Vacation Beast, back home

Jay on Grandpa’s farm

On Tuesday evening, a little after 8pm, Jay looked out our car window and for the first time in nearly two weeks, he recognized where he was..  “This is our road!” Jay exclaimed from his car seat as we pulled to a stop at the corner of Colony and Packard.  A mix of amazement and joy spread across his face.  After 2237 miles, we were down to our last tenth.  For a moment I thought he was going to cry.

A day earlier my feelings towards Jay had been less warm.  In my previous post I wrote about some of the good qualities that vacation brings out in a kid. Among other things, Caroline and I find that Jay and Wally’s exposure to new people and new experiences on a trip leaves them seeming more sophisticated and grown-up by the time we return home.

The family (minus Caroline) at Grandpa’s house, upstate NY

But not every vacation-induced personality change is a positive one.  On Monday night—our last in Virginia before heading home—Caroline remarked to me that Jay had turned into “Vacation Beast.”  I knew immediately what she meant.  He’d become increasingly whiny and demanding over the past week.  “Please” had disappeared completely from his lexicon.  For the first time maybe in his life, I regarded him as a bit of a brat.

There are two ways to explain the evolution of Vacation Beast.

The first, which kinder hearts might adopt, is that all the travel threw Jay off: He was acting bratty because he felt unsettled.  At home we have our routines, which allow him to feel in control of his world.  Absent that routine and that control, Jay felt vulnerable which made him act more erratically.

The second, which is where my mind naturally comes to rest, is that Jay had had just a little too much attention and too many cookies over the past week, and had come to feel entitled.

Wally in the lake, Virginia

There’s probably truth to both explanations.  Either way, Caroline and I agreed that the best redress for Vacation Beast was to get him back home where the comfort of his daily routine would help him breath a little easier and do more for himself.

We’ve been back home for two days and Vacation Beast is still on the prowl.  This morning Jay spent 10 minutes screaming at us from behind his closed bedroom door over a perceived offense too trivial to recount.  (Basically, Jay was yelling at us to get out of bed and put him back in his crib, which we refused to do because we were tired and because we knew his real aim was just to get our attention.)

When Jay finally piped down I went into his room and asked him if he wanted to come sit with me.  He did.  I told him that Daddy and Mama are very happy to do things for him as long as he doesn’t whine or cry or scream.  Jay responded by tickling the top of my head.  “There are ants everywhere,” he said, which I generously interpreted to be his way of saying, “I hear you.”

By the end of our trip I found myself missing Jay, which is a common feeling for me at the end of a long stretch away from home.  Partly the feeling arose from a lack of time together.  Over the last two weeks Jay spent a lot of time playing with his grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  I was less the center of his world—and he less the center of mine—than we are to each other during our quieter days at home.

Partly, too, the feeling arose from the absence of routine itself.  This is surprising, I think, given that we tend to think of routine as something that deadens relationship and vacation as something that revives relationships.

But routine also creates a kind of intimacy.  At home I always know where Jay is and what he’s doing.  The consistency of our surroundings makes it easier to perceive small fluctuations in his mood; routine, in a kind of counterintuitive way, provides us with the opportunity to be more aware of each other.

So in that sense I’m glad to be back home.  I’m looking forward to getting to know Jay again.  And I’m hoping that he’s going to get to know himself again, too.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

Jay falls in love with his Grammy

A Thanksgiving road trip that could have been worse

After the flood and the move, it’s good to see you again


A long road trip gives a measure of how the boys are changing

We’re one week into a 12-day trip east that has featured stops in upstate New York, Philadelphia, and now Washington, DC where we’re spending time with Caroline’s parents and going to a wedding this weekend.

The boys are here, of course.  The defining moment of our trip so far comes from Tuesday night, 10pm, Philadelphia.  We’d eaten dinner with a group of friends and Caroline and I had decided to walk back to the house where we were staying in order to have a little extra time to soak in the atmosphere of our old neighborhood.  The walk was going well.  Wally was asleep in the carrier on Caroline’s chest and Jay was still full-steam ahead despite being up several hours past his bedtime.

