Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thanks to David Brooks, It All Makes Sense Now

The wealthy of our society are able to hire nannies, who can love their children and teach them how to resist the temptation of marshmallows before the age of three. Children of privilege, having both the love of an nanny and the power of self-distraction inculcated within them by the age of three, will be all-but-guaranteed that a suitable personality in high school, and success in their future lives. Unfortunately, this may leave the nanny too busy for her own children, who will succumb to the temptation of marshmallows and thus fail to achieve the American dream. Because, darn it all, good child care is just too expensive to provide to people who can't afford to pay for it themselves.
When you turn your attention to human capital formation, you begin by thinking about job training and schools. But you discover that while learning is like nutrition (you have to do it every day), earlier is better. That's because, as James Heckman puts it, learners learn and skill begets skill. Children who've developed good brain functions by age 3 have advantages that accumulate through life.

* * *

Getting this right is tricky. Head Start produces only modest benefits, as a study from the Department of Health and Human Services has reminded us again. Small, intensive preschool programs yield tremendous results, but realistically, they cannot be done on a giant scale.

* * *

If there's one thing that leaps out of all the brain literature, it is that, as Daniel J. Siegel puts it, "emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain." Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.
To the extent that Brooks wishes to argue that he's talking about love and not money, in recognizing the growing stratification of wealth in this nation he implicitly acknowledges that children of the very wealthy who rely upon people outside of the family to raise their children manage to do so with sufficient amounts of "love". Perhaps he means to say that love isn't really enough, and that children need the sort of emotional security that he does not believe the poor are capable of providing (or buying), save perhaps when working as child care providers and nannies. (But that's not what he says.)

The proposed solution appears to be to throw your hands up in the air in despair, and walk away from the problem.


  1. Brooks probably doesn't even need to get as far as nannies. Childcare is the wife's problem. He still has his career.

  2. He probably knows little more of how his better half lives than he does of how the other half lives.


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