Ask an adult, especially if they’re struggling in life, what caused them to end up the way they did, and they might cite certain factors from their childhood, like having a mother that was too cold.
The problem here, of course, is that memories change over time, and narratives about the past develop to fit one’s current situation.
My guests today work on the kind of research that corrects this problem to figure out how aspects of childhood truly affect adulthood, by studying humans from the time they’re babies through middle age and beyond. Their names are Jay Belsky and Terrie Moffitt, and they’re professors of human development, and two of the four contributors to The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life. To begin our conversation, Jay and Terrie discuss the longitudinal studies they and their colleagues have used to track people over decades of their lives, and how aggressiveness and shyness in childhood end up impacting adulthood. We then discuss the limitations of the famous marshmallow experiment, and what these more expansive longitudinal studies have shown about the importance of self-control in achieving a successful adulthood. We unpack whether the negative outcomes associated with being bullied in childhood are inevitable, who’s most likely to become a bully, and who’s most likely to be bullied (which as it turns out, isn’t a matter of being fat or wearing glasses). We discuss how children who act out in childhood, but avoid making certain mistakes in adolescence, can still turn out okay, and why you probably shouldn’t worry about children who were good kids, but get into a little trouble in their teen years. We also dig into the impact that childcare has on kids, and the role that genes play in development. We end our conversation with some allowance-related ideas for cultivating greater self-control in your kids.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Does childhood temperament influence personality later in life?
- When and how should parents intervene with perceived problems in their children?
- Self-control and the famous marshmallow test
- How mistakes in adolescence impact adulthood
- Who’s more likely to be bullied? What about the ones doing the bullying?
- What about daycare? Does it impact later life at all?
- Are there any biological/genetic determinants for crime?
- Are there any ideas about how the pandemic is going to impact childhoods right now?
- Concrete ideas for building self-control in kids
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Dandelion Children vs. Orchid Children
- The Causes and Cures of Childhood Anxiety
- Building Your Children’s Resiliency
- AoM series on overprotective parenting
- Stanford marshmallow test
- Your Son Isn’t Lazy — How to Empower Boys to Succeed
- Triumphs of Experience
- How to Plan and Lead a Weekly Family Meeting
- Love Is All You Need
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Ask an adult, especially if they’re struggling in life, what caused them to end up the way they did, and they might cite certain factors from their childhood, like having a distant cold mother or getting picked on as a kid. The problem here, of course, is that memories change over time and narratives about the past develop to fit one’s current situation. My guests today work in the kind of research that corrects this problem to figure out how aspects of childhood truly affect adulthood by studying humans from the time they’re babies to middle age and beyond. Their names are Jay Belsky and Terrie Moffitt, and they’re both professors of human development, and two of the four contributors to ‘The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life’.
To begin our conversation, Jay and Terrie discuss the longitudinal studies that they and their colleagues have used to track people over decades of their lives to show, among other things, how aggressiveness and shyness in childhood end up impacting adulthood. We then discuss the limitations of the famous marshmallow experiment, you probably heard about that, and what these more expansive longitudinal studies have shown about the importance of self-control in achieving a successful adulthood. We unpack whether the negative outcomes associated with being bullied in childhood are inevitable, who’s most likely to become a bully and who’s most likely to be bullied, which as it turns out, isn’t a matter of being overweight or wearing glasses. We discuss how children who act out in childhood but avoid making certain mistakes in adolescence can still turn out okay, and why you probably shouldn’t worry about children who were good as kids, but get into a little trouble during their teen years. We also dig into the impact that childcare has on kids and the role that genes play in development. We enter conversation with some allowance-related ideas for cultivating greater self-control in your kids. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/childhood.
Brett McKay: Alright, Jay Belsky, Terrie Moffitt, welcome to the show.
Terrie Moffitt: Great to be here.
Jay Belsky: You bet.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you are both professors of human development and two of the four co-authors of a book called ‘The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life.’ And what this book is, it’s a collection of insights this group of leading psychologists has gleaned from years of studies about childhood development. And Jay, you came and you synthesized and summarized the studies for the book. And the kind of studies that you’ve respectively done, these are called longitudinal studies, and really the highest quality of longitudinal studies where children, they’re… Basically, they’re followed from birth and followed for decades into adulthood, and you had researchers coming in, checking in with the parents, doing in-depth interviews, they’re doing observations, they’re doing tests, all to figure out how childhood affects adult life. So let’s start out with this. Tell us more about these longitudinal studies, how they work and what they look like.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for asking. Longitudinal studies are my life’s work, so I can talk about them for hours and hours, but I’ll try to keep it short. The idea here is that you draw a sample of all the babies born in a certain place and a certain time, usually it’s in one city in one year, but sometimes we do all the babies born in one country in one week, something like that. And then you start collecting data on them and assessing them and their parents and families, and follow them forward through time. The particular studies that Jay has written about in the book, one of them takes place in Dunedin, New Zealand, which started with all the babies born in that city in 1972.