But then three blocks from our destination, Jay tripped on a crack in the sidewalk.  I heard him cry out and turned to look.  There he was in the dim yellow glow of the overhead street light, lying on his back, limbs splayed on the concrete, looking every bit like a very small murder victim.

In truth he had only a skinned knee, but at that hour of the day there is no recovering from even the most minor calamity.  With a pack ‘n play in one arm (we’d put Wally to bed in it halfway through dinner) and a paralytically upset Jay in the other, I hustled towards home, laughing all the way at how pleased I’d felt just 10 minutes earlier about our seize-the-night decision to walk instead of indulging in an easy, spiritless cab ride to bed.

One of my favorite parts about traveling with Jay and Wally is that I find getting out of our routine affords a fresh perspective on the boys’ development.

For example, last year we made this same trip.  And Jay was terrified of the water when we were at the small pond on my dad’s farm and terrified of the water again when we visited Caroline’s parents who live on a lake.  But this year he’s jumping right in.  Family vacations, especially when you go to the same places every year, provide a neat little index for how kids change.

This is also the first family trip where sharing a room with Jay feels like no big thing.  On past trips we’ve segregated him in bathrooms, closets, hallways- anywhere we could put him so that we wouldn’t get in the way of his sleep and he wouldn’t get in the way of ours.  But on this trip we’ve discovered that sharing a room with him isn’t really any different than sharing a room with another grown-up.  Except he sleeps more soundly and never snores.

Traveling with Jay this time has felt very freeing, in the sense that it’s easy, all of a sudden, to imagine taking him just about anywhere.

Wally, however, is a different story.  He’s two weeks shy of a year which I think is just about the worst age to travel with a kid. I should preface that comment by saying he’s been an absolute delight to have with us.  He’s beginning to talk and gesture and he’s been incredibly excited by all the new sensations we’ve encountered on the trip.  Plus he’s just unbearably cute basically all the time.

But…he’s not very flexible as far as his needs go.  Like, when he’s tired he’s tired, and when he wants to get down and crawl he wants to get down in crawl, and when he absolutely cannot stand to be in his car seat a moment longer there’s nothing to do but get off the highway or let him wail.

Whereas with Jay, who’s almost three, I feel like we can wring an extra hour of energy out of him when we need to (provided no skinned knees).

And he’s demonstrated on this trip a surprising capacity to absorb boredom.

The drive to my dad’s is 600 miles. In the first hour of the trip we told Jay we’d be there by dinner time, after which he asked, over and again, “Is it almost dinner?” knowing full well, of course, that it wasn’t.  Several times during the drive I glanced in the rearview mirror to see him slumped in his car seat, head turned to one side looking out the window, a combination of resignation and misery plastered on his face.

And I was proud of him.  He knew that being in the car sucked, and that it wasn’t going to end anytime soon, but he just kind of put his head down and dealt with it, which is maybe one of the most undervalued qualities a parent could hope for in a kid.

The sound of a child

Yesterday afternoon Caroline, Jay, and Wally were in the car driving to Trader Joe’s.  As they turned into the shopping plaza Jay piped up from the backseat: “I want to push a small cart in the store.”

And indeed, pushing one of Trader Joe’s kid-sized carts has been a dream of Jay’s ever since we moved to Ann Arbor.  Many times Jay has sprinted through the store’s automatic doors to the small line of small carts back by the customer service desk. Always I’ve caught him, instructed him about the dangers of running away, and told him that it would be too hard for me to push my cart and keep an eye on him with his at the same time.  His was a dream deferred.

But maybe Jay thought Caroline was an easier mark, and yesterday he used a better tactic: He tried to establish expectations ahead of time.  That’s one of my and Caroline’s favorite tricks.  About a year ago we realized that it was hard to bring Jay’s behavior in line once we were actually in a restaurant, say, but pretty easy to tame him if we laid our expectations while he was still in his car seat and he had time to adjust his mindset accordingly.

And yesterday afternoon Jay turned the tables on us.  It’s so much harder to say ‘no’ to his requests when he has the presence of mind to lodge them so far in advance of the moment of intended realization: His forward planning has the effect of emphasizing just how much he wants something and also suggests a degree of thoughtfulness and maturity that convince us he can handle responsibly whatever small privilege it is that he covets.

