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Parenting Scarcity

Encouraging vocabulary can make or break a child's development.

One of the first lessons in an introductory economics class is the principle of scarcity. A good or service is valuable in proportion to its scarcity. Diamonds are valuable relative to quartz because they are more scarce—not simply because they are more beautiful. Oil, though not as visually attractive as diamonds, fluctuates in price on the basis of its scarcity. Likewise with commodities: when inclement weather ruins crops, the price for that particular commodity rises.

Even young children can understand, and capitalize on, this principle of scarcity. In my childhood, baseball cards taught me the relationship of value and scarcity. If there had been an abundance of Mickey Mantle rookie cards, no one would have cared about having one; scarcity (and Mantle's prowess) made them tremendously valuable.

We frequently encounter relative scarcity of resources in the headlines of our newspapers. City and state governments—and even entire nations—face bankruptcy, and businesses, non-profits, philanthropists, and families have to revise their assumptions given the relative scarcity of capital and other resources. Since we live in societies affected by these conditions, and we engage (to one degree or another) in public life, it is wise to ask: What are the critical scarce resources?

If you're reading and thinking carefully, my last sentence should have prompted a question: For what? Resources are employed for ends. To what end are we asking this question? The frequent, often unstated, answer is this: To keep things as they were before the wheels came off. Lesslie Newbigin defines the contours of this pervasive, unspoken ideology in Foolishness to the Greeks (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986):

Increased production has become an end in itself; products are designed to become rapidly obsolete so as to make room for more production; a minority is ceaselessly urged to multiply its wants in order to keep the process going [iPad anyone?] while the majority lacks the basic necessities for existence; and the whole ecosystem upon which human life depends is threatened with destruction. Growth is for the sake of growth and is not determined by any overarching social purpose. And that, of course, is an exact account of the phenomenon which, when it occurs in the human body, is called cancer.

In contrast to the cancerous society, the proper end of Christian participation in public life is to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. One important dimension of this calling is the pursuit of a relatively just social order (relatively, because we reject false utopian dreams) in which human beings are treated as responsible agents whose actions and relationships matter. These are the primary conditions of true human flourishing, the conditions in which the Gospel can be freely embraced, embodied, proclaimed as public truth, and rejected.

So then, what is the critical scarce resource for the establishment of a relatively just social order? Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman's answer is simple: quality parenting. Troubled by the persistent and widening gaps in education, earnings, and social contribution among different populations, Heckman set out to uncover the roots of those inequities which bear fruit in educational failure, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, criminality, and chronic unemployment. He found that significant disparities in language skills, cognitive ability, and problem solving emerge by age three and persist through adulthood. With respect to the formation of agency, the ability to act responsibly in human society, Heckman states: "What is the proper measure of disadvantage? Is it poverty? Measures of childhood home life? Evidence suggests quality of parenting is key. Parenting is the scarce resource." (Return on Investment: Costs vs. Benefits)

Two critical factors have a profound impact on the formation of agency in early childhoood: words and affirmation. Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley from the University of Kansas examined the impact of the diversity of vocabulary and tone of conversation on young children by transcribing monthly one-hour in-home observations of family interpersonal communications over a period spanning more than two years. Based on their data, they estimated that children from professional (in other words, white collar) families would hear, by age three, about 30 million words. Their counterparts from welfare families would hear only 10 million words by the same age. Not surprisingly, the children's vocabularies reflected their families: children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words at age three, while children from welfare families spoke only about 525 words. IQ measurements at age 3 (which are themselves contentious) showed a staggering gap: children of professional parents scored an average of 117, while children of welfare parents averaged 79.

What is perhaps most instructive about this seminal study was the influence of encouragement and discouragement on a child's development. In his book Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough chronicles:

By age three, the average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For welfare children, the ratio was reversed: they would hear, on average, 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements . . . [Hart and Risley] found that a child's experience of language mattered more than socioeconomic status, more than race, more than anything else they measured. Hearing a relatively large number of prohibitions and discouragements had a negative effect on IQ, and hearing more affirmations, questions and complex sentences had a positive effect on IQ.

Rich vocabulary and a nurturing environment are the soil in which the seeds of responsible agency grow from the first days of life.

Yet, according to Heckman's research, the cognitive skills that these conditions foster may be eclipsed in importance by what he calls "noncognitive skills." With surprising candour, Heckman writes, "Motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others, the ability to focus on tasks, self-regulation, self-esteem, time preference, health, and mental health all matter. In an earlier time, these traits were part of what was called 'character.'"

To avoid blaming parents, and particularly poor parents, for moral failure, Heckman does not call these "traits" character. Yet this is a disastrous mistake—in the attempt to shift blame away from those who do not nurture virtue in their children, he undercuts the transparent moral beauty of cultivating virtue against extraordinary difficulties. Who would deny that an action is virtuous in proportion to its difficulty? This is why we consider the abandoned mother of four in the South Bronx valourous in her self-sacrificial efforts to educate her sons—one of whom, Geoffrey Canada, has tackled cyclical poverty head on through his celebrated Harlem Children's Zone. These "traits" are clear components of virtue.

Here the Gospel provides the public foundation for a just society in a way that social science and economics, by their very nature, cannot. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Our Creator, at the cost of the life of his beloved Son, has procured the reconciliation and virtue of all of his treacherous subjects who will repent and trust him. Thus "quality parenting" means not merely providing the conditions in which children acquire the cognitive and noncognitive skills they need to function as productive members of modern society.

Quality parenting, rather, reflects the character and actions of the God who manifests himself in words, and supremely in the Word made flesh, by providing the loving, language-rich environment in which children cultivate virtue by learning to look to Christ for forgiveness and goodness. Here they learn that they are created not for maximal self-actualisation in the pursuit of self-chosen ends (even if the self-chosen end is virtue!), but for true, satisfying, and eternal mutual relatedness of love and obedience to God and with other human beings.

There is a dire scarcity of quality parenting, so defined, at all levels of society. It is therefore the joy, civil duty, and glorious privilege of Christians to announce Christ's amnesty, embody His love, and (as Newbigin writes) "bear witness that this is the only true freedom, to belong wholly to the one by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom."

The scarcity which ought to compel us is not of capital, nor even of food, but of wisdom and virtue, learned from the cradle in the smallest and most powerful unit of human culture: the family. This was Augustine's grand vision in his City of God: "Love creates order in the family and among neighbours and then, by extension, in the city and the nation. . . . It is love that creates justice." Justice begins at home.

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Graham Scharf Graham Scharf
Graham Scharf is a father, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, and the author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human. ... read more »

Posted in Education.

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