They’re about 1,000 of them, and they’re now in their late 40s. And the last time we saw them was April 2019, luckily before the pandemic, when you could still collect data. And at that point, 94% of those original babies still took part in the project. So that’s really important scientifically, because it means that the people who had poor health or mental health problems, or inadequate social development have not dropped out along the way. The studies still represent the population. The other ones, one of them was the NICHD, National Institute of Child Health and Development childcare study, and that was a longitudinal study of children at the beginning of life with a major focus on recording all of the time that they spent in childcare and measuring the quality of that childcare to see how that major influence on their life panned out, and those children have now been followed… How long, Jay? How old are they?
Jay Belsky: Well, our funding was cut off at age 15, so we followed them intensively from birth to age 15.
Terrie Moffitt: Okay, and so what Jay just mentioned is that all of the success of this kind of endeavor does really depend a lot on funding, because nobody ever makes a commitment to fund a study for five decades, and you have to… The research team has to go along continuously writing new proposals and putting forward new ideas and making a justification for collecting more information at the next stage of life. So when the Dunedin study started, it was really a study of things like early development, walking, talking, crawling, baby teeth, that kind of thing, and now we’re having to make the case for studying things like menopause and heart attacks. So you have to keep on your toes to keep pitching the research project to funding agencies as you go along.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some of the insights that you all have gotten from this research, ’cause I know a lot of our listeners, they’re either parents, and they’re probably, like a lot of parents in modern life, they’re paranoids, like, “Am I doing things that are messing up my kid for the rest of their life?” Or either as they are teachers or they’re coaches or they’re mentors, and so maybe get some insights on things they can do, and then also maybe stuff that’s out of their control. So let’s talk about… The first thing you talk about in the book is this idea of temperament. So you looked at kids and you… Basically kids at a young age, they’re either really shy and reserved, or they’re hyperactive, super risk-taking, or they’re just somewhere in between. And I think a lot of parents are wondering, “Well, is my shy kid always gonna be a shy kid?” Or “Is this kid who’s just making a mess of things and starts fires in the backyard, is he always gonna be like that? Is that gonna haunt him in adulthood?” So what does the research say about childhood temperament and its influence on adult life?
Terrie Moffitt: Jay, would you like me to speak first and then hand over to you?
Jay Belsky: Go for it, Terrie
Terrie Moffitt: Okay, I think the question here is, if my child is a very shy child, will they always be shy for the rest of their lives, or if they are an aggressive child who hurts others, will they always be in trouble for the rest of their lives? What our research with these longitudinal studies has shown, absolutely yes and absolutely no. [chuckle] So like many things with human beings, it’s quite difficult to have a simple answer. Life is just too complex, and that’s one of the things that Jay really draws out in the book. Now, I have to say that one on one, when a researcher does a project in a longitudinal study and finds some continuity from early childhood temperament to mid-life, and let’s say we have found things that children who were very shy at the age of three actually get married later than children who were more outgoing, so it takes them longer to find a partner. But when they do find a partner, they are less likely to get divorced, so they stick with that partner once they find them.
Now, that’s not shyness, that’s marital stability, but you can see when you start to think about it, that it might have its roots in shyness, that children who are quite careful around strangers when they’re very young and a little bit timid, and who sort of wait and watch to see how things are gonna go, do turn out to then later be the kinds of adults who are careful with their relationships. So you wouldn’t say it’s shyness that is carried along, but it’s more this kind of careful approach to relationships. And developmental psychologists call that heterotopic continuity, which is kind of a big phrase, but what it actually means is that the relationship between childhood and adulthood doesn’t need to be absolutely one-to-one, shy to shy or aggressive to aggressive, but you can see the… In the adult behavior, you can see the roots of the childhood temperament. Does that makes sense?
Brett McKay: That makes sense, yeah.
Jay Belsky: Temmy, you wanna talk about the other end of the distribution, the out of control acting out kids early on and their legacies?
Terrie Moffitt: Yes, yes. So some of the research that we’ve done in particular in the Dunedin study, and also now in the E-Risk study in Britain, the two longitudinal studies we have, is following children who were very aggressive and to see how they turn out in adult life. And here’s what happens, you have a lot of children who are sort of out of control when they are little, and they have… Little boys who have difficulty adjusting to first grade, that kind of thing is absolutely normal. But what we’re looking at is when a child is aggressive and badly behaved across situations at home, at school, in the neighborhood, according to their pre-school teacher, their first grade teacher, second grade teacher, third grade teacher, fourth grade teacher, their mother, when interviewed repeatedly, their friends, everyone agrees that this child is aggressive and badly behaved and they sustain it over many years of childhood. That kind of a beginning has turned out to be bad news for adulthood. So those young people tend to go through adolescence getting involved in juvenile delinquency. Adolescence is a time when a lot of kids break the law, that’s perfectly normal, but these kids who started out aggression when they were two or three years old and continued it right through primary school, according to all reporters, end up being the more physically aggressive. They’re comfortable with solving social problems using violence.
And then when they get into adulthood they’ve burned a lot of bridges. They don’t have friends, they’ve probably dropped out of school, so they don’t have many alternatives to crime, and they tend to have also damaged the relationships with their family. So they find themselves in young adulthood sort of at wits end, and an anti-social lifestyle seems appealing to them, and it continues on. And then in their 30s and 40s, it becomes worse and it spreads into all areas of life, and they commit crimes at work, embezzle money, show up at work intoxicated. They get involved in domestic violence with their partners, and so they really have a lot of very bad outcomes. I have to caution though and say, this is a very small group of mainly males, so we’re talking about under 5% of little boys who would take this pathway.