So Caroline said yes to the cart, contingent on her own set of expectations: that Jay stick close to her in the store and not pull food off the shelves.  The three of them arrived in the store and Caroline told Jay she didn’t know where the little carts were.  He had no problem showing her the way.

Jay turns three on the last day of May, which has had me thinking about the time right after he was born, before he’d gotten quite so good at working things to his advantage.  When he was three days old I walked him home from the hospital, fourteen blocks, asleep in the carrier against my chest.  Halfway home we go caught in a rain squall and I took cover beneath the awning of a pizza parlor, afraid that even a drop of water might be too much for his new skin to handle.  While waiting for the storm to pass I chatted with a young couple who’d been eating at a sidewalk table when it had started to rain.  Their faces went wide when I told them that as recently as that past Saturday, Jay had not fully been alive.

My short conversation with that couple under the awning was my introduction to the mesmeric quality babies have on other people. Walking proudly through Rittenhouse Square after Jay was born (and again two years later when Wally came along), I quickly noticed the way people we passed craned their heads for a better view, and tapped their companions on the shoulders: Oh my God, look at that baby.

Around that same time I noticed something else: That there was no similar gawking over the older boys in the park. It seemed that at a certain point that very little kids outgrew their magic.  I realized that eventually Jay would not be quite as captivating to the outside world, and I was curious to see exactly when that transition would take place.

Well, he’s now almost three and the transition is well underway if not nearly complete. This weekend we spent a day with a pair of good friends passing through from out of town. They were kind and wonderful to both Jay and Wally, but after they’d left Caroline and I remarked to each other, nearly at once, that there had been a noticeable difference in the way our friends had approached our two boys: They had kicked the soccer ball with Jay because they knew how much he’d like it; they’d scooped up the crawling Wally (who’s technically in infant for one more month) because, really, who can resist something that cute.

The change in Jay’s standing with the public reminds me a little of the children’s Christmas book The Polar Express.  The boy in the story, if you don’t remember, takes a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole where he’s chosen out of all the assembled children to receive the first gift of Christmas.  After a moment of thought he decides to ask for a single silver bell, snipped from the reindeers’ harnesses.

As he travels back home with the bell the boys narrates that the bell made the most beautiful sound.  He also remarks, looking back in time now, that over time the number of people who could hear the bell ring slowly shrank: At first all children could hear it; then just he and his sister could; and finally, when they were all grown up, the bell rang only for him.

Stories like the one with which I opened, about Jay and the small cart at Trader Joe’s, are filled with the kind of nuance and are situated in a life-historical trajectory that it’s hard for anyone but Jay’s very closest observers to appreciate.  It occurs to me that kids are magical in kind of the same way that the bell in The Polar Express was magical: At first they’re wondrous even to complete strangers but over time the circle shrinks. I have a feeling, though, that for as long as Caroline and I are alive and as old as they get, Jay and Wally will never cease to ring for us.

Profiled on The Parent du Jour

About a year ago I discovered a website called The Parent du Jour.  Even the monolingual among us can probably guess what it’s about: Every day, 365 days a year, they profile a different parent.  And today they’re profiling me.  Some of my answers will be familiar to regular readers of this blog and some cover new ground.  I hope you enjoy reading the profile and that you’ll keep coming back to their site.  If all goes well a couple of Growing Sideways’ favorite parents- Lis Fogt and Chris Huntington– will be parents du jour in the near future.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:


I saw this episode of The Dog Whisperer Once. There was this overly energetic, slightly manic dog. A yellow lab, I think. And Cesar Milan’s solution was to strap a weight jacket on the dog. He explained that the dog needed to feel like he was doing work—he needed a sense of purpose—in order to settle the dog down enough so that he could handle the mundane parts of his life—going for a walk, lying around the house. I was like that before I became a father. I was pretty confused in my 20s. Not in any dramatic kind of way—I just didn’t know what I wanted in life. Becoming a father gave me enough structure to begin to fill in the other pieces of my life.  [keep reading…]

Feeling rushed: Is it all in my head?

