Could knowledge get parents back in the game of nature vs. nurture?
In my earlier article I argued that by bestowing as much knowledge as possible on their kids, the parents can improve the odds for their kids making better choices in life and ultimately steer away from nihilistic behavior leading to problematic adult lives. This, of course, sounds neither prophetic nor would cause many to feel wizened by it — I can see many eyes rolling around thinking that I am just repeating common sense.
The reason why I think our children’s knowledge runs deeper than most of us assume is because we usually equate knowledge to the common subjects thought in schools like reading, math, etc. While those are important and many parents are already trying to help their kids acquire such skills before going to school, I don’t actually refer to them!
Before I explain what kind of knowledge I have in mind, let me recount some key aspects of the theory for personality development that I’ve discussed in my nature vs. nurture articles:
- Kids are predisposed to certain behaviors and drawn towards selected interests by their genes – roughly 50% of similarities between siblings is due to genes according to the research, which can (very) approximately be translated as “genes contribute to around 50% of the personality traits of an individual”. This is a very rough approximation as the 50% number makes no sense at individual level, but is rather an average across a large number of people.
- Kids come with innate mechanism that allows them to recognize, catalog and constantly update information about the people they meet, read about, etc. Relationships are central to human life and kids already at birth start to exercise this skill by imprinting on their mother’s face, voice, smell, etc. and later they master in using this skill with all people in their lives. Crucially, early on in their life they also build a sense of self and use the relationship system to understand how other see them — sort of like looking into the mirror, except in the human personality case there are many mirrors!
- From the moment the self is discovered, two opposite forces influence the kids to turn them into the person they’ll eventually be — the first one is the force to conform to the norms and culturally accepted behavior of the group they belong to, driving their sense of identity; — the second is the force to find a niche for themselves so they can uniquely contribute to the group they belong to, but also out-compete the rest of the peers in their group in the constant race for social dominance, leadership, etc.
The above is necessarily a simplification of the theory for personality development, but it should serve its purpose of providing a background for introducing the type of knowledge that is relevant to the kids personality.
Clearly, whether the kid has knowledge about some “conventional” subject like math can offer an opportunity for them to choose a niche for establishing themselves in a certain area. However, if it turns out that the kid is “naturally” good at the subject, it may turn out that some gene-influenced ability is at play — which is to say that when you as a parent are helping gaining more knowledge of the subject, you may simply be catering to the genes and not really influencing. This is not necessarily bad and if you’re in this category you should probably consider yourself lucky in uncovering your kid’s preference and acting on it — as an added bonus you’ll get Sir Ken’s approval as you’ll appear helping your kid to find his/her Element!
We have to be aware that during the process of group identification, our kids may literally block certain knowledge from their interests as uncool, unacceptable, against their faith, etc. Try teaching evolution to kids brought up in a religious community or teach them that men and women can share all tasks at home if the neighbourhood is less enlightened than you to see what I mean — Harris in The Nurture Assumption mentions a case where parents discover to their horror that when playing the game of House with their friends, their kids separate tasks into men- and women-only categories, even if their dad is the one who is doing the dishes and the mom the one mowing the lawn ;-)
The knowledge that I believe can have an impact on the kids’ choices and can go through the cultural filters of their peer group is of type one may call with names like social intelligence, practical wisdom, life lessons, etc. It is the knowledge how to navigate the world around us, the knowledge to understand rules, when to obey them and when/how to bend them, the stories of your own childhood that are still relevant to the kids today,…
I strongly believe that teaching our kids at early age stuff relevant to understanding the world has a small but still significant chance to make a contribution to their personal choices when with their peers or groups they identify with. This can be done by fostering an environment at home in which the kids are allowed to ask any questions, by using story telling to impart certain knowledge and by spending more time in explaining how people function, interact, make decisions, etc.
Of course, you should teach them evolution instead of intelligent design and other rubbish creationist ideas to make this possible ;-) Seriously, kids should be thought about the natural world as soon as they can start grasping some basic tenets like how animals are similar or different, why we grow plants, etc., to set the stage for explaining how people behave and why they do so in a certain way!
Having an understanding why people make rules, how are the rules make, why it is important to follow them, when it is ok to break them, etc. is another domain where we should put a lot of focus. We often just put rules to make our lives easier to limit certain behavior we don’t like, but that only changes life at home and has practically no impact on the kids’ behaviour outside home and therefore on how their personality gets shaped. We should instead give them a tool set they can use to measure and assess the rules emerging in the group culture they belong to, so they can make better judgements on their own.
Finally, another type of knowledge which we should be imparting is what I would call meta-knowledge, i.e. the knowledge how to learn, how to get information about something, how to approach new problems, etc. This is an area which is only possible if we support a healthy dose of curiosity in our kids and instead of shutting down the door for them coming up with questions and problems by dismissing their early questions as silly, and unimportant to our busy lives!
Of course, this type of knowledge can’t always easily be conveyed by sitting your kid in a room and trying to explain the world. They need to experience the world to learn it and experiences are the topic of my next article. Stay tuned! ;-)