Jay Belsky: And let me just build on what Temmy said here, because I was intrigued that Temmy was talking about pre-school and second grade and third grade and fourth grade, and described it as early. From the standpoint of the entire life, it is early, but we have to appreciate is that when the Dunedin people study first started characterizing both these timid-inhibited and these would-be antisocial children, it was at three years of age. So it really is, what Temmy is describing just to amplify somewhat, early and continuous development along the same track that becomes the forecasts for similar functioning in the future.
So that child who was very timid as a three-year-old, but gets encouraged to be a little more exploratory and risk-taking and social by the time they’re starting school, in second grade and third grade, can grow out of it. And by the same token, many of those children, or at least some of them, who start out with those difficult personalities or difficult temperaments, if they get support and encouragement and consistent discipline that’s not too harsh and is proportionate to the “childhood misdeeds” they commit, they can grow out of it too. So we have to see the child’s continuing development within the context that he or she is growing up. Sadly, many of those timid children are encouraged to maintain their timidity, if you would, and many of those problematic children at three and four don’t get the kind of input that might re-regulate their development.
Brett McKay: Right. I think an interesting point you made is the development of temperament, there’s a multi-process going on, and one of them is the reactive process. When a child acts out or acts timid, the adults around them respond to that, and that response actually exacerbates or could exacerbate the timidity or the aggressiveness.
Jay Belsky: That’s exactly right. That’s what one of the authors, Avshalom Caspi, nicely wrote about in this book and elsewhere, which is called an evocative effect, but there’s also an appreciation that the child is a producer of its own development. So the aggressive child might seek out other children who are aggressive or may be victims, and in that sense, keep producing the same behavior. So it’s both the feedback you get from the world and the world you create for yourself that become forces that either maintain who you are, or alternatively, if you’re doing opposite things, can change who you are.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like most kids, their temperament is somewhere in the middle between extreme timidity and extreme aggressiveness and the outliers… Those are outliers. And for the outliers, there’s possible to intervene, but it sounds like it has to be relatively early for there to be a good chance of having an effect.
Terrie Moffitt: Well, you know, there has been a real push in the last 10 years towards early years interventions, and I think it’s important to keep those in the context of that before that the alternative was that you didn’t really intervene with an aggressive child until they broke the law, got identified by the police, pressed charges and go to jail. And obviously that was years too late. Or you didn’t really intervene with the child who was failing to learn to read until they were around fourth grade and having difficulty making that transition to junior high school. And we now know that’s way too late. So there’s been a… There’s always swings and roundabouts in behavioral science, and in the past 10 years, there’s been a swing toward, “We must intervene earlier.” That’s absolutely true. Nobody would disagree with it, but that’s not the same thing as saying, “And it’s hopeless if you intervene late.” There is a kind of a snowball effect that if a child is having difficulties in very early life and we don’t intervene, then those difficulties can bring on more difficulties.
Let’s take a child who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they’re very, very overactive and sort of under-controlled, and because of that, they lose friends. And so while we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude to see whether… How this was gonna go, in the meantime, they’ve lost a lot of friends and they’ve lost a lot of time on their educational building blocks as well. So if we wait until they’re, say, 10 or 11 years old to start considering whether to treat their ADHD, there may be some bridges burned for that child. Whereas if we had done earlier intervention, the child might have ended up with better reading and more friends at school and been happier at school. So undeniably, early intervention can prevent this kind of snowball effect where one simple, small problem grows into several very big problems and becomes harder and harder to change. But we’ve also shown incidents in our longitudinal studies where if young people who had poor self-control made it through high school without getting addicted to anything and without getting pregnant and without dropping out of high school, that their lives can be turned around. So that’s suggesting that age 17, 18 is not too late. It just… It all depends upon the kinds of interventions that you want to attempt and whether their naturalistic ones are ones that are imposed.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned self-control, that was another thing you looked at, and I think by now, a lot of people have heard about the Marshmallow Test. You do this test on… This guy, I forget who it was. In order to do the test, the kid’s put in a room with a marshmallow, if they’re able to control themselves and not eat the marshmallow, they get three marshmallows. And so now parents are like, “Well, I gotta teach my kid self-control, ’cause that’ll help them.” ‘Cause then they followed them and said, “Oh, if you have self-control as a kid, you’ll have more self-control as adult.” Is that what your longitudinal studies found as well?
Terrie Moffitt: Definitely so. I’m a big fan of the Marshmallow Test. I think it’s so much fun. And I know a lot of parents now are sort of trying it out on their children when they’re around two or three years old. They spring them cookies or marshmallows and see what they do. And we need to keep in mind that that test was only ever one sample of one behavior on one day, and it’s well known that every child has a bad day now and then, or just isn’t feeling well, or is a bit cranky. There’s a lot of reasons why a child might fail the Marshmallow Test on one day and it doesn’t have to have any repercussions for the rest of their lives. So that test is fun, and it’s fascinating that it predicts anything at all, but in fact, most of the children who do poorly on the Marshmallow Test turn out with no worries, simply because it’s a test that’s full of error. What we’ve done in our longitudinal studies sort of contrasts with that a bit, and that is, again, we have used all of the data sources that we have. The mothers, the teachers, the research workers, even the children themselves, interviewed these people over and over and over every year about the child’s self-control style.