Our weekday mornings are usually frenzied.  The boys are both up a little after 7am.  Caroline and I do our best to get them to play by themselves for a while.  One of us dozes on the couch as Wally plays in the playroom while the other stays in bed and tries to fend off Jay’s inquiries, shouted at us from his room which he knows he’s not allowed to leave until the alarm goes off.

Then at 8am the pace picks up: We get dressed, make breakfast, eat, clean up, make Wally’s bottles, brush teeth, find shoes, put them on.  Throughout the process I’m aware of the clock, hurrying things along, trying to get everyone set for our nanny’s arrival at nine.

There are several points during the day where I tend to feel rushed and stressed.  One is in the morning.  The second is between 4:30pm and 5pm when I’m trying to get Jay and Wally into the car so we can go pick up Caroline at school.  The third is the hour before the boys’ bedtime—dinner, ‘jams, teethbrushing, books, milk, lights-out.  Phew.  In all three of these periods I find my heart rate’s up and the world starts to go a little dizzy.  There’s this intensity of trying to move, move, move, as if the floor is going to fall away beneath my feet.

Recently I read a book that made me question whether my days really need to feel this way.  The book wasn’t about taking deep breaths and it wouldn’t be stocked under “self-help.”  Rather, it was a sociology book about how Americans spend their time—and it made me realize that the feeling of rushing through so many parts of the day is as much about me as it is about the actual tasks that need to get accomplished.

The book is called Time For Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time.  It was published in 1997 and co-authored by John Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project.  The data in the book was collected using “time diaries” where research participants logged every activity they did in a single 24-hour period.   Robinson and his co-author Geoffrey Godbey use that data to analyze the time Americans spend at paid-work, doing household chores, and engaged in free time activities, and how time usage varies between men and women, racial groups, and citizens of different countries.

Time For Life advances a striking argument: Americans, the authors contend, feel a lot more rushed than they should given the amount of free time they actually have in their lives.  They argue that between 1965 and 1995 the amount of time Americans spent doing paid-work and household chores went down while the amount of free time we had went up.  Yet over that same period more Americans reported feeling “always rushed” during their days.

(Before getting to the graphs, I should note that Time For Life only includes data through 1995.  The rhythms of daily life can change to a surprising degree in only 17 years, so 1995 data should not be considered exactly reflective of the way Americans live today.  That said, I think the points raised in Time For Life remain applicable even if American’s time usage has changed slightly over the intervening years.)

Here, then, is a graph showing how women’s total labor time (paid work and unpaid household work) and free time changed between 1965 and 1995:

And here’s the same chart for men:

The story of how and why women and men’s time-usage has changed over the last 45 years is very interesting.  I’ll dive deeper into it in subsequent posts.  For now, though, I just want to concentrate on this idea that from 1965-1995 Total Work went down and Free Time went up.*

Time For Life also includes data on people’s “perceptions of time pressure.” Since 1965 the Americans’ Use of Time Project has polled people on the question, “Would you say you always feel rushed, even to do the things you have to do, only sometimes feel rushed, or almost never feel rushed?”  The following graph shows the percentage of Americans who answer that they “always feel rushed”:

This data presents a riddle: Why do Americans feel increasingly rushed at the same time that we’re working less and enjoying more free time?   Robinson and Godbey advance several explanations.  Chief among them is the idea that, “Free time is expanding but not as fast as people’s sense of the necessary.”  Put another way, we have more free time than we did in 1965 but also a greater list of things we feel like we need to accomplish in order to live good lives.

When I think about why I feel rushed during my daily routine, I come up with two explanations.

The first is the idea Robinson and Godbey advance—I feel like there’s a lot I need to get done in order to go to bed thinking “I’ve had a good day”: make money, advance my writing career, nurture Jay and Wally, spend meaningful time with Caroline, exercise, read for pleasure, keep up with households chores.

The second explanation is that I operate with this sense that things need to get done by exactly a given time: We need to be ready to get out the door at exactly 9am; we need to pick Caroline up at exactly 5pm; the boys need to be in bed absolutely no later than 7:30pm.  And when you feel like you need to keep a schedule to the minute it’s a given that you’re going to feel stressed along the way.

There’s a lot more I want to write about how Americans use their time.  In subsequent posts I’ll share more data about how men and women’s time-usage has changed in recent decades and I’ll write more about how our perceptions of time scarcity influence the overall levels of satisfaction we have about our lives.

