June 25, 2024

Economix: Nature vs. Nurture, as Seen by Economists

In a piece for the Week in Review, I take a look at the most recent yin and yang of the parenting world: Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” vs. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University who argues in “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” that parents should relax, because nature matters much more than nurture.

Ms. Chua’s book is a much-discussed memoir of her own child-rearing tactics, but Mr. Caplan relies on various studies looking both at twins and at adopted children, and concludes that genes dominate.

The question of parenting has become of increasing interest to economists. At the American Economic Association’s annual meeting in Denver this year, for example, there was a panel on the effect of mothers’ employment on their children, as well as household choices and child development.

Economists are relying increasingly on studies from epi genetics, which demonstrate the way parenting and other environmental factors transform genes. But while most debates regarding nature versus nurture tend to look at what happens to people during childhood, Janet Currie, an economist at Columbia University, has looked at the effects that parenting might have on children even before they are born.

In a paper presented as the Richard T. Ely lecture (.pdf) at the A.E.A. meeting, she reviewed studies looking at how better maternal education and government food programs can help raise birth weights among babies, an indicator that can predict future health. Stopping smoking or taking drugs, not surprisingly, also improves birth weights.

In examining the effects of pollution on birth weight, she proposed that one of the reasons poor, minority mothers tend to live closer to polluted areas is that such neighborhoods tend to be viewed as blighted by more affluent and white residents, and that therefore home prices or rents are more affordable for those living on low incomes. She also posited the possibility that “some groups are less able to process and act on information about hazards.”

Ms. Currie concluded that because changes made by mothers or families while a baby is in the womb can affect birth weight, and in turn, future health, “we cannot assume that differences that are present at birth reflect unchangeable, genetic factors.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=cd661a3cc8e2a2deff6add5b5986c615

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