October 2, 2005

Nature and Nurture

A new British study, the most extensive yet of its kind, reveals that babies do best with their own mother.

According to Penelope Leach, a leading British childcare expert and one of the study's authors, the social and emotional development of children cared for by someone other than their mother 'is definitely less good'.

Not exactly shocking, but how much fuel does this give to anti-gay marriage groups or groups that demand women stay at home to mother their children? If this is broadly published and substantiated (perhaps with a twin study in the US), what kind of effect might this have on these national debates about parenting?

Also, "definitely less good?" Is that like "plus ungood," a la Orwell?


  1. Since it tracks with many people's intuitions about the matter, I doubt if it will give much fuel to anyone. Natural mothers are connected to their babies through common DNA, through the experience of carrying the baby for 9 months, and (perhaps this is more controversial than what I've said so far) through some kind of biological/hormonal disposition toward caring for the baby. That sort of thing, on average is not likely to find a perfect substitute in group care or in the care of a well-meaning relative.

    I think that most people already know this or believe this. Social service agencies which handle adoptions and termination of parental rights and that sort of thing usually start off with a presumption that the child's best interest is to remain with its natural parents.

    The conclusion about group care is also unsurprising. Who would have thought that babies do better with individual attention from their own mothers than from being thrown into a nursery?

    It's probably worth noting that the study does not conclude that every child is always better off with its own mother. There are some genuinely horrible mothers out there, and some genuinely talented nonbiological caregivers. I don't think it hurts gay people at all because they aren't "competing" in any sense with a child's biological parents. If I had a child and a gay couple tried to get the government to take it away from me on the grounds that they had more money and more free time and would be better for the child, I could wave the study in their faces, but the same is true of a straight couple.

    I don't think that the study hurts gay people at all, at least not as a logical matter. Pat Robertson might be able to work it into his speeches by twisting it, but the same is true of just about anything.

    One of these days I actually need to read 1984. Animal Farm kicked ass.

  2. Actually, what seems a “no-brainer” is totally unsupported by the data. There is a growing body of opinion that parenting has no long-term effects on children’s personality whatsoever.

    There are many studies like leach’s. Some show children doing *better* in daycare, some show no effect, others such as this one show children doing (slightly) worse, but only in the first three years.

    In fact all such studies are BS because they fail to control for heredity. Studies that DO control for heredity (such as those involving adoptees and twins) consistently show no long term effects due to parenting.

    See Judith Rich Harris’s “The Nurture Assumption” or Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” for a thorough demolition of such studies and their methods.

    As Steven Pinker says, “It’s not all in the genes, but the part that is not in the genes is not from the parents either”.