So when I talk about a child who has good self-control or poor self-control, that means that that style was sustained over the first decade of life and that everyone agreed that that was the child’s style, the mothers, the teachers, the research workers, and so forth. With that type of measurement of self-control, we do get continuities right up into their late 40s in the Dunedin study. So what we’re finding now is that the children who had the best self-control when they were three-year-olds and five-year-olds now have the most assets, they have the most highly skilled occupations, they have the fewest health problems, they are the least likely to be addicted to anything like tobacco or alcohol or cannabis, they have slower aging, so we’re able to measure their pace of aging by tracking biomarkers over 20 years, and the children who had the best self-control in very early life are actually biologically younger today than their peers. And that’s pretty remarkable, over five decades of following people.
Jay Belsky: What we should also pay careful attention to here, was not just as Temmy’s talked about, which is the consequences of early self-control or the lack thereof, but its determinants. Because one of the things we tend to do when we only look at a child’s behavior, and especially when it predicts later on problematic things, is we risk blaming the victim. And one of the things we know is that self-control is one of those domains of development that environmental exposures and developmental experiences make a big difference for. Surely, some children come into the world, and developing self-control is easier, like the timid child in contrast to the child who is more rambunctious. But how children are raised, the kind of risks they face, the kind of control they can exert over their life makes a big difference. In fact, if you stop and think about the Marshmallow Test, and I agree with Temmy’s critique of it, or appraisal of it, is that if you grow up in a family and in a community where your actions don’t have consequences, where what you do doesn’t matter for how people subsequently treat you, where you don’t develop a sense of control, why would you trust these people who say, “If you wait, I’ll give you three marshmallows, or you can have one right now”? In other words, being out of control is often something that’s developmentally manufactured, not necessarily something that’s inborn.
Brett McKay: Another point you make in the book, that I thought was interesting is that, yes, self-control from that first decade, so ages 1 to 10 matters, but what can have more effect is what the self-control looks like in the second decade of life, 10 to 20, because as I think one of you alluded to, that’s when addictions could start, that’s when crime can start. And that can have more of an impact on your 30s and 40s.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, we did a paper on what we call just teenagers’ mistakes, and look, this is kind of mesearch because I made a lot of those mistakes when I was that age. So I didn’t need a fancy psychological theory to help me generate these hypotheses, but we just looked at the children, according to the amount of self-control that they had as toddlers, and then we looked at the kinds of mistakes that they made when they were teenagers, and the children with very low self-control when they were pre-school children ended up being more likely to start smoking, to get a police record, and that would interfere with their being able to get a job later. They were more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy or to get a girl pregnant, and they were more likely to drop out of high school without qualifications.
So these were the kinds of mistakes that a young person can make, they sort of happen in a moment, but they can really change the whole course of the rest of your life, and they’re very difficult to overcome. And those are the kinds of things that sort of led me to think that if you have a child who has, regardless of whether your child has good or poor self-control, but if you have a child who’s interested in trying new things and is lively and curious, and you think therefore they’re at risk of maybe making a mistake as a teenager, the trick is to get them through the adolescence years without any of those four mistakes. You don’t want an addiction, you don’t want a pregnancy, you don’t want a police record, and so forth.
Brett McKay: And so there’s two points of intervention that could happen there, one, you can start doing intervention when they’re kids and you talk about that, like Head Start has been shown to help kids get more self-control, ’cause there’s stability there, young kids. But then in adolescence, that’s a really important time. If you can just do something to help kids avoid, like nudge them away from those police record, alcohol, tobacco, they’ll probably do okay, even if they had trouble with self-control as a seven-year-old.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, the mistakes made in the teenage years accounted for about half of their adult outcomes, so you might say that if you had a child who was on a poor self-control trajectory in elementary school, if you could get them past adolescence without any of those really bad life-altering mistakes, they would have a second chance as a young adult.
Brett McKay: And I think people know, anecdotally, I’ve known a kid like that, they’re just a terror ages 7 through 10, and then they found something…
Terrie Moffitt: You’re talking about me.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. Or they found a sport that in adolescence or they found something they got really passionate about and they were able to just direct on or they just turned their life around after that.
Terrie Moffitt: Yes, absolutely. And I think when we’re trying to… When behavioral scientists are trying to get our papers published in journals, we very often over-emphasize the extent to which we were… Found continuity from childhood to adulthood and were able… Isn’t it remarkable that we’re able to predict a job failure at age 35 from reading difficulties at age 6? That is remarkable, but usually the effect sizes, the statistical effect sizes are quite modest, and so the flip side of that, which we seldom emphasize, is that most of the children who had reading difficulties at age 6 did not go on to have employment failure at age 35, and this is something that I really like about what Jay did with the book. He honed in on each of those instances of lack of deterministic prediction to point out that more kids turned out right than turned out wrong. And so I think he took a body of research and really made it be uplifting and encouraging for families in the most terrific way.
