what if I got hit by a bus right now?", how much of doing everything we've done to raise our children so far would stick and what might fall apart? How irrevocable are the benefits we've conferred upon them this year? How set are they on the courses of their lives?

The academic literature on this isn't terribly rigorous, mostly because people who have critical experiences tend to be undersampled.  Basket case parents usually don't adopt and thus, don't end up in adoption studies. Very few twins are separated at birth, because its cruel. Flakes on the brink of survival tend to not volunteer for longitudinal research studies.

There is a lot of literature on on the extent to which traits are hereditary and the point in time when academic achievement gaps start to manifest. This literature offers reassurance to the anxious parent. Statistically speaking, a much larger share of variance between people in a wide variety of traits than people who are not familiar with the literature would expect can be attributed either to hereditary effects, or to "non-shared environment" between siblings which mostly involves things other than the choices that parents can control in raising their children.

But, to be a pessimist and cast a necessary dollop of doubt upon these findings, a great many traits involve gene x environment interactions, and the vast majority of people whose experiences give rise to the estimates of heredity don't experience many major upheavals in their lives. Studies that select subjects based on shared experiences of major upheavals and traumas tend to see bigger environmental effects than studies of the general population that capture people who have experienced these things only sporadically.

For example, the research seems to indicate that the genetic component of IQ is basically a ceiling on a person's intellectual ability in the absence of negative environmental factors that drag someone down. For people in middle class or upper middle class environments that have few of these drags on learning, the genetic component of IQ is quite large. For people who grow up in poverty, the shared environment impact of poverty on family members which varies a lot depending upon the parenting present that can mitigate or aggravate these environmental drags on learning are far more important as a source of variation from one person to the next, than a person's peak genetic potential IQ which is very hard to achieve when one is in poverty.

Not all traits in a child's development are in formative periods at the same time either. The genetic and environmental influences of IQ have pretty much run their course by the time a child heads to middle school, if not sooner.  Most children have clearly left the path that includes anger management problems and disruptive behavior by then as well.  A tendency towards anxiety manifests extremely early, as does gender identity (i.e. viewing oneself as male or female, regardless of one's body or sexual orientation).  A child's capacity to delay gratification also appears to manifest quite early.

There is some psychological literature that indicates that middle school and high school are critical ages in terms of how a person will function later in life in intimate relationships. A nasty divorce or betrayal of trust by an adults through sexual relationships with a kid at that point in life can undermine a kid's willingness to make the commitments and have the trust needed to avoid stumbling blocks later in life in those relationships.  But, few people end up spending their lives with their middle school, or even high school, sweethearts.  Some people are more resilient than others in the face of trauma.  Some young people who are made into child soldiers or gang members will be forever stone cold, while others can be restored to some semblance of normalcy if intervention happens soon enough and their reentry to society is managed well.

There is anecdotal evidence that people tend to keep whatever hairstyle and fashion preferences they adopt in their early twenties for the rest of their adult lives.

For parents the goal posts keep moving. Just when you can be confident that you have finally cleared the hurdle of getting your kids on the right track in life in one thing no matter how much you screw up later, there is some new critical developmental hurdle to clear.

Of course, this isn't exclusively a parent's responsibility. Kids make good and bad choices in their own lives that start when parents no longer have effective absolute veto power over what they eat for lunches and snacks and continue well into adulthood. Academics and opera singers have critical developments they need to make in their career specialties that will influence the rest of their lives greatly, well into their thirties, long after most have left the nest. For political staffers and lawyers and management consultants and investment bankers and doctors, one's first few years on the job are typically when you develop your professional specialty, which can be very hard to predict based upon your generalized education before that point. Some people who move to a new country as adults will adapt fairly gracefully, even if they never entirely lose their accents, while others fail to thrive or "crack" psychologically at that point. A choice of a life partner can change who you become.

For better or for worse, my own tendency is not to second guess what I've already done very much - it is what it is, but to fret over how secure what has already been accomplished will be in the future and one what developmental issues are not yet set strongly for children of the same age and gender as mine. I'm sure that there are other ways of looking at it, and some are probably better than mine. But, these are the kind of yardsticks that come to mind almost involuntarily.

Similarly, it is hard for me to stay focused on what my children do well and could perhaps advance further doing, as opposed to focusing on the issues that they struggle with but need to master. Focusing on the negative can be discouraging to them, but every time I see an issue come up for one of my children that is a struggle, I hear a clock silently ticking away in my head. Is it too late to make real progress in dealing with this? And, of course, there is joy in simply seeing children cease to become abstract possibilities and become their own distinctive individuals on their own paths in life. Each time that they take one fork instead of another in life you can develop a better feel for the kinds of paths they will take in life as adults and who they are becoming. Is he outgoing or introspective? Will she be a tomboy or a girl who is all sugar and spice? How tall will they grow? What are their academic strong and weak points? How do they treat their friends?  What lessons are they learning from me by example?

Sometimes you can get ahead of yourself. My dear wife has been obsessing about where our children will go to college since they were in pre-school, although this urge has been tamed a little over time. I'm less like a "tiger dad" and more like someone reading all of the Harry Potter books from start to finish and impatiently driven by pure curiosity to see what ends up in the epilogue, perhaps at the expense of the joy of the journey, without as much emphasis on having any particular ending.  We each only have one shot for each child and we can only do our best and strive to improve.

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