What the scientists found was that the family a kid was raised in had surprisingly little impact on how that kid ended up. Unrelated children adopted into the same home ended up only a little more similar than unrelated children who were raised separately. The effects of nature on a child’s future income were some 2.5 times larger than the effects of nurture.
Other researchers have done further studies of adoptees and twins, with similar results. As Bryan Caplan notes in his 2011 book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, parents have only small effects on their children’s health, life expectancy, education, and religiosity (though studies have found that they have moderate effects on drug and alcohol use and sexual behavior, particularly during the teenage years, as well as how kids feel about their parents).
There are, of course, examples of parents who have had an enormous impact. Consider Jared Kushner. His father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, which accepted Jared despite what were reportedly fairly low GPA and SAT scores. Jared then received a stake in his dad’s real-estate business. At the risk of being presumptuous, I think it is clear that his estimated $800 million net worth is many times higher than it would have been had he not inherited a real-estate empire. But the data suggest that the average parent—the one deciding, say, how much to read to their kids, rather than how many millions to give to Harvard—has limited effects on a kid’s education and income.
If the overall effects of parenting are this limited, the effects of individual parenting decisions are likely to be small. And indeed, if you stop reading the headlines from the parenting-industrial complex, and instead look at high-quality studies, you’ll find that’s the case for even the most debated techniques.
Why is this decision so powerful? Chetty’s team has a possible answer for that. Three of the biggest predictors that a neighborhood will increase a child’s success are the percent of households in which there are two parents, the percent of residents who are college graduates, and the percent of residents who return their census forms. These are neighborhoods, in other words, with many role models: adults who are smart, accomplished, engaged in their community, and committed to stable family lives
There is more evidence for just how powerful role models can be. A different study that Chetty co-authored found that girls who move to areas with lots of female patent holders in a specific field are far more likely to grow up to earn patents in that same field. And another studyfound that Black boys who grow up on blocks with many Black fathers around, even if that doesn’t include their own father, end up with much better life outcomes.
Data can be liberating. It can’t make decisions for us, but it can tell us which decisions really matter. When it comes to parenting, the data tells us, moms and dads should put more thought into the neighbors they surround their children with—and lighten up about everything else.