Jay Belsky: Let me just add there that one reason I could do that was because the research revealed what I like to call, given what Temmy’s just been referring to, is lawful discontinuity. That is, when do we get the lack of prediction because we can explain it. When we can explain why something doesn’t predict, I almost think we understand it better than we can just predict. So for example, one of the interesting findings that Temmy and Avshalom and Richie’s work in New Zealand shows, or maybe I’m confusing it with the UK work, is that being bullied is obviously, not surprisingly, not good for one’s mental health. And in fact, it even is related to obesity. However, it turns out that if you have a supportive relationship back at home with your parents or with a sibling, all of a sudden that anticipated almost expected negative effect of that bullying is much lessened. So there we have an interesting lawful discontinuity in prediction. A negative exposure does not realize a negative outcome because they’re what we did in the jargon call protective factors or buffering processes that get in the way. You might think of it as, instead of the light switch turning on the light, somebody’s gone and metaphorically cut the wire that connects the two. So turning on the bullying does not get the obesity because somebody’s cut the wire in between.
Brett McKay: You can add resilience in the child through some… Like a supportive family or friendships.
Jay Belsky: Well, I think I would modify that and say, the resilience should not necessarily be attributed exclusively to the child, it’s the ecology in which the child is growing up.
Brett McKay: Got you.
Jay Belsky: So it was that supportive family that is the resilience factor that enables the child, if you would, to escape the negative effect of the risky condition, in this case, bullying, to, for example, obesity or mental health difficulties.
Brett McKay: Well, beyond this idea of bullying, I was wondering, I didn’t think I read this in the book, but were you able to suss out who… Not only who was more likely to get bullied, but who is more likely to be bullies? Were you able to figure that out with your studies?
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, you know, we looked at the who’s more likely to be bullied, and we thought, “Okay, it’ll be kids who are overweight,” and it wasn’t. And we thought maybe it’s kids with red hair. No, it wasn’t that. We thought it might be kids who are wearing glasses, that was not it. The best vulnerability factor that we could find is they were children who were already withdrawn and timid and fearful, and I think a bully can smell that. So they go for those type of children and they sense vulnerability and then exacerbate it with their bullying behavior. So if there’s a vulnerability factor that tended to be it. It’s that the child was already a little bit depressed and anxious before the bullying even happened.
Jay Belsky: I think that this is really consistent with what other bullying work has showed. Bullies really are rarely real true, honest, tough guys. They pick on weaklings who won’t fight back. And as soon as somebody fights back, it’s often the case the bully takes off, skedaddles, has to go find a weakling because the bully is sort of trying to gain status and power, and it’s really pseudo status and power often, and that’s why they pick on weaklings, just like Temmy has indicated.
Brett McKay: What about the likelihood of someone being a bully? Did you see anything there?
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, that comes back to what I was just talking about, about 15 minutes ago with those children who started out being very aggressive at their very first social behaviors, kids who were biting and kicking and not sharing their toys and stealing other children’s toys when they were two, and then they move along and then they become… They just get in the habit of using aggression to get their way and to solve any kind of social problem. And it’s that bullying is sort of part of that picture. So when we think of the symptoms of conduct disorder, they include lying and cheating and stealing and running away from home and breaking rules, but they also include being cruel to others and exploiting the weakness of others. So bullying, I think is part of the overall picture of a child who has conduct problems.
Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of troubled kids, kids who are having aggression problems, oftentimes it’s they’re boys, and there’s been a lot of ink spilled about the problem with boys today, lots of… Either they’re just disengaged or not interested or just lazy or they’re hyper-aggressive, etcetera, etcetera. And I know a lot of parents, that might be parents of teenagers and they see their teenage boys doing really stupid stuff, maybe even getting involved with breaking the law. And they’re like, “Man, my kid’s gonna… This is what’s gonna happen.” But what’s interesting, your studies found that sometimes you don’t… Yeah, it’s bad. They had a run in with the law, they’re doing this dumb stuff, but they’re probably gonna be okay as long as that their acting up just happened in adolescence.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, that’s right. We found that if a child is gonna have a poor adulthood with an anti-social lifestyle, it’s almost always that started before they started school. So then there’s another kind of a kid who gets involved with a little bit of delinquency and some testing the limits and drinking too much with peers and maybe having a car crash or something like that, that kind of thing is more like normative, normal adolescence. Kids who get involved with that kind of thing, it’s a good way to break the apron strings, it’s a good way to prove to the other kids that you’re not a mama’s boy anymore. You know, go out with some friends and get into a little bit of trouble, but it… Because they had good performance at school, decent grades and warm relationships with their families beforehand, before they hit that crazy period of adolescence, they tend to be able to pull out of that again. They’ve got what it takes to have good warm relationships when they become an adult, they’ve got what it takes to achieve in life and go on and finish their educations and succeed in the labor market. But there’s a sort of just a period during adolescence where kids just will act out, and I don’t think we should make too much of it.
