Bryan Caplan  

Implausible Wimps: A Reply to Hara Marano

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I'm not a big fan of Hara Marano's A Nation of Wimps.  While I agree that overparenting is silly, I recently complained that she "implausibly claim[s] that overparenting does long-term harm to children by infantilizing them."  Marano kindly responds in the comments:
as the author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, i want to register my surprise at your comments about my book. i draw on a body of social science...directly relevant studies...to link overprotection with the lack of coping skills and psychological fragility of overprotected kids. the claim is not, as you allege, "implausible." it is highly credible, supported by numerous studies.
It's true that Marano cites many studies.  But as far as I can tell, none of them even try to deal with the central problem of family resemblance: It can result from nature, nurture, or a mixture of the two.  If you see that wimpier kids have more protective parents, this might show that protectiveness causes wimpiness.  On the other hand, it could show that the inherited trait of anxiety makes parents protective and kids wimpy. 

How can you weigh these competing hypotheses?  The standard methods are to study twins or adoptees.  And according to a full Amazon search of A Nation of Wimps, neither twin nor adoption research appears anywhere in the book.  Marano cites a lot of studies, but alas, they're all genetically uninformative.

Now you could say I'm being picky.  So what if there's one conceivable flaw in all of the research on protectiveness and wimpiness?  No empirical work is perfect.  My reply: The hereditary hypothesis isn't just conceivably true.  It is presumptively true.  A massive twin and adoption literature on personality finds that family environment has little or no effect on personality.  See John Loehlin's thorough literature review on personality, heredity, and family environment in Unequal Chances.  So my complaint isn't just that Marano's case isn't airtight; my complaint is that she doesn't even try to rebut the hereditarian presumption long-established in personality psychology.

Marano also presents a lot of evidence that "college kids were becoming increasingly psychologically fragile and breaking down in record numbers when they left the protective cocoon of home for campus."  This doesn't show that protective parenting is the cause, but doesn't it at least demonstrate the reality of a wimpiness problem? 

Again, I'm not convinced.  People today consume a lot more of almost every kind of "mental health service" than they used to.  The best explanation isn't a "mental illness epidemic," but (a) looser definitions of "mental illness" plus (b) reduced stigma against seeking treatment.  Fifty years ago, we told wimpy college students to toughen up, so they largely kept their complaints to themselves.  Now we send them to counseling, so they pipe up.  When you ask their counselors if they need more resources to deal with the "crisis," you can guess how they answer.

When I picked up Marano's book, I wanted to like it.  I did find good bits and pieces.  But despite her efforts, she doesn't show that we're facing a wimpiness epidemic, much less that bad parenting is to blame.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
steve writes:

It's amusing to see someone working working in a 'soft science' field criticize someone's work for citing research which isn't throughly randomized controlled/'genetically informative'.

And from someone in a real science field, genes are destiny. While I agree with you that the hereditary element of personality is contributory, genes aren't destiny. There's great empirical evidence of such. Put a kid with the greatest genes from the most successful parents ever in a cage from birth through age 18, and the person you encounter at 18 will have no resemblance to the personality of their parents. Nurture is crucial to personality development, and trumps nature my a n overwhelming majority.

Maybe you're 'not a big fan' of the conclusions she's reached because you recognize in yourself the traits of a wimp, and you know you're going to be an overprotective helicopter parent, yet, deep inside, you know that it's all time wasted because ultimately you're leaving your child less well prepared to an increasingly competitive future.

Tom writes:

I'm not sure what the point of steve's post is, exactly -- it nicely summarizes Marano's assertion, but it doesn't really refute any of Bryan's points. And so what if Bryan or anyone else does/doesn't see -- or like/dislike that trait in himself? Does that mean that Marano shouldn't have done a better job rejecting the most likely alternative hypothesis?

I'm not always a big fan of a lot of Bryan's pieces, but I think he nailed this one spot-on. Soft science/pseudo-science, or airy-fairy philosophy, it doesn't matter -- if others have done a thorough job in assessing what you're talking about, you'd better address that work and give people some basis for judging whether your explanation is better.

baconbacon writes:

"Put a kid with the greatest genes from the most successful parents ever in a cage from birth through age 18, and the person you encounter at 18 will have no resemblance to the personality of their parents."

And if you shot them in the head at age 12 they won't live to be 18. Shocking.

There is no dispute that things like sexual abuse and extreme neglect will alter a person's personality as they grow- there is little evidence that these effects scale down and that slight deviations from the norm in spanking, amounts of attention or what have you cause noticeable (measurable) differences in later personality traits once you control for genetic factors.

CIRE writes:

It's hard to be original and quite easy to miss the (apparently) obvious. Bryan is highly original and doesn't seem to miss the obvious which is what makes observing his thinking through his writing so enjoyable.

Or maybe I'm under-educated and think what he has to say is better than it really is! And my critical mind is many steps below and I'm baffled by BS. Maybe not...

It seems to be very important to ask: if this is so simple why has nobody else thought of it? If more people did that I can only imagine how much less repackaged garbage would be sold as the "new new thing".

I know this isn't the primary point of Bryan's critique, but maybe it should be in another post: lazy (seemingly intelligent, highly credentialed) people missing the obvious (to others) and oversimplifying with cliches like "over-parenting = wimpy kids" just to make a quick buck (or another motive, perhaps).

If this seems unfair or "implausible", look back over history and ask yourself which ideas/writers/thinkers have stood the test of time? How many were truly original? (Not many, but I'm open to criticism.)

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Bryan,
I think this is one of the clearest statements of your thinking on this.

bje writes:

steve:

Social (soft) science requires a deeper (harder) understanding of the methods used in analysis. The data are hard to work with. I just came from an advanced data analysis class full of graduate engineering and biology students, and I can tell you, if it came to analyzing the kind of data I come across, I would have tossed it to the two undergrad Econ students that weaseled their way into that class in a heartbeat.

Their inferences wont be as strong, but knowing what kind of inferences we can assert strongly is really hard, and best left to hard (social) analysts. Thanks.

Tracy W writes:

Steve, saying "nurture is crucial to personality development, and trumps nature my a n overwhelming majority." is just as silly as saying that genes trumps nature.

In opposition to your scenario, take one ordinary goldfish, bring it home, subject it to the best loving care and attention that parents can apply, send it to the best schools, surround it with a peer group that is academically focussed, law-abiding, etc, and at the end of it all you are still going to have is a goldfish whose personality will bear no resemblance to its adoptive parents or peer group.

Genes are necessary for humans to develop as we are. So is nurture, in the broad sense including both what parents do and what our peer groups do. The genes provide the starting point of brains that can learn from our surrounding environment.
Talking about one trumping the other is just silly, and makes me doubt your claim to be from a real science field (though perhaps you're just not familiar with biology).

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