For now, I’ll end by saying that over the last month or so I’ve been trying hard to stop feeling that our days need to be accomplished according to such a precise schedule.  This afternoon, for example, I’ll pack the boys into the car and we’ll head up Packard Avenue to get Caroline.  I’m going to try remember that it doesn’t matter whether we leave the house at 4:50pm or 4:58pm. The only difference those eight minutes make is in my sanity.

*I should note that there seems to be widespread agreement among researchers that leisure time has gone up over time.  See, for example, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades” by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst.

A long way from Bali

That’s a photo of Ubud, Bali. It was taken by a friend and emailed to me this morning. “View from the cafe I’m at right now,” he wrote. “Writing in my journal while drinking a frosty brew and watching the rice grow. The chillest moment of my life.”

He was joking (a little) about that being the chillest moment of his life, but still, there was no doubt that his Balinese evening had a little more Zen to it than our Ann Arbor morning.  Caroline has a cold and was up half the night.  A little before midnight I decamped from our bedroom to escape the sniffling and landed on a mattress on the floor in the playroom.  When we all gathered around the breakfast table at 8am the mood was decidedly grim.

The picture from Bali stirred a gurgle of longing in my stomach.  It also reminded me of an evening on the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos eight years ago.  That’s me there, in front of the big beer.  Caroline was on the other side of the camera.When I find myself longing for a lifestyle that makes a perch on a river in Southeast Asia easier to come by, I remind myself that the expression on my face in that picture was hardly one of blissed out contentment.  That evening, in May 2006, was at the end of a long trip.  I was listless and bored and wanted nothing more than to come home and put down roots.  Today I’ve swung a little far in the other direction; I wouldn’t mind a little more Bali in my life.  But I also know that life with really young kids is its own temporary kind of thing and not something I want to rush past.

Over the last week I’ve been reading David Maraniss‘ new biography of Barack Obama.  It covers the early years- birth to age 26.  At first I was disappointed that there would be no accounting of Obama’s political rise, but now, having finished the book, I think Maraniss made the right decision: Obama’s growth as a person, from a little kid running the alleys of Jakarta to a kind-of-stoner at a Honolulu prep school to a lost 20-something in New York City to the uncommonly poised and talented man we know today is a thing to behold- and certainly way more interesting than the story of how he got elected to the Senate.

(What stuns me most is that for the first 25 or so years of his life basically no one who knew Obama would have said he had any extraordinary degree of talent, let alone that he was destined for greatness.  During those first decades of his life he was figuring out who he was and what he wanted to accomplish in the world.  Once he got his personal house in order, he took off like a rocket.)

I bring up the biography because Obama’s gravitation towards religion in his 20s fits with how I’d explain my gravitation towards family during that same time in my life.  Maraniss quotes from Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father, where the future president explained why he decided to join a church:

I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in a way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.

Starting a family has a lot in common with joining a religion:  Both involve committing to something outside yourself, and it takes a leap of faith both to believe in God and to let love for a child serve as the organizing principle of your days.  And when I think about why I wanted to give up the freedom I had in my 20s in order to become a father, I think about it in much the same terms that Obama used to describe his turn towards religion: Without an unequivocal commitment to something, or someone, outside of myself, I felt like I didn’t have any way to make sense of and live out my beliefs.

A few months ago I told Caroline, who is kind when I navel gaze over dinner, that I imagine the realm of my concerns changing throughout my life like this: My 20s were about me; my 30s and 40s will be about family; and life after that will be about engagement with the wider world.

This progression is obviously silly on one level.  At the same time, I think that it makes sense that personal growth prepares one for family and that family prepares one for politics: Without self-knowledge it’s hard to know what kinds of values to instill in your kids; and building a family culture is a first baby step towards thinking about the bigger question of how we should all live together.

I often think about parenthood as a pause between periods of freedom: Bali. Kids. Bali.  But receiving that picture from my friend and reading about Obama made me realize something maybe I already knew: That what I long for most these days is not  more personal freedom; it’s more engagement with the thrum and swag of American life.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

Life in the trees

Opportunity costs: How much does it matter where Jay and Wally go to high school?