A lot of my research has been following kids through this adolescent period and pointing out that the vast majority of kids who break the law are not destined to be lifetime criminal offenders. They’re just having a little too much fun, and therefore that suggests that policing and juvenile justice system policies should take this into account. So our juvenile justice system was set up on the notion that you should just identify on the basis of the current crime and choose the punishment to fit the crime. But in fact, if you look developmentally back at the history of the child, you can differentiate between a child who has been doing everything wrong from the outset versus a child who has just recently kind of gone off the rails and made a bad mistake. And so now more and more justice systems have these policies in place and are working really hard in the courts and in the community policing as well to differentiate between these two kinds of kids and really divert those kids who have a good future ahead of them, away from criminal charges, away from a criminal record, away from the courts and certainly away from prison. So I think it’s a real step forward in how we do juvenile justice.
Brett McKay: One of the longitudinal studies you were all taking part in I looked at here was daycare, kids in daycare, and the effect daycare had on them later on in her life. And I know a lot of parents, when they have kids and they gotta go back to work, that’s something that they start, they kind of fret about, wring their hands, like “What’s gonna happen if we put our kid in daycare? Is it gonna affect them?” What does the research say?
Jay Belsky: Well, I think in order to understand the research, we have to put it once again in context, or at least developmental context. We live in a society here in America, in contrast, let’s say, to a place like Norway, where I’ve also done some daycare search, where we don’t really have a childcare system. It’s up to every parent to figure out this problem for themselves. While we have paid parental leave for somewhat in California, we don’t have it in other places. And so that’s the first thing to consider. The second thing to consider is over the last 30, 40 years, a major change is taking place in how non-poor Americans raise their children. And that is that if a child is gonna be in the non-parental care arrangement, be it family daycare or a daycare center or even a nanny, when they’re four years of age, it’s because they started in the first year of life, in the first six months of life. So we end up with a population of children who are getting some kind of non-familiar care from the time they’re three, four, five, six months of age until they start school. That is quite a different experience than certainly when I grew up, or even the immediate generation thereafter.
What we found in the… When we started the large-scale American daycare study, the mantra among daycare advocates and progressives for the most part was that it’s quality stupid. That is to say, as long as the quality of care was good, everything was fine and dandy. And by quality we meant that the caregivers were attentive, responsive, stimulating, affectionate, the kind of care you’d want for your children. Well, it turned out, that story, it turned out the story was not that simple, and in fact, it turned out that the quality of care that a child experienced over the first four and a half years of life informed the child’s cognitive and language development and better quality care was somewhat modestly related to better cognitive and language development. At the same time, what we discovered was that the more time you spent in care, hours, days, weeks, months, from birth through four and a half years of life, you were somewhat more likely to be aggressive and disobedient. And by the time you started school, in childhood and in adolescence, you were also more likely to be impulsive and a risk taker. Now again, these child care effects were small in magnitude per the individual child, but we have to think about, is all the children we’re talking about.
So as I like to pose it or dislike to pose it, is what’s more important? A big effect that affects few, or a small effect that affects many? And one of the things some other work has discovered is the more kids in a kindergarten classroom who’ve had lots of childcare, the more all the kids are somewhat aggressive and disobedient. Now, having said that, let me qualify it in one important way, families turned out to be more important than childcare, and invariably, that’s because it’s not only how marriages get along, how people parent, what sibling relations are like, how organized the household is, but also what the genetic parents pass on to their children. So all this is not to say that childcare doesn’t matter, it does, but it’s to keep it, again, in the context of a broader ecology.
What is the society’s policies about childcare, what kind of family foundations is that child growing up in? And intriguingly, when we go to Norway, where children don’t have any childcare other than family care for their first year of life and thereafter, almost all of them go into high quality center-based care where caregivers receive a decent wage and have training, we don’t see these negative outcomes of childcare any place like we see in America. So we don’t wanna come to the conclusion that daycare and the separation of children from parents inevitably leads to something. Rather we need to appreciate that in the current context and the continuing context that we have here in America, then it’s a different story. And here we see both good news, good quality care is good for children’s cognitive and language development, and bad news, lots of time in care which has become normative, seems to undermine, broadly speaking, self-control to some extent.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s summarize things here a little bit. The reason there’s a negative effect in the form of increased aggressiveness, disobedience, when you look at child care in the US, is that American parents are more likely to put their babies into daycare child care right after they’re born. Whereas in Norway, you don’t see that problem because there, the parents get a year of parental leave, so the kids aren’t going to daycare for at least a year, they can put it off some. So it seems like starting later, spending less overall time in daycare mitigates possible negative effects in daycare. But another takeaway from your research too, is that if you have to put your kid into daycare, having a supportive family life can also mitigate possible negative effects too.
Jay Belsky: So yes, if you can secure good quality care, or even if it’s not the best quality care and you’re gonna get a lot of support for the children at home, I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but I think we have to come back and think about this from a collective society level. And that even if these children are only becoming a little bit more aggressive and disobedient, what happens when you’re a teacher with 20 kids in a classroom, and instead of having two or three of them a little more aggressive and disobedient, you have six or seven of them. And in fact, what the evidence is beginning to show is that even affects the kids who’ve had little daycare. It’s almost like you have a kind of behavioral infection that spreads. I don’t wanna be catastrophic or hyperbolic about this, but I wanna get us thinking about not just effects at the individual, on the individual, but effects on many individuals, and then we put all these individuals together in classrooms and schools and neighborhoods and the like.
