Monday, October 18, 2010

Outliers and Parenting

I love learning why things are the way they are. That's why I love Malcolm Gladwell, author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink. I recently read his Outliers: The Story of Success, which features tons of fascinating stories and statistics exploring why some people succeed while others don't. His overall thesis is that success is less about natural talent and more about the opportunities one has to practice and develop one's natural aptitudes. The Beatles' Hamburg sessions and the fact that Bill Gates went to a private high school that had computer technology before most colleges are primary examples.

I've blogged about a couple parenting-related books lately (Parenting Inc. and The Lolita Effect), and I'm definitely not planning on reviewing every book I read here, but a few of Gladwell's insights on success do have interesting implications for parenting.

1. It may be a good idea to hold kids back a year. I never thought much about that concept, having been young for my grade myself (a July birthday) and doing just fine, but Gladwell offers some interesting evidence to make me consider it. His opening case study focuses on Canadian hockey players and how most of them are born early in the year. Analyzing the rosters of professional teams and the elite youth programs, January birthdays were common, followed by February, on down to where only a handful were born after July. This is because in kids' leagues, the best players from each age level were tapped early for special training and opportunities, and with a birthday cutoff of January 1, the fastest, strongest players tended to be those born early in the year. They would get the extra playing time and special coaching that it took to become really great. A small advantage as an eight year old becomes huge by adulthood because of all those special opportunities.

As I said, I was young for my grade, and it didn't cause me any problems, and Kate is a January baby, so she's not in the iffy zone at all, but Gladwell's point was that if a child is close to the cutoff date for something (August or September for school, I guess) there really might be some benefit to holding them back. Not because they need the extra year of kindergarten, but because if they're extra smart in first grade, they will get the special attention that may privilege them later. (One of the top GPAs in my graduating class was an August birthday, as I recall, so she was almost a year older than me--and got her driver's license a year and a half before me, due to a change in Kentucky law that hit right as our grade was turning sixteen. Then again, I think the other top GPA was a guy with a June birthday--just a month older than me--so who knows. He's a Navy SEAL now, so he may have been an outlier for other reasons!)

2. Teach your kids to be a little impertinent. In one of my favorite chapters, Gladwell talks about a sociological study where researchers were flies on the wall in the homes of families of all socio-economic classes. There were many differences between rich and poor, of course, but the one they really found to make a difference was the way wealthier parents taught their children to interact with authority figures. It was what he called "entitlement in the best sense of the word."

The main case he described was an upper-class mother who told her son on the way to the doctor's office, "Now, be thinking of any questions you want to ask the doctor." She showed her son that even though he was a child, he could freely address an authority figure to get the information he wanted. Gladwell compared this to a bonafied genius in another chapter who didn't get anywhere in life because he had been trained to distrust authority and could not competently work with authority figures to work out his scholarship and stay in school when he hit a minor paperwork glitch.

3. Parents' involvement matters academically. Nashville blogger Lindsey Ferrier wrote a post last week that actually prompted me to write this post. Lindsey was talking about how much homework her first grader has, and how it would be impossible for a child to do it all and learn from it without a parent right there, walking them through it. Kids whose parents were unable or unwilling to take that time (working a second shift or just too busy with other responsibilities) are at a distinct disadvantage.
This immediately brought to mind Gladwell's discussion of the "achievement gap" studies of schoolchildren have revealed. The stats generally show that kids from lower-income families score lower on various tests, while middle- and upper-class kids do much better. The conclusion is often that poor kids are not as smart or that schools fail poor kids. However, comparing June's scores to September's revealed that over the course of the school year, lower-income kids show more improvement than others, essentially erasing the gap by the end of the school year.

The clincher was when they compared September to June--that is, the end of the summer to the beginning. Poor kids declined over the summer--actually losing some of their reading skills--while the middle-class kids improved slightly and rich kids improved by a huge margin. While the poor children were just chilling out over the summer (and there is certainly something to be said for unstructured playtime), other kids were reading with their parents and going to day camps and special classes, etc. Gladwell uses this to advocate for a school year schedule that doesn't allow such long breaks where so much retention can be lost. I agree with that, since we need to be looking out for the interests of disadvantaged kids, but this vignette also says something about the importance of reading with kids and creating an intellectually-stimulating environment at home.

We all want our kids to be successful--with or without the Beatles' or Bill Gates' kind of fame--and in a way it's nice to know it's not all about their genes (takes some pressure off us biological parents!) But there is some pressure to realizing that we have a huge influence on who our children become, whether it be through big decisions or conversations in the car, or simply snuggling up to read books together.

4 comments:

EMU said...

I love Malcolm Gladwell too! JEU calls his books Sociology Lite. In a good way -- he likes that Gladwell makes people actually read Sociology. :)

Bop was born in May. As an elementary school teacher, I want to hold her back a year. It will depend on what other parents are doing at whatever school she goes to first, but Gladwell certainly makes a strong case for doing so.

Kristen P said...

My boyfriend read those books and I have been meaning to as well. Between the two of you I feel like I've probably already gleaned most of the useful information, but they'll remain on my to-read list so I don't miss anything!

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

Oh, definitely, Kristen! There are so many fascinating insights in his books--read all of them! His newest, "What the Dog Saw" is on my list to read soon.

Katie Bug said...

Gladwell is one of my favorite author's, too. I love that reading his books gives me insight into a variety arenas I would otherwise be completely ingorant of.
As a former kindergarten and current first grade teacher, I completely agree with holding 'young birthdays' out of school an extra year...especially if those youngsters are boys. It's actually a huge trend in our area, and it is mostly done for athletic reasons. I see huge benefits in social and academic areas, though.
Have you read Freakonomics? I've only browsed it, but it contains similarly interesting information about what parents do to help/hinder their children's success in life.

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