Two weeks ago I speculated about what an extra $50,000 in annual income would mean for how Jay and Wally grow up.  I looked at national data and concluded that the lion’s share of that money would end up going into their educations—either as private school tuition or (as several readers pointed out) as a mortgage payment in a high-rent suburb with well-regarded public schools.

Since then I’ve been chewing on the question: To what extent will the K-12 schools Jay and Wally attend determine how much opportunity and success they have in life?  And, related to that question, to what extent will the amount of money Caroline and I make affect our children’s chances in life?

These are, I think, critical questions to come up with some kind of precise or at least well-reasoned answer to.  A desire to give your kids the best possible future drives many of the biggest decisions parents make in life—from career decisions, to where to live, to where to send one’s kids to school.  Given that, it’s worth trying to get a handle on how the success equation actually works- to make sure we’re actually putting the right amount of resources and energy into providing the right kinds of inputs.

Family Income and Children’s Outcomes

The relationship between family income and children’s outcomes is notoriously difficult to tease out.  For sure, average parental income is higher among kids who attend Ivy League colleges than it is among kids who drop-out of high school.  But just because high-parental income correlates with Ivy League matriculation doesn’t mean it causes it.  There are all sorts of other characteristics that tend to be packaged together with high parental income, including high parental educational attainment, certain genetic endowments, and a family culture that promotes educational success.  Because these characteristics are found together so often, it’s hard to disentangle them, and hard to determine which ones are really driving the train.

One of the most authoritative studies of the relationship between income and achievement is a book called What Money Can’t Buy: Family Income and Children’s Life Chances by Susan Mayer, professor of public policy at the University of Chicago.  The title gives away Mayer’s conclusion: Income doesn’t do much to boost kids’ prospects in life.

Mayer is concerned about welfare policy, so she focuses her analysis on low-income families and the extent to which cash transfers to parents can help kids climb out of poverty (she concludes they don’t do much).  But her analysis is applicable across the income spectrum.

As you might expect, if additional family income doesn’t make a big difference for poor kids, it makes even less of a difference for middle class kids who are already well-provided for.  Mayer argues that kids need access to books and exposure to educational experiences like trips to the museum, neither of which cost that much to provide, and that once a minimum standard of material provision is reached, each additional dollar of family income doesn’t do a lot to give a kid a leg up in life.  In her own words:

Some child-specific possessions and activities, such as the number of books a child has and how often a child visits a museum, do influence how well children score on cognitive assessments. But parents’ income is only weakly related to whether children have these amenities. This is probably because these items cost so little that their distribution depends more on parents’ tastes than their income.  Thus the amenities that are important to children’s outcomes are weakly related to parents’ income, whereas the amenities that are strongly related to parents’ income are not very important to children’s outcomes.

Mayer performs a variety of statistical analyses to draw this conclusion, all of which are accessible at a conceptual level and are very elegant to behold.  I’d encourage people to read the introduction to What Money Can’t Buy, which is available on Google Books.

School Quality and Children’s Outcomes

So what about school quality and children’s life outcomes?  Money certainly does buy access to more highly regarded K-12 schools, whether public or private, and it’s hard to see how that couldn’t help.  But Mayer’s analysis would suggest that such access is not hugely consequential for how kids turn out in life: Smart kids from families that value education are going to do well regardless of where they go to school just as less smart kids from less educationally-centered families are going to have a harder time of it wherever they are.

Intuitively, that doesn’t seem right.  How is it possible that you could take the same kid from the same family and place him in Philips Andover or the worst high school in Boston and he’d achieve the same in life either way?  But that’s kind of what academic research suggests—that who you are and what kind of family culture you come from matter a whole lot more to life success than where you live or what school you go to.

I read several papers over the last couple weeks on this topic.  They’re listed at the end of this post.  The most thought-provoking one among them was “Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, and Schoolmate  Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development.”

It’s a very accessible paper and I uploaded it to Growing Sideways so that anyone who wants to can read it.  The authors, public policy researchers at Northwestern, measured both achievement on a vocabulary test and delinquency rates (how often kids did graffiti, shoplifted, damaged property, etc.).  Then they looked for correlations between the scores kids received and different groups of people in their lives: their siblings, their neighbors, their grademates, their best friends.