Brett McKay: In your research, you also looked at genetics a bit. How did genetics influence these outcomes in these longitudinal studies?
Terrie Moffitt: We… Some of the work that we did was actually quite celebrated at the time. This was around the year 2000, 2002, 2003. We published papers that identified a specific gene. So one of those was the MAOA gene, which was thought to be in mice, a risk factor for aggression, and the serotonin transporter gene, which was thought in humans to be a risk factor for depression. So we looked at those two, and what we found is that those genes didn’t have much of any association with the study members’ outcomes unless the study members were experiencing an adverse home environment or life environment. So the children who have the MAOA gene that was supposed to be at risk for aggression, unless they were exposed to a lot of maltreatment and harsh physical discipline, it wasn’t really related to their behavior. It seemed that more like these genes worked in terms of being… Determining sensitivity to the environment.
Now, I have to put out a cautionary note there, is that at that time, between 1996 and 2003, when we were doing that work, one could only study one gene at the time, that was all the technology allowed. And then soon after there, the genome-wide association study methods became available and affordable to scientists. And so the field has moved right away from studying one gene at the time. And if you think about it, that was always a kind of a weak approach, but it was the best that we had. It’s implausible that one gene could control very much of human behavior, but that was all we could do at that time, and we wanted to get into the business of studying measured genes, so we got our feet wet.
But those findings were very interesting from the point of view that they attracted a lot of public attention then and were celebrated in the media, they were published in the journal Science, which is a very prestigious and discerning journal, and that helped the news spread around that genes were simply not deterministic. Because up until that point, everybody had been assuming if you found a gene that was associated, it was the cause, like the gene for homosexuality, or the gene for bipolar disorder, or the gene for violence, the warrior gene, that kind of thing. And what our research was showing was that the genes were actually pretty weak and how they worked depended upon the environmental setting that the child was growing up in. So I think that’s the lesson that we take away from those studies at that time.
Brett McKay: So yeah, genes play a role, but the environment also plays a role.
Jay Belsky: Let me just add that this is exactly the theme we’ve been expressing throughout this, that knowing about the child’s behavior or the other child characteristics, in this case, genetics, the meaning and the importance or the influence of those personal characteristics are gonna depend upon the context in which that child grows up. The gene for X, Y and Z will not yield X, Y and Z usually, if the environment doesn’t sustain the expression of X, Y and Z. Temmy and I have a friend who wrote a great book about biological determinants of crime, and he’s not a criminal, yet, as he points out in his book, he repeatedly meets criteria for having biological factors that dispose one toward crime. So it becomes a very interesting question, and I think the early study that Temmy is referring to began to shed light on this, which is that if we’re not taking context into consideration, then we’re gonna be pretty limited in just looking at characteristics of children, especially if those who measured at one point in time or with a single gene.
Brett McKay: So what’s the future of this research? Are there any questions that you are exploring now? One thing I thought today was, do you know if there’s any studies getting started about how COVID… All the things that happened in the pandemic, schools shutting down, kids having to go home, how that will affect them later on in life? Is there anything like that going on?
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, yeah, there’s lots. And in fact when we get off of this Zoom call, I’m going to be having one with the Canadian longitudinal study of all the children growing up in Western Canada, which has done just that, we’ve been madly collecting data on how the family’s experience of COVID has been and how it’s affecting the children’s adjustment. So yes, there’s been quite a scramble to collect data on this. And you may imagine it is pretty complicated, you gotta do it fast, you gotta get in there, it’s a time when people are stressed and uncomfortable, the last thing they wanna be doing is talking to a researcher. So it’s been a challenge to collect the data, but we need to have information on how the pandemic has affected family relationships, how the pandemic has affected anxiety levels, sleep, appetite, how the pandemic has affected the children’s ability to study and keep up at school, whether they’ve been going to school or staying home, and who in the family has actually tested positive for the virus, who’s been sick, and has anyone in the family passed away because of COVID.
So there’s a lot of data to collect and very little time to do it in. And it’s also a moving target, so you can’t ask the family these questions just once, you need to go back a couple of months or three months later and ask them again because the pandemic is lasting a long time. And people who had no difficulty with it three months ago are now having serious difficulties because of it. And we’re starting to see some fascinating findings and there’ll be more.
Jay Belsky: But I think that we can generate some reasonable hypotheses here based on everything we’ve said so far, which is that even children who you might anticipate are most vulnerable to the isolation, the lack of schooling, etcetera, from the effects of COVID, to the extent that they find themselves in supportive nurturing families that have the resources, psychological, economic and otherwise to compensate for the losses of experience, they’re gonna do better than other kids who start out with the same vulnerabilities but don’t get that. So it’s really when you’re carrying… When you’re vulnerable yourself for genetic reasons, for temperamental reasons, for behavioral reasons, and then your family is also limited, it’s a chaotic household, it’s maybe a poor household, it may be a household in which mother and father are not getting along or siblings are not getting along, now you get a double whammy. And so again, moral of the story is, look at the child’s development in the context of who he or she is as a biological and a behavioral organism, and in the context of the world that child is living in, in this case, it’s gonna be often a sheltering-in-place family.
