July 22, 2004

Better Parenting? Better Genes?

This bit of wonderful news about the state of American youth was making the rounds last week:

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

The Mood of American Youth Survey found that more than 80 percent of teenagers report no family problems -- up from about 40 percent a quarter-century ago. In another poll, two-thirds of daughters said they would "give Mom an 'A.'

"In the history of polling, we've never seen tweens and teens get along with their parents this well," says William Strauss, referring to kids born since 1982. Strauss is author, with Neil Howe, of "Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation."

Not that anyone is complaining, but statistics like these raise some very serious questions. Or, let's be blunt, one major question:

What happened?

To turn on old song on it's head, "Why's there nothing the matter with kids these days?" Glenn Reynolds suggest that multiple factors are at work:

The question is, why are teens doing better? I think there are two answers. First, people noticed problems, and tried a lot of different approaches. Private organizations, church groups, schools, and -- especially -- parents started taking a greater role in educating teenagers and encouraging better behavior. As with teen pregnancy, no single policy solved the problem, but multiple approaches tended to make it better until something seen as insoluble just a few years ago began to look, well, solved.

The other reason for the improvement is simple learning. Parents -- who in the 1960s and 1970s thought they could pursue self-centered lifestyles without harming their kids -- learned that parenting isn't to be taken for granted. Likewise, teenagers gradually noticed things that were easy to miss when the culture of drugs and adolescent rebellion was new. However they look at age 17, the "cool" rebels tend to do worse later in life, and the geeks tend to do better. Just as smelly, desperate crackheads were the best anti-drug advertisement ever presented in the inner cities (far more persuasive than frying-egg commercials on television), so did unemployed loser guys and unwed welfare moms provide visible good reasons to stay in school, make good grades, and be careful about pregnancy.

When such a profound change occurs over such a short period of time, it seems natural to conclude that we're talking about behavioral changes. There is little room for any debate about nature vs. nurture, here. These kids must have pretty much the same genes as their parents, right? There hasn't been time for nature to play a role.


Well...let's take a look at some recent findings. Here's a study from the UK showing that, in monkeys, good mothering apparently makes the difference in whether offspring bearing a certain gene become aggressive:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

And this might not just apply to monkeys:

Speaking on Monday at a press conference in London to mark the opening of a conference on genes and aggression, Suomi said that his results strongly mirror those of a study in 2002 co-led by Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London.

For 26 years, she and her colleagues followed the fate of 1037 children born in 1972 in Dunedin, New Zealand. They found that children were much more likely to grow up to be aggressive and antisocial if they had inherited a "short" version of a gene called MAOA. It makes monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme which helps to break down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and was less efficient in the individuals with the "short" version.

But carriers only went off the rails if they had had an awful, abusive upbringing. Carriers with good mothering were usually completely normal, showed the New Zealand study. Now, Suomi has replicated the finding in the monkeys, showing that carriers of the "short" MAOA gene only turned bad when denied good mothering. "Good mothering has a buffering effect," he says.

So the nature vs. nurture debate grows more complex. It appears that nurturing does, indeed, produce better socialized offspring, but it does this in conjunction with (or in this example, at odds with) natural mechanisms. So nature on its own isn't completely predictive.

But it may go deeper than that. As Kurzweil reported earlier this week:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

(The original Wall Street Journal article is here. I don't know whether non-subscribers can access this one because I stay logged in all the time and it works for me.)

Anyhow, if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, I realize) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.

Posted by Phil at July 22, 2004 10:21 AM | TrackBack


This reminds me of James Taranto's "Roe" theory (named for Roe v. Wade). He argues that gen-x and gen-y is proving to be more conservative precisely because conservative mothers are more likely to voluntarily carry their babies to term.

And, of course, kids tends to adopt their parent's worldviews, politically and otherwise.

I agree somewhat with Mr. Taranto but would add that career-minded women, who tend to be more liberal than the domestic diva at my house, postpone children by many means (contraception more often than abortion). These more liberal women have fewer children than their family-minded counterparts.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at July 22, 2004 01:38 PM

And, of course, kids tends to adopt their parent's worldviews, politically and otherwise.

Exactly how old are your kids, Stephen? :-)

Just kidding. On the whole, I would agree that kids tend to adopt some part of their parents' worldview. I think the Roe Effect provides an excellent demonstration of how a movement can be self-defeating. It's like the Shakers in the 19th century -- they were a religious movement that disavowed sex for everybody, including married people.

So much for the Shakers.

Even so, I'm not sure that I would agree that kids are more "conservative" today. Some of their positive behaviors could be described as such -- for example, their abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and sex. Other positive attributes -- e.g., being less prone to violence -- wouldn't rightly be labeled as conservative or liberal. As for their politics, I think most kids still have a natural utopian bent. On issues like gay marriage, they tend to be a lot mor "liberal" than their parents. On the other hand, they tend to be more likely to be in favor of the war than other age segments.

So they're a little hard to classify. But, I think we can all agree, a great bunch.

Posted by: Phil at July 22, 2004 02:49 PM

Exactly how old are your kids, Stephen? :-)

Heh. Yeah, I overstated my case. A better way of saying it is that parents have alot of influence with their children.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at July 22, 2004 03:42 PM

I said something akin (pun accidental) to this in a pitiful anectdotal manner recently and got shot down on the scientific side and the "religious" side. I was just observing a few generations in my own family. Given half a chance to thrive, kids are smarter, better looking and more talented with each generation. That's a complex outcome and I don't think we can know exactly how much to attribute to nature vs. nurture. But if we continue to be good parents and responsible citizens, the kids are going to get "better all the time."

Posted by: Kathy Hanson at July 22, 2004 05:43 PM

I agree that this is wonderful news! Progress is being made comrades!

Of course, fulfilling my role as the sporadic, grumpy, left-of-center moderate, I'd like to remind folks here that there is a hell of a lot still to be done. There are still children in the States and in the world in dire straits. As long as this waste of human beings continues, phrases like "no child left behind" and "protect life" still ring hollow to me. Let's all do our part to keep the trend going upwards, until all the kids, not just those able to afford health care, nice schools and non-exhausted parents, are strong and healthy!

Anyway, that off my chest, this is still great news.

Posted by: Mr. Farlops at July 23, 2004 01:03 AM

Is there really a generation effect here or is everyone (I assume just in the US) just more conservative? That seems more likely. I suspect that political liberalism would have had the same grip, if it weren't for the Vietnam War and TV.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at July 25, 2004 04:59 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?