Before looking at the results, I should note that the authors were looking at correlations, not causation.  My SAT score is highly correlated with my siblings’ SAT scores, for example, but that doesn’t mean that our relationships with each other caused us to get those scores.  As the authors of this paper note, what a correlation does is establish an upper-bound for causation: The actual degree of causation could be a lot lower than the degree of correlation, but it will never be higher.

Anyway, let’s get to the fun stuff.  The following chart shows the correlations between students and the people in their lives on a vocabulary test:

As the chart shows, there is a very strong correlation between identical twins—even stronger than the correlation between fraternal twins—which suggests that genetic ability plays a big role in verbal aptitude.  There’s also a very low correlation between grademates—which suggests that the kids you go to school with don’t have much of an effect on your facility with language.

One interesting piece of the chart is the correlation between best friends—at .44 it’s pretty high, nearly as high as the correlation between siblings.  The authors were worried, though, that the correlation between best friends reflected a selection effect—basically kids of similar aptitude gravitate towards each other.  For that reason the authors came up with a measure they called “Adjusted Best Friends” which tried to control for selection effects—and as you can see the correlation is much lower once those controls are put in place.

Here are the correlations between delinquency rates.  They’re considerably lower, across the board, than the correlations for verbal achievement:

In the Context of Family Life

So what does research like this mean for how a family plan’s it life?  Well, for one, the research I’ve cited is just a few papers and shouldn’t be taken as anything close to a definitive statement on what is an incredibly complicated set of interrelationships.  And for two, all families’ circumstances are different, and the types of choices that make sense for one family and one set of parents don’t necessarily make sense for another.

What I can do is write a little about how Caroline and I have talked about issues of income and school quality when thinking about the long-term decisions we’ll need to make as a family.

We both agree that we want Jay and Wally to be highly skilled and that we want them to achieve life success in the conventional American sense: good colleges, good jobs, the respect of their peers, influence, etc.

But we also think that Jay and Wally already have substantial advantages in their pursuit of those things, chief among them the fact that they come from a family with well-educated parents who possess above-average rates of cultural capital.

In concrete terms, this cultural capital means that Caroline and I have a sense of what it takes to be successful in school and beyond, and that we’re able to incorporate that knowledge into the day-to-day experience of raising our kids.  And I think it’s hard to overstate just how hugely important this is in determining how well kids do in life. (Pam Davis-Kean of the University of Michigan expresses this idea in her paper The Influence of Parent Education and Family Income on Child Achievement: “Parents’ ability to form accurate beliefs and expectations regarding their children’s performance are essential in structuring the home and educational environment so that they can excel in postschooling endeavors.”)

So, when I think about the relationship between our family’s income, the K-12 schools Jay and Wally will attend, and how well they’ll do on life, I think that they’re well-provided for, even if Caroline and I never experience a dramatic income bump or they don’t attend one of the best public or private high schools in the country.

Now, it feels a little cold to say that Jay and Wally will have “enough” opportunity in life and that as a result it doesn’t make sense to dramatically reorient our family life in terms of jobs, daily schedules, and where we live in order to provide them with even more opportunity.  And indeed, when you’re talking about providing for your kids’ futures, it can be hard to accept that there is ever such a thing as “enough.”

But the thing I remind myself is that every family decision is a matter of tradeoffs.  Earning the money to send Jay and Wally to top-shelf K-12 schools would require Caroline and I to make different career choices and to adopt a different daily lifestyle.  That  lifestyle would probably take away from other aspects of our family culture that we value- and my sense is that the marginal gains for Jay and Wally’s opportunities in life are too small to justify those decisions.

Readings that Contributed to this Post:

Can Family Socioeconomic Resources Account for Racial and Ethnic Test Score Gaps?” by Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson

The influence of parent education and family income on child achievement: the indirect role of parental expectations and the home environment” by Pamela Davis-Kean

Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, and Schoolmate  Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development by Greg Duncan, et al.

What Money Can’t Buy by Susan Mayer

Related Reading from Growing Sideways

What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?

School quality and housing costs