Terrie Moffitt: So Brett, can I turn things around and ask you a question?
Brett McKay: Sure. Yeah, go ahead.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, how did you pick this book?
Brett McKay: I came across it. I don’t know how I come across it. I just… I’m always on the prowl for books. And I just… I’m very interested in how I… First off, I’m interested in longitudinal studies. I’ve read the book about the grant study and found that fascinating. And then I’m also, as a parent, I’ve two young kids, I’m always… Maybe I’m being too paranoid about it or too neurotic like, “What can I do?” Yeah, I’m like, “Am I screwing my kid up?” And whenever I read these books, it’s kind of comforting ’cause it’s like, “No, you’re probably not. You’re doing okay.” And that’s what I got from this.
Terrie Moffitt: I’d say that’s a very true message. Was there any particular chapter or finding in the book that you like best or that resonated with you?
Brett McKay: Well, actually, the section about self-control was really good. And we actually have someone… My family, every week we have a family meeting night where we start off… We talk about what’s going on in our schedules, get that synced up, and then we also share a short message. And I did the message about self-control, and I had the kids read the William Wordsworth poem.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I asked, “What does that mean, the child is father of the man?” And it was really… And my kids… My son is 10, my daughter Scout, she’s seven, and I was really surprised, they got it, they understood what this romantic poet was getting at, what happens to him as a child, as a kid, can have influence as… My son said, “I’m raising my future self.” And I’m like…
Terrie Moffitt: That’s really gorgeous.
Brett McKay: Bingo kid, you got it. And it was fun.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah. The fact that you’re having family meetings too answers the question of, “Are you doing anything wrong?” No, you’re not. [laughter] So having family meetings is one real clear characteristic of a very functional, very positive family who raises great kids, I think.
Jay Belsky: Well, I would just modify that a little bit, Temmy. If you’re not doing something wrong, you’re not human. You don’t have to bat a thousand to raise kids well. You just… I sometimes think that the reason Americans like baseball is because 300 is a really good batting average. And the idea you have to get it all right to do well, to win, so to speak, is really one of… It’s the perfectionist’s dilemma. So I would say, I would agree with Temmy that a family meeting is a good indication of a well-structured, organized household, but I’m sure you’re not doing everything right and don’t expect to.
Brett McKay: Right, no, no, definitely not.
Terrie Moffitt: Yeah, I remember when we first did the paper on self-control and it came out in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and quite a few journalists were contacting me and asking me, “Well, what do you do to foster self-control in a child?” And I don’t have any children, so what do I know? So I’m calling up Jay and going, “Jay, tell me what to say.” And he said, “Well, something that families could do is instead of just giving a kid their allowance and just giving them the money, handing them the money, you could have a family meeting and you could try to anticipate all the things that are gonna happen during the week that they could spend that money on and have them choose which ones are the most important to them, so that they won’t end up at the end of the week having the most fun and exciting thing, but they were already out of money.” So just planning how to spend one’s allowance with your dad turns out to be the best training in self-control, and I have never forgotten that.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, we’ve done it with Mike. We give my kids allowance once a week, but I also started a savings account for them. And I said, I give them the money, like it’s cash, and like, “Alright, you can either keep this and you can spend it however you want, or you put it in your savings account. What would you like to do?” And at first they’re like, “I’m gonna spend it.” But then they quickly realized, “I played with this Lego for two nights and I’m done with it.” So now they’ve become savers. They’re little Warren Buffetts now.
Jay Belsky: Let me make a suggestion to modify that, and if you want to, is… And I’ve thought about this as a teenage pregnancy prevention strategy, which is, let’s say you give your kid $2, okay. You can say… Well $2, nobody gives their kid $2 anymore. $2 doesn’t go anywhere. So you have my age here at 68. But be that as it may, let’s say you give your kid $2. You can say, “That’s yours to spend, but everything you put in up to $1 in a savings account, I’ll match it.” And what you’re doing is inducing consideration of the future. And this is where it comes back to the fact that often kids who grow up without self-control are never given the opportunity to acquire control, actions don’t have consequences, they’re not structured to provide… The family is not structured to provide planning. So why would you delay gratification as the marshmallow test for something that’s promised later on versus something to get right now, if promises haven’t been kept, if when you followed the rules, you haven’t gotten the payoffs? So I think a Warren Buffett, the strategy would be, you had $2, up to $1, you put it in your savings account, I’ll match it, ’cause now you’ve got a $3 allowance, not a $2 allowance.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, start the 401K matching right?
Jay Belsky: Yeah. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Well, Terrie, Jay, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Jay Belsky: Yeah, thank you.
Terrie Moffitt: I’ve loved it. Thanks so much for inviting us.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Terrie Moffitt and Jay Belsky, they are the co-authors of a book called The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life”. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also check out our show notes at aom.is/childhood where you can find links to resources